Email Print Share


Photo of Dr. France A. Cordova

Dr. France A. Córdova
U.S. National Science Foundation


Navigating the New Arctic
South by Southwest
Hilton Austin Downtown - Austin, TX

March 11, 2019

Photo: NSF/Stephen Voss

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

Title slide title: Navigating The New Arctic

Slide words: Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation
South by Southwest
Austin, TX
March 11, 2019

Slide image: photo of a glacier in Greenland

Image credit: Konrad Steffen, CIRES, University of Colorado

Slide image: photo of a starry sky over the ocean

Image credit: Vadim Sadovski/

My introduction to the ocean came as a young child when I took several trips from Europe to the US on the grand Queen Elizabeth! The ocean liner took me and my family across the Atlantic to visit relatives in New York. In those days, traveling by sea was as common as air travel is today. Later in life, great writers like Melville and Hemingway would inform my impression of the oceans. But as a child, I felt mainly mixed emotions.

On the one hand, the ocean was murky and menacing, carrying unseen creatures. On the other, it was vast and mysterious with possibilities as endless as the coastline.

Thank goodness for the stars. They offered me some comfort on these journeys, and I spent hours gazing up at them. The night sky became my companion. That childhood fascination eventually led me to become an astrophysicist. I did enjoy my time on the ocean, but the stars never made me seasick!

Here is a little-known fact about me - before making my way to astrophysics, I was a staff writer at the LA Times. I wrote about up-and-coming singers who were vying to be the next teen pop idol – in other words, the kind of artists who dream of playing SXSW!

Slide image: photo of Greenland's Minister of Education and NSF's Director, Dr. Córdova, releasing a weather balloon.

Image credits: Hannah James, Polar Field

As an astrophysicist, I never expected to lead an agency with responsibilities for over 20 oceanographic research vessels. Or that, one day, I might oversee the deployment of nearly 1000 researchers every year to the Arctic. I also could not have imagined myself stepping out of an airplane onto the Arctic tundra or the middle of the Greenland Ice Sheet. But accepting challenges like these means stepping outside of your comfort zone. It means surrounding yourself with experts you trust, learning fast and directing research support where it's needed most.

It also means building new programs and partnerships. That's why I'm excited to be here with all of you.

Slide image: map of the Arctic Region

Image credit: U. S. Department of State

The Arctic connects us all, whether we realize it or not. There are eight countries usually regarded as the "Arctic nations" -- the U.S., Canada, Denmark (including Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden – and there are indigenous communities throughout the Arctic that have called it home for centuries.

Then there's the larger group of nations that are increasingly interested in the Arctic. As the region changes, we're seeing new opportunities – for shipping, for resources, for science.

The fact is, even if you aren't usually thought of as an Arctic Nation, or your government isn't actively looking for opportunities in the Arctic, this region is going to have a direct impact on your life.

If you consume goods brought to you through global shipping, the Arctic affects you.

If you're a coastal nation, the Arctic affects you.

If you eat seafood, the Arctic affects you.

If you're a supporter of scientific progress and increased collaboration among researchers, the Arctic affects you.

And if you're looking for a bellwether for how our entire world is changing, the Arctic affects you.

Slide image: photo of a group of people attending the Second Arctic Science Ministerial in Berlin

Image credit: John Farrell

Last fall, I led a U.S. delegation to the second Arctic Science Ministerial in Berlin. 26 nations, 9 international groups and 6 Arctic indigenous people's organizations gathered for this forum. I sat across the table from scientific leaders and indigenous representatives who attended because they know they have a stake in the Arctic's future. We renewed our commitment to our collaborative research goals -- including improving Arctic observation, ensuring shared and open data, and strengthening infrastructure.

But we need more than the people around that table. We are all stakeholders in the changing Arctic.

Slide image: image from video animation of ocean currents in the Arctic

Image credit: An T. Nguyen, Arash Bigdeli, Victor Ocaña, Ulrike Heine, and Patrick Heimbach; Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences, University of Texas at Austin; Greg Foss and Briana Bradshaw; Texas Advanced Computing Center, University of Texas at Austin

The Arctic has always been a formidable region to explore. And it remains difficult today in part because of how quickly it is changing. Arctic temperatures are warming about twice as fast as the global average.

This video animation developed by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin is based on simulations of ocean currents and seawater temperatures. We see here an influx of warm water from the Atlantic Ocean into the Arctic Ocean. That inflow contributes to heating the surface waters from below, creating hot spots. It is a phenomenon called Arctic Atlantification. As a result, parts of the Arctic Ocean are beginning to look and act more like the Atlantic.

