Arctic research program receives $4.3 million grant

by Jake Rector

Sun Star

In September, the Study for Environmental Arctic Change, or SEARCH, a large scale research program focused on increasing our knowledge of the changing Arctic, received a $4.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to further its efforts to develop and synthesize new knowledge about Arctic change.

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Melting permafrost can cause major erosion and damage. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

SEARCH has action groups in universities all over the country, including Rutgers University, University of Colorado, Northern Arizona University and at UAF as well as ties to other agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States. The search program is directed by the Science Steering Committee which “develops and holds the mission of SEARCH,” according to ARCUS Director of Programs, Helen Wiggins.

SSC Chair and holder of positions here at UAF, the Geophysical Institute and the Arctic Research Center, Hajo Eicken began writing the grant in 2013, and says that it will greatly help the SEARCH program. Eicken says that before the grant funding, SEARCH was mostly comprised of independent researchers with a common goal. “Now we can support young researchers, and develop further linkages,” Eicken said.

The grant allows SEARCH to enact what Eicken calls Action Teams around the country. These teams will be groups of researchers working on one of the three specific focuses of SEARCH: sea ice change, land ice retreat and permafrost decline, or sea level rise. “Because we want to involve young researchers we consciously placed the teams around the country,” Eicken explained. This allows each team to pull researchers from different scientific communities.

The Action Teams work to make new observations and find new information. Then SEARCH works to implement what Wiggins describes as “Knowledge to Action,” a way to consolidate the scientific information so that policy and decision makers can use it to implement effective action. In doing so, they hope to enable a more efficient response to a rapidly changing Arctic.

They also aim to provide better understanding of the Arctic to communities who build their lives around it. A project started in 2010 and directed by the Sea Ice Outlook branch of SEARCH has helped to provide a resource to Alaska Native subsistence hunters by providing weekly reports of sea ice conditions related to walrus in the North Bering and Chukchi Seas. Hunters, researchers and coastal communities can now subscribe to weekly updates on the Sea Ice to Walrus Outlook.

This work, commonly done by researchers and post-doc students, is at the heart of what SEARCH aims to do. According to Olivia Lee, who started working with SEARCH as a post-doc, SEARCH represents a great opportunity for students to not only get involved with research, but to also engage in outreach and really see the application of that research in everyday life. Having worked on the Sea Ice to Walrus Outlook, Lee was able to spend a lot of time in communities along the Bering Strait, talking with people and letting them know about the role they can play in finding out about changing sea ice in the spring.

The SEARCH program shows incredible potential to make a realistic change in the next five years and this funding plays a huge role in that. “It’s a whole different story when you want to do something versus when you have the resources to do it,” Lee said.

As the SEARCH program continues to grow and expand its network of knowledge and information it will need more funding. This grant provides a good start, but Eicken says they are still looking for funding from other agencies and the private sector, hoping that people will find value in the work they are doing and be willing to contribute to their cause.

Eicken encourages students, even undergraduates, who have a passion and interest in the areas of research that SEARCH is focused on to visit the SEARCH program website and contact the Action Team focused on that field, or to go through the Fairbanks branch of APECS, the Association for Polar Early Career Scientists. If students want to participate but are unsure of where to start, he tells students to contact him and he will send them in the right direction.

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