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Fact Sheet

The Arctic Observing Network (AON)

July 10, 2007

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

What is the Arctic Observing Network (AON)?

The AON is envisioned as a system of atmospheric, land- and ocean-based environmental monitoring capabilities--from ocean buoys to satellites--that will significantly advance our observations of Arctic environmental conditions. Data from the AON will enable the interagency U.S. government initiative--the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH)--to get a handle on the wide-ranging series of significant and rapid changes occurring in the Arctic.

What is the rationale for developing an Arctic Observing Network?

Recent environmental changes in the Arctic are both large and rapid. The AON will allow scientists to:

  • record the full suite of changes
  • understand the causes and consequences of the changes underway
  • predict the course, magnitude and consequences of future changes
  • develop adaptive responses to future change.

Examples of significant and documented changes in the Arctic:

  • The area and elevation of melting on the Greenland ice sheet have increased.
  • Glacier area, thickness and volume in Alaska have decreased.
  • Shrubs and "greenness" have increased on the North Slope of Alaska.
  • Boreal forest "greenness" has decreased and fires have increased due to drought.
  • Permafrost temperatures have risen and thawing is occurring.
  • Eurasian rivers' discharge into the Arctic Ocean has increased.
  • Sea ice extent, thickness and volume have decreased.

In this context of environmental change, the rationale for developing an AON is laid out in several recent reports and documents;

  • In 2004, the Polar Research Board of the National Academies of Science report, A U.S. Vision for the International Polar Year (IPY), recommended that IPY "should be used as an opportunity to design and implement multidisciplinary polar observing networks that will provide a long-term perspective."
  • In 2005, the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH) initiative's "Plans for Implementation During the International Polar Year"--served as a point of reference for immediate planning in preparation for IPY and for an Arctic Observing Network.
  • In 2006, in a report from the Polar Research Board, Toward an Integrated Arctic Observing Network, a blue-ribbon panel recommended that development of an Arctic Observing Network should get underway immediately to take advantage of IPY.

What is International Polar Year (IPY)? How does it relate to the AON?

The International Polar Year (IPY), which takes place between 2007 and 2008, is an international scientific deployment to study the polar regions. More than 60 nations are expected to take part in IPY, which extends over a two-year period to insure a complete annual cycle of observations in areas where darkness and extreme cold annually limit field deployments for many months.

The development and deployment of the AON is a major research theme of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) IPY initiatives.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy named NSF as the lead federal agency for the U.S. government's IPY research and education efforts.

NSF grants to support the development of the AON have been made to 21 IPY projects, for a total of approximately $37 million to be spent on AON between 2007 and 2010.

What is NSF's role in the AON?

NSF is the lead federal agency for implementing U.S. Arctic research policy, and chairs the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee, which includes representation from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Interior, State, and Transportation departments, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

NSF, through its Division of Arctic Sciences, has supported long-term observing projects in the Arctic since 2003. These include the North Pole Environmental Observatory, the Beaufort Gyre Observatory, and the Circumpolar Environmental Observatories Network.

As the lead agency for SEARCH and Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee, NSF is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to develop an AON Implementation Plan that will identify current observing assets, assess future needs, and improve coordination among research and operational agencies.

A dozen long-term observing projects are now an integral part of AON, which comprises a total of 34 projects.


Media Contacts
Peter West, NSF, (703) 292-7761, email:

Program Contacts
Martin Jeffries, NSF, (703) 292-8029, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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