Slide image: photo of researchers at work in an Arctic storm

Image credit: Alfred Wegener Institute

For centuries, there have been compelling historical accounts about the challenges faced by early explorers. Those early expeditions and native peoples taught us so much about how to navigate, research, and survive in the Arctic.

Not very long ago, NSF-funded teams traveling to the Arctic would land planes, make camp and launch missions – all on sea ice far from the nearest shore. It is immensely challenging to do that today, because the sea ice is no longer a stable platform.

Slide images (left): photo of students taking ice samples in Greenland
(top right): graphic showing technology and big data
(bottom right): illustration suggesting convergence

Image credits (left): Lars Poort/NSF Office of Polar Programs
(top right): HelloRF Zcool/
(bottom right): National Research Council of the National Academies Press

Tackling tough challenges to advance knowledge is what NSF is all about. That's why, two years ago, we examined some of our nation's most pressing research challenges and came up with 10 Big Ideas to address them.

These kinds of challenges involve the greatest possible scope and complexity. Meeting them requires the convergence of technology, science, people, and policy. No individual scientific discipline, or agency, or nation can meet them alone. Navigating this new and changing Arctic is one of these challenges – which is why we included it in our Big Ideas.

Slide image: photo of scientists using a telepresence link to converse remotely with researchers

Image credit: Courtesy Alex DeCiccio, Inner Space Center URI/GSO

By enabling new advances in remote sensing, data management, and autonomous devices, we want to create a world where scientists will no longer have to be IN the Arctic to collect data from it. You could make important contributions to Arctic research from right here in Austin.

We're talking about gathering massive amounts of data, making it available to everyone – scientists and the public – and making sure it's useful information that helps show what's happening in the Arctic.

These tools will be critical to helping us navigate this extreme environment. They will also help bring together researchers from a wide swath of fields and disciplines. We want to find new ways to support that collaboration. Through telepresence technology, experts of any field can be brought to the table virtually.

Here, scientists at the University of Rhode Island's Inner Space Center use a telepresence link to discuss deep-sea sampling plans with scientists aboard the Research Vessel Atlantis.

We're looking for changing research solutions to address a changing Arctic. When the disciplines of biologists, economists, linguists and geologists, computer scientists and engineers converge, entirely new fields of study could emerge.

Slide images (left): photo of researchers deploying a float in the ocean
(top right): photo of a glider underwater
(bottom right): photo of hand-held robotic boats

Image credits (left): SOCCOM Project (CC BY 2.0)
(top right): Richard Camilli/WHOI
(bottom right): ScalAR Lab, University of Pennsylvania

Our researchers are anticipating the unexpected. We are embarking on an era of exciting innovations in improved sensors, robots and big data while teaming with indigenous peoples to bridge disciplinary divides. Who knows what amazing discoveries are just around the corner?

New innovations are already shedding light on historic challenges for researchers – challenges like gathering data from waters that are nearly impossible to navigate. Traditionally, collecting sub-surface ocean information meant sending researchers and large crews on research vessels into extreme environments -- operations that can be time-consuming, costly, and dangerous. Today, we can continuously monitor regions like the Arctic in real time with new devices that drive themselves and can go where researchers can't.

In the southern waters of the Antarctic, diving autonomous robots have provided us with information that was simply unobtainable previously. They have already modified some of our assumptions.

Today, we look forward to using similar technology to inform our understanding on the other side of the globe, in the Arctic. Laboratory researchers are now using small autonomous devices like this one /show device/ to help extend the range and capabilities of full-scale platforms. We actually have a six-foot gliding unit that can travel under ice at our booth. Stop by and take a look!

Slide image: photo of scientists collecting snow and ice samples in the Arctic

Image credit: Kim Kenny

With new advancements in gathering data come new opportunities for storing and processing that information. Another one of NSF's 10 Big Ideas -- Harnessing the Data Revolution -- addresses this challenge.

Among the goals of HDR is to develop a cohesive, national-scale approach to research data storage and infrastructure, which will have enormous implications in the Arctic and across every field of study.

One example of this promising work is the Rolling Deck to Repository.

The repository was developed to preserve and openly distribute environmental sensor data collected by the U.S. academic research fleet. This interagency effort, supported by NSF, stored the underway data obtained by 48 vessels and over 7,000 research cruises -- nearly 9 million downloadable files all in one repository.

