Not enough Noosphere in federal Arctic policy

Anchorage 8/8/16 (revised 8/10/16) –  I have finally slogged through a first reading of the federal Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee’s Arctic Research Plan. It’s spotty, particularly when it comes to the social sciences. Some of this is a matter of momentum. This century I have been happily watching science make significant progress toward a more global sphere of knowledge linked to the ethnosphere, but this plan doesn’t do enough steering in that direction because it has pretty much continued to develop in the direction that launched it six years ago. The social elements look kind of grafted on.

Many of the questions during the webinar last week came from people in Alaska. “Where’s education?” asked Diane Hirshberg of the UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research. Not much of an answer. The White House’s Martin Jeffries responded weakly that education maybe would come from other programs outside this plan’s umbrella of existing federal ones, that the orders were for this plan not to be “aspirational.” Hirshberg told me this surprised her because Jeffries had seemed more responsive when he was here. But I guess the White House sees education as not exactly research and this is a research plan. But the thing is, education is part of public involvement.

The plan is designed to co-ordinate federal research programs, line them up with the Obama administration’s four Arctic policy goals, and name lead agencies responsible for goals and objectives. That sort of co-ordination is very much needed, and is applauded by all. But as I pointed out in my last post, when there’s no new money, it’s hard to expand into new areas, and so the momentum continues in the direction set by the somewhat military impetus that put the thing in motion in the first place.

The way I see it, this is not entirely a bad thing. In a turbulent political climate, you probably do want your military to keep its eye on the ball. And for years Congress has loved the military and given its budget priority treatment. But still, any real evolution of the plan is going to be impeded if there’s no new money for things that are not military, like the social sciences and monitoring.

When you look at the lead agencies for many parts of the plan, you see a good deal of wishful thinking. For dealing with the increasingly pressing matter of the arrival of pathogens and biotoxins provoked by climate warming, the plan refers to a U.S. Geological Survey “Changing Arctic Ecosystems” program originally set up because of the ESA listing for Polar Bears. It clearly seems underfunded for this vast expansion. The pathogens program head is a young bird biologist who has been looking into the sad situation of our chickadees that are developing deformed beaks. The other agency for this is “OneHealth,” an admirable alliance between veterinarians and public health people that is being run by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. I’m hoping they’ve got funding for plenty of lab work.

On the Arctic Observing front, for years I have been watching Jackie Grebmeyer of the University of Maryland cajole every possible vessel of opportunity into taking biological as well as physical observations at the same points in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. This now turns out to be the most developed element of what was supposed to be a worldwide Distributed Observatory across the entire globe’s Arctic. All the rest of it is lagging, and next year Jackie’s Distributed Biological Observatory reaches the end of its own funding cycle. So the plan basically is just hoping the funding will be renewed somehow. Maybe the Russians will step up. Maybe the EU will stop sitting on its hands.

And over and over again I see this pattern. When something actually requires real new money, the plan kicks it over to the National Science Foundation, a sort of hail mary maneuver that fails to recognize that NSF’s job is to fund new research efforts, not to sustain existing ones.

And over and over again the plan resorts to computer modeling. Oh, it has to be done, but the fact of the matter is that the models have not been all that good, tending to break down on the finer scale levels, where all the action is, and for a number of years now, all the climate change models have chronically under-predicted the amount of change that actually happened. Of course we need to try to improve our predictive capabilities, but maybe we need to adjust our expectations, do a little more targeting and invest a little more in actual surface truthing.

I don’t know what kind of comments Diane is going to write for this plan, nor do I yet know what comments I will submit. Basically, I just want them to make it more solid, but I’m not sure they really can.

The four basic policy goals actually seem pretty good:


  1. Enhance local well being – health, economic opportunity and cultural vibrancy.
  1. Anticipate globally driven changes and responses with an eye toward stewardship.
  1. Strengthen prediction, providing forecasts of operational environments and tools for security.
  1. Improve understanding of the Arctic as a component of the planet – the Arctic Global Systems.

Two, or even three of the four policy goals involve local people. The one that does not involves the computer models I wrote about above. When the plan gets down to strategy, its the computer models that come up over and over again, and while the local people get mentioned a lot, it is usually in formulaic nostrums about “Indigenous Knowledge” and “Local Ecological Knowledge.”

Jeffries admitted during the webinar that the federal bureaucrats’ May visit to Alaska only hit “the tip of the iceberg.” They need to probe it deeper. Alaska is the nation’s only Arctic territory. I would like to see federal involvement in education that truly relates to that “cultural vibrancy” that’s spoken of, ecosystem research and public health initiatives that actually help prepare people to deal with arriving pathogens, biotoxins and exotic species, environmental monitoring and prediction that can be accessed by real everyday people, and meaningful interpretation that makes all this new science understandable to those who are interested.

And it’s going to take new money. This is expensive research. These things are urgent, and will become more urgent. The report makes clear that we don’t even really know the geographic extent of land in the state that could be adversely affected as the ice caps melt and the sea level rises, the prevalence of catastrophic collapse of permafrost, and that’s not even to start in on the acidification of the Arctic Ocean and its rapidly changing food chain.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *