While climate change has become more noticeable across the planet, its impacts have become more severe in the High North. Since 2000, the average Arctic surface air temperature has increased at twice the rate of the global temperature. This phenomenon – scientifically described as ‘Arctic amplification’ – is caused in part by a loss of sea ice which results in a reduction of reflected sunlight as the surface shifts from bright white sea ice to a blue ocean. Along with this, the snowy landscapes also shift to greener ecosystems. (More information at 2020 Arctic Report card). This amplification can lead to rapidly thawing permafrost which, along with coastal erosion, can adversely affect Arctic communities, causing damaged infrastructures, more frequent storms and an increase in wildfires.
These climate-related events in the Arctic require the Department of Energy, coordinated by the Arctic Energy Office, to develop better observing, modeling and prediction capabilities. These efforts will help inform energy planning and engage Arctic residents in observation, data analysis and citizen science. The Department is committed to using science and technology to enhance local workforce capabilities, and reinforce and redesign supporting infrastructure.
Efforts to Study Climate Change with the most advanced models
To better understand how climate is changing, the Department’s Office of Science is developing the next generation Energy Exascale Earth System Model (E3SM). This new model is a computer-intensive, state-of-the-art Earth and climate system project which can help investigate how climate change is controlled by properties and changes in the Arctic tundra, mid-latitude and tropical forests, and oceans, as well as considers the benefits of the Department’s emerging energy technologies and energy policies. The Department’s investment in Arctic climate analysis has also led to the discovery that rapid climate change in this region of the globe is beginning to influence how climate changes in lower latitudes. Because of this, the Department’s validation of the E3SM model will provide valuable insights into the changes happening, not just in the Arctic, but across the planet. For more information about the progress of this project, visit HiLAT-RASM: Analyzing the Models that Simulate Polar Processes – Progress in 2020.
Outside of this work, the Department is conducting climate-relevant permafrost ecology research at sites in the North Slope and Seward Peninsula. This effort aims to provide the Department’s Earth System Models, such as the E3SM model, with an improved representation of climatically sensitive and globally important ecosystem processes. Supported by the Environmental System Sciences Program within the Department's Office of Biological and Environmental Research, research of this kind will connect modeling and field studies in an iterative approach so model needs are considered in field studies whose outcomes inform and improve models.
The Arctic Interfaces with Climate Change
Along with this research and the E3SM model, the Department’s InteRFACE project focuses on natural and built systems on the Arctic coast in the North Slope of Alaska. The new technology is designed to test and verify the E3SM model’s performance in this challenging application, and address the kind of science needed to better predict how reductions in the Arctic Ocean’s ice thickness and extent will alter maritime shipping, energy resource extraction and the livelihoods of communities along the northern Alaskan coast.
InteRFACE is also improving knowledge of how rivers will be affected by climate change, and how these differences can eventually influence sea ice, ocean circulation, marine biogeochