Since the International Polar Year (which actually lasted from 2007 to 2010), two truths about the changing Arctic have emerged. First, the ongoing rapid transformation of the Arctic environment will continue for decades, regardless of future global carbon dioxide (CO2) emission levels. Second, the scientific challenges and consequences arising from this transformation are too large to be addressed by a single country alone and too complex to be properly understood through single-discipline research approaches.
These observations are interconnected and constitute a new reality for the Arctic [e.g., Moore and Grebmeier, 2018] that is far from understood and that presents challenges to stakeholders and decision-makers alike. Expanding fisheries, exploration, shipping, and tourism all must be managed well. But how do we best manage such enterprises when the environments in which they operate change faster than we can observe and understand with the present levels of commitment?
Science-capable icebreakers, the backbone of polar marine science, have a long history of gathering the data necessary for answering such questions. These ships typically follow national priorities or research initiatives and traverse selected areas of the Arctic Ocean, obtaining full-depth ocean data that cannot be collected in any other way. Historic expeditions explored previously unsurveyed locations, but these expeditions were isolated regionally and temporally. Consequently, the inventory of Arctic observations is scattered, fractured, and incomplete.
In response to the need for a more complete data set, an international team of scientists with expertise in Arctic Ocean (AO) physical, carbon, and ecological systems gathered in 2015. At the inaugural Synoptic Arctic Survey (SAS) workshop at the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C., this team explored how to coordinate a pan-AO research effort using icebreakers and research ships. This vision is scheduled to become a reality in 2020 and 2021, with a coordinated multinational campaign to gather ocean data in the Arctic.