The Arctic and IARPC

The Arctic region touches the lives of all Americans.  Whether Alaska is home, an inspiring destination, or a vital source of economic prosperity and energy security, the only state in the Union with Arctic territory affects every U.S. citizen. Further, rapid environmental change is being observed throughout the Arctic, impacting the global system, with consequences for national interests and people around the world.

Created by Congress and now a subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) in the Executive Office of the President, the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC) plays a critical role in advancing scientific knowledge and understanding of the changing Arctic through research planning. IARPC exercises this role through coordination across 14 Federal agencies and collaboration with outside collaborators through its implementation structure—IARPC Collaborations. Never has there been a better time and greater need for such strategic collaboration.

Since July 2010, when President Obama signed the Presidential Memorandum making the IARPC a subcommittee of the NSTC, numerous dramatic environmental events have astonished Arctic observers. These include record-breaking warm air temperatures and end-of-summer minimum sea ice extent, extreme melting events on the Greenland ice sheet, and severe wildfire activity.

Changing long-term trends in the Arctic are also important. For example, annual minimum and maximum sea ice extents are decreasing at rates of 13.4 percent and 2.6 percent per decade, respectively, with many implications. One consequence of sea ice retreat is that Arctic coastal communities become more vulnerable to increasing ocean-surface wave heights, storm surges and inundation, and to coastal erosion accelerated by warming permafrost.

The consequences of sea ice retreat exemplify a system of interactions and feedbacks that amplify Arctic warming. These interactions and feedbacks indicate a need to understand the individual components of the Arctic System—the atmosphere, sea ice, marine, glacier, permafrost, terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems—at the same time as they urge an understanding of how the system operates as a whole, in the context of the global system, to advance holistic understanding and support science-based policy decisions.

A complete understanding of the Arctic System must include the human component. Incorporating the complex human role in emerging Arctic research questions was a key recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences’ report, The Arctic in the Anthropocene: Emerging Research Questions, which, at the request of IARPC, looked 10 to 20 years into the future of Arctic research to make inquiry more targeted and effective. The role of people is also reflected in the growing need for social science in Arctic research, as recommended by the U.S. Arctic Research Commission (USARC) in its Report on the Goals and Objectives for Arctic Research 2015-2016.

These recommendations are reflected in the complexity of the efforts described in this document, particularly where issues are tightly linked at the nexus of natural and human systems. For example, improved understanding of atmospheric processes and their impact on surface heating is linked to an improved understanding of cryospheric change. These, in turn, are linked to questions about the well- being of Arctic communities. For example, how will thawing permafrost impact infrastructure supplying fresh drinking water, or sea ice retreat and sea level rise affect the viability of coastal communities?

Community responses to these stressors may in turn impact the future state of other components of the system, such as ecosystems or economies. Similar examples underscore the complex and linked relationship between the Arctic system and the global system.

The linked nature of these research domains inherently requires an Arctic System approach to research planning: one that views questions holistically in the context of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent components forming a complex whole. Support for decision-making in this context of the Arctic System requires frameworks for generating integrated environmental knowledge— Environmental Intelligence—that is timely, reliable, and suitable for the decisions at hand.

IARPC Arctic Research Plan 2017-2021

Policy Drivers

This document, Arctic Research Plan 2017-2021 (hereafter “the Plan”), identifies critical areas where the

U.S. Arctic research enterprise supports U.S. policy from community to global scales. The four policy drivers for the Plan are:

  1. Enhance the well-being of Arctic residents (Well-being). Knowledge will inform local, state, and national policies to address a range of goals including health, economic development, and the cultural vibrancy of Indigenous peoples and other Arctic residents;
  2. Advance stewardship of the Arctic environment (Stewardship). Results will provide the necessary knowledge to understand the functioning of the terrestrial and marine environments, and anticipate globally-driven changes as well as evaluate the potential impact of local actions;
  3. Strengthen national and regional security (Security). Efforts will include work to improve shorter- term environmental prediction capability and longer-term projections of the future state of the Arctic region to ensure security and emergency response agencies have skillful forecasts of operational environments and the tools necessary to operate safely and effectively in the Arctic over the long term;
  4. Improve understanding of the Arctic as a component of planet Earth (Arctic-Global Systems).
IARPC research will inform the important role of the Arctic in the global system, such as the ways the changingcryosphere impacts sea level, the global carbon and radiation budgets, and weather systems.

These policy drivers support the Nation’s Arctic Region Policyand its implementation through the National Strategy for the Arctic Region (NSAR).

