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National Science Foundation
Classroom Resources

Study of Environmental Change in the Arctic (Search)

Picture of James Morison James Morison, an NSF-funded researcher at the University of Washington and former head of the SEARCH science steering committee, addresses the first SEARCH open science meeting on the challenges facing Arctic climate researchers.

Credit: National Science Foundation
Besides warmer air temperatures and melting permafrost, sea ice, and glaciers, other substantial changes have taken place in the Arctic. Out-of-place plant communities are appearing in the high latitudes, subsurface ocean currents are warmer and precipitation patterns have changed, all of which affect animal habitats and migration routes.

Human populations in the Arctic have also felt the changes, which some have dubbed Unaami, the Yu'pik word for tomorrow, because the rapidly changing environment makes it difficult for native residents to predict their future living conditions.

NSF’s Office of Polar Programs leads the Study of Arctic Environmental Change, a multi-agency initiative known as SEARCH, to understand the nature of these changes. Primary objectives of the program include determining whether these changes are permanent or part of a long-term cycle, what they might mean for the people and creatures who depend on the Arctic ecosystem and what steps might be taken to mitigate these changes. NASA, NOAA, the Smithsonian Institution, USDA, DOI, DOE, and DOD all contribute to SEARCH, as is the non-governmental organization International Arctic Science Committee.

SEARCH is an interdisciplinary study of the interrelated atmospheric, oceanic and terrestrial changes in the Arctic and their potential impacts on the environment, regional societies and economies.

Four large-scale concepts underlie all of the SEARCH investigations:

  1. Arctic environmental change is related to change in the atmospheric polar vortex, a large-scale cyclonic circulation in the atmosphere centered generally in the polar regions.
  2. Arctic environmental change is a component of a more widespread change in climate.
  3. Feedback between the ocean, the land and the atmosphere are critical to the change process. The amount of ice, for example, or the lack of it, directly affects the amount of energy reflected back into atmosphere or absorbed by the ocean.
  4. Such physical changes have large impacts on the Arctic ecosystems and society.

Picture of Caleb Pungowiyi In a presentation at the first SEARCH Open Science Meeting, Caleb Pungowiyi of the Robert Aqqaluk Newlin Sr. Memorial Trust, discusses the concerns of the indigenous Arctic population about climate change.

Credit: National Science Foundation
Last fall, more than 400 scientists and others attended the first SEARCH open science in Seattle, Washington. The meeting was the largest scientific gathering ever held. Scientists who attended had the opportunity to discuss the research strategies needed to understand change in the Arctic environment.

"We don't know the full extent or future course of Arctic environmental change," said James Morison, an NSF-funded researcher from the University of Washington who headed the SEARCH science steering committee at the time. "But we think we can understand it because the recent observations of the changing environment have given us new insight into how the Arctic system functions."

Arctic Climate Research A Special Report