09/27/2016 10:32 am ET Updated Sep 28, 2017

The Science Of Our Shared Arctic

The Arctic region is warming faster than anywhere else on earth. The resulting changes are having profound consequences for the communities, economies, and ecosystems of the region. Because of feedback loops and propagating effects, moreover, those changes are accelerating the rate of climate change worldwide, ultimately impacting societies everywhere, not just those in or immediately adjacent to the Arctic region.

A year ago this month, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to set foot in the Arctic--the first President to walk on its thawing permafrost and visit its isolated communities. He bore witness to the unfolding challenges of shrinking glaciers, receding sea ice, coastal erosion, and wildfires that burn even tundra--all with impacts on humans and wildlife alike. And he recognized that the pace and import of these changes call for intensified international scientific collaboration to understand all that is happening and what more is likely to happen, as well as for concerted efforts to make that understanding available to inform the responses of the people in the region and nations around the world.

That is the motivation for this week's Arctic Science Ministerial, hosted at the White House, which marks the first time science ministers from around the world are convening to focus on collaborative approaches to advance scientific understanding of this rapidly changing region and the application of that understanding to policy, action and national decisions regarding commercial activity. In recognition of the global importance of the Arctic, the Ministerial includes not only science ministers or their equivalents from the eight nations with territory in the Arctic (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States), but also from fifteen additional foreign governments that have active Arctic research programs--including Japan, Korea, China, Germany, France, Italy, India, and the United Kingdom --and the European Union.

Also participating in the Ministerial are leaders from five indigenous peoples' organizations from across the Arctic region. The indigenous communities of the Arctic are the most immediately at severe risk from the changes occurring there, above all the shrinkage of sea ice and the impact of that on coastal erosion and the feeding and breeding patterns of the seals, walruses, whales, and polar bears that are the staples of subsistence hunting.

The traditional knowledge held by indigenous people about the natural history of the region over centuries is, moreover, an indispensable complement to what modern science can contribute to understanding of the changes now occurring in the Arctic. To ensure that the concerns of the indigenous people of the Arctic and their contributions to a comprehensive scientific understanding of what is happening there are fully addressed in the Ministerial, a series of consultations with Arctic indigenous leaders was undertaken over the months leading up to this week's event, culminating in a pre-Ministerial meeting with the indigenous peoples' representatives.

At the meeting this week, the ministers and other participants will focus their attention along four lines of effort: identifying the most important gaps in current scientific understanding of the Arctic and how collaborative research could help close those gaps; reviewing the state of monitoring and measurement of Arctic conditions on land, at sea, from the air, and from space, with emphasis on the potential of new technologies, community observing, and increased data sharing; applying scientific understanding of the Arctic to build regional resilience and shape global responses; and the use of Arctic science as a vehicle for education and citizen empowerment.

The last of these topics is perhaps the least obvious for an Arctic-science Ministerial, but it is very important. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education is essential for economic progress and for building resilience and sustainability in the Arctic, as elsewhere, and STEM education is most effective when structured around real-world issues that people know are affecting their lives. The science of what is happening in the Arctic is thus a great educational opportunity as well as an essential input to shaping policy and action.

In all of these efforts, there is much to build upon in the previous scientific work that has gone on under the auspices of the eight-nation Arctic Council (on which the United States is in the middle of a two-year stint as chair) and within the many national, bilateral or multilateral Arctic-science programs. But it is clear, nonetheless, that the more comprehensive, more integrated, and more thoroughly collaborative international approach being pursued in this week's Ministerial is what is needed to take these efforts to a new level.

The importance of our shared Arctic to all of us demands no less.