Research Goals

The Plan describes nine Research Goals, broad topics identified by IARPC as points where the interagency approach can accelerate progress. Six Goals represent components of the Arctic System and build upon the work of the previous IARPC Plan. Two holistic Goals integrate understanding of components of the Arctic System to address the increasing complexity of research for understanding health determinants, and strengthening coastal resilience. The final Goal, environmental intelligence, supports the other eight and advances tools and approaches for informed decision-making.

The Research Goals are:

  1. Enhance understanding of health determinants and improve the well-being of Arctic residents;
  2. Advance process and system understanding of the changing Arctic atmospheric composition and dynamics and the resulting changes to surface energy budgets;
  3. Enhance understanding and improve predictions of the changing Arctic sea ice cover;
  4. Increase understanding of the structure and function of Arctic marine ecosystems and their role in the climate system and advance predictive capabilities;
  5. Understand and project the mass balance of glaciers, ice caps, and the Greenland Ice Sheet, and their consequences for sea level rise;
  6. Advance understanding of processes controlling permafrost dynamics and the impacts on ecosystems, infrastructure, and climate feedbacks;
  7. Advance an integrated, landscape-scale understanding of Arctic terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems and the potential for future change;
  8. Strengthen coastal community resilience and advance stewardship of coastal natural and cultural resources by engaging in research related to the interconnections of people, natural and built environments; and
  9. Enhance frameworks for environmental intelligence gathering, interpretation, and application toward decision support.

Each Research Goal is supported by Research Objectives—specific actions that benefit from coordinated, multi-agency research efforts conducted in collaboration with local, regional, academic, and international collaborators; and Performance Elements—tasks with concrete, measurable outcomes that demonstrate progress toward satisfying the Research Objectives. Performance Elements each list a Lead Agency—the IARPC member agency responsible for coordinating the implementation of the task and reporting on progress—and Supporting Agencies—which assist the Lead Agency and whose research contributes to the implementation and reporting. In many cases, agencies listed against Performance Elements are funding relevant work that is being conducted by academia or outside partners.  Some Performance Elements have only one agency (e.g., 3.1.3 is a NASA-only project), but they generate data that are broadly catalytic or they represent valuable seed efforts with the potential for growing interagency engagement.


This Plan builds upon its predecessor, Arctic Research Plan FY13-17, whose successes are highlighted in the IARPC biennial report. In addition, for this Plan IARPC developed high-level strategies to guide implementation. They are to: (1) support a portfolio of basic and applied disciplinary research, and broader systems-level, research-based modelling and synthesis; (2) sustain measurements supporting long-term observations and understanding of the Arctic System, and mechanisms to provide timely and efficient access to data; (3) include Indigenous Knowledge holders and northern residents versed in Local Knowledge as generators of and collaborators in research; and (4) strengthen international collaboration in research, provide opportunities for improved research access to the Arctic, and make the most effective use of costly infrastructure and logistics.

This Plan’s successful implementation will depend on the collaborative infrastructure, IARPC Collaborations, which was created to carry out the previous plan and which was a noted accomplishment of the period. Collaboration teams include representatives from relevant Federal agencies that comprise IARPC, as well as outside collaborators from state and local governments, academic institutions, non-government organizations (NGOs), and community members. People from these diverse backgrounds all work together to enact the Performance Elements.

Implementation of Performance Elements in this Plan is focused on the period 2017–2018, with some exceptions for projects and programs to which agencies have made commitments that extend beyond 2018. As new opportunities or needs for observations, understanding, and responses arise, IARPC will add Performance Elements.

As with its predecessor, this Plan does not attempt to address all Arctic research supported by the Federal Government or recommended by the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. Many important single-agency efforts are not included because of this plan’s emphasis on interagency collaboration.

Additionally, other interagency bodies such as the National Ocean Council (NOC), the NSTC Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology (SOST), and the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) cover other critical Arctic research topics and interagency coordination, e.g., ocean acidification. The Arctic Executive Steering Committee (AESC) is responsible for coordinating all Federal Government activities in the Arctic, and for the implementation of the NSAR. Some efforts with potentially relevant research components, such as renewable energy, are currently being organized under AESC; as specific research needs are identified, their coordination may be adopted by IARPC. Efforts arising from this Plan contribute to the implementation of the NSAR, particularly the Responsible Arctic Region Stewardship line of effort.

The urgency of Arctic change and complexity of Arctic research compel innovative means for advancing understanding. In the last five years, IARPC has built a successful network of collaborators through a creative implementation strategy, which complements interagency coordination with outside collaboration. This Plan aims to capitalize upon the strength of that growing network to advance knowledge and decision support for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

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Sara Bowden, IARPC Executive Secretary
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