In addition to capturing new data, we are exploring methods to federate our existing data and working with international partners and other federal agencies to enable our systems to exchange information. These efforts will help us harness the staggering amount of data we'll need to make reasonable predictions in the Arctic.

Slide image: photo from helicopter looking at the icebreaker Polarstern in the Arctic

Image credit: Alfred Wegener Institutey

MOSAiC is another project NSF is supporting with the potential to transform our understanding of the Arctic. Imagine spending an entire year trapped in the Arctic sea ice. Starting in September this year, a German research icebreaker will endure just that. Serving as a floating ice camp, the ship will be equipped with personnel and equipment to observe the atmosphere, ice, and ocean.

A total of 600 researchers from 17 countries will participate in this expedition, supplied by other icebreakers and aircraft. The collaboration promises to revolutionize our ability to perform accurate weather forecasts and predict the future course of the Arctic as well as our global weather and climate system.

Slide image: photo of a young girl looking through a magnifying glass

Image credit: A3pfamily/

As a young girl, I loved complexity. One of my favorite pastimes was reading Nancy Drew novels. I began to see science as a tool for any good detective - one with a desire to solve the mysteries of the world and to help humanity.

Navigating the New Arctic is our scientific approach to exploring the mysteries of the Arctic. We have dedicated at least 30 million dollars this year alone and established an ongoing program of this magnitude to address the challenges of this region and to better forecast its future.

We want to support projects that will drive the evolution of data collection and observation through vehicles like autonomous smart sensor networks. We imagine this research will lead to new tools capable of withstanding the extreme temperatures of the Arctic; exploration of new networks for communication, exploiting artificial intelligence approaches, and devising new infrastructure that is sustainable, adaptable, and resilient.

We must also study the social systems that contribute and respond to change in the region in a manner that engages inhabitants.

Our underlying goal is to be able to reliably chart the future course of the Arctic.

Slide image: photo of a man paddling through the sea ice

Image credit: Glenn Williams, Narwhal Tusk Research

We can also draw upon the knowledge of indigenous communities who have called the Arctic home for centuries.

Native tribes of the Arctic have a unique perspective on their ancestral homeland. Their customs are so intertwined with the physical environment that they see themselves as part of the Earth.

Over centuries, indigenous Arctic communities have repeatedly adapted their ways of life, which enabled them to survive in one of the harshest and highly variable environments on the planet. Now, the environment they knew so well is rapidly changing, forcing their traditions to change along with it.

Slide image: photo of researchers taking sea ice measurements

Image credit: Glen Listen

There's tremendous insight to be gained. And we're already working with indigenous communities to anticipate changes to the world in which we live.

Slide image: photo of two ships navigating the Arctic Ocean

Image credit: Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn, U.S. Coast Guard District 17

For the first time in recorded history a Russian tanker traveled the Arctic ocean through the Northern Sea Route through Canada, reaching Asia. It didn’t even require an icebreaker escort. The tanker traveled 30% faster than going through the Suez Canal. That is massive development for global transit.

In addition to tourism and faster shipping, oil, gas and mineral resources in the Arctic are now potentially easier to access. New transport technologies will be important -- as will the ability to develop and refine new transport corridors that strengthen logistics.

New technologies that enable the use of natural energy resources will be in great demand. New industries in the Arctic will need resource-smart, eco-efficient, sustainable technologies that are hardened for the environment. There is also a need for renewable biological resources.

Perhaps the greatest economic opportunities stemming from the Arctic are ones we have yet to discover.

Slide image: photo of scientists looking at the northern lights in Greenland

Image credit: August Allen/NSF Office of Polar Programs

What does this mean for those of you here at SXSW? Today, you are listening to a talk about Navigating the New Arctic. Yesterday, you might have gotten design secrets from Pixar's animation artists or heard Malcolm Gladwell talk about his new book. Later today, you might attend a panel on augmented reality, and next week, you might hear a great new singer.

Filmmakers, musicians, authors, entrepreneurs, scientists are all gathered here, sharing insights and ideas. This is the kind of environment that nurtures cooperation, and it is that kind of cooperation that solves great challenges -- in regions as extreme as the Arctic or right here at home.

Scientists across the many fields I oversee at NSF are realizing the new and complex questions that can be answered when we work in close partnership. Indeed, we are all navigating our new Arctic together. And science is the tool we will use to reveal its great mysteries and opportunities.

Many years have passed since my journeys on the Queen Elizabeth. But at the start of this new adventure, I find myself looking out again at unpredictable waters. Today however, I am full of promise – for where this new journey will lead and what new greatness it will unleash – in all of us.