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To the Frontier of Arctic Science from Japan

October 18, 2016
By: 
Hiroyuki Enomoto
Prof., Dr., Director of Arctic Environmental Research Center
National Institute of Polar Research, Japan

The rapidity and scope of Arctic environmental changes pose grand challenges to scientific understanding and predictive capabilities. The effects of these changes are not limited to the High North, but cascade into other regions, including the mid-latitudes. Understanding of Arctic change, then, becomes essential to countries without Arctic geography, such as Japan, to better predict local variability. To address both the international and policy implications of these dramatic and widespread environmental changes, a White House Arctic Science Ministerial (WHASM) was held on September 28, 2016. The WHASM aimed to coordinate the scientific efforts in the Arctic necessary to address these grand challenges.

One of the focuses of WHASM was “Strengthening and Integrating Arctic Observations and Data Sharing”. The importance of the Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks (SAON) was mentioned as a coordinated regional effort committed to extending observing capability both in time and space. This network not only works to increase the longevity of funded observing activity in the Arctic but also addresses the need for more accessible data streams from those observing sites.

The Arctic science activity in Japan
Interest in Arctic science is increasing in Japan. Winter weather extremes have been increasing in Japan as more cold air outbreaks arrive from Siberia with a meandering jet stream. These deep meanders of the jet stream have oceanic origins. A warming and increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean was observed to be affected by the mid-latitude boundary currents, such as the Gulf Stream, which influences heat transfer, the position of the jet stream, and the amplitude of the waves within the stream. This is a connected system, joining west and east, ocean and atmosphere, polar region and the mid- latitudes.

Scientists and science policy in Japan focus on understanding this high-middle latitude coupling to better understand future Arctic states. In particular, Japan’s Arctic policy, which was developed in October 2015, underscores the advances of Japanese science and technology to not only understand and predict this Arctic interaction with the globe but also develop sustainable and coordinated approaches and responses to current and predicted changes.

A technological viewpoint and public viewpoint
A key emphasis at the WHASM was the sharing of knowledge, information, and a common future with the indigenous people of the North.
We have experience working with the traditional knowledge of Arctic residents. We went to the Yukon River, AK during the winter. We were assisted on the river by villagers from a community in the river delta. The guides led us down the frozen Yukon River to the river mouth, then into the wintry Bering Sea. The local villagers were able to navigate this area expertly and determine where ice was forming by viewing the reflection of the water surface on the underside of clouds. Guided by this knowledge and the experience of the local people, we could safely and effectively carry out the survey.

Approaching the Arctic - a view of Alaska
Approaching the Arctic - a view of Alaska.

It is important to harmonize the scientific and technological contribution with the knowledge of local people who witness the changing environment. As occasional visitors to the Arctic, we scientists cannot investigate and record everything. It is necessary to work together to prioritize what changes should be observed and how. Japanese researchers recognized the importance of visiting local communities.

Approaching the Canadian High Arctic from Japan
One research base, the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) will be established at Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, Canada in 2017. Japan started a new Arctic project in 2015: Arctic Challenge for Sustainability (ArCS). Although Japan has worked in Svalbard, Alaska, Siberia and Greenland and the Arctic Ocean, ArCS plans to expand research opportunities through CHARS. We expect that CHARS will serve as a new model for international collaboration in the Arctic. We hope that similar international cooperation and collaboration can be applied to other scientific efforts in the Arctic, such as the development of a suite of pan-Arctic models that will support decision making and Arctic resilience. Japan extends this challenge to the globe.

Japanese Arctic Project and Research Bases
Japanese Arctic research and bases.

For the next decade of Arctic science
The Arctic environment is extremely dynamic, sometimes changing in extreme ways not predicted by scientists or models. Dynamic thinking is required to understand and react to these changes. The question remains whether the coordinated efforts of scientists, technology, policy, and the people can respond quickly enough to ensure a resilient future in the Arctic.

It was recommended that there be a shift from research to operational observing activities to sustain the efforts beyond the typical research timeframe. Researchers often pointed out that there remains geographic and seasonal gaps in observations, particularly in the higher latitudes and colder seasons. The WHASM proposed to accelerate the action of science.

We are trying to make an effective start. We, Arctic researchers, know the beautiful landscape and unique culture of the Arctic, which endlessly charms us. We will work together to ensure a coordinated approach to understanding and sustaining this region for future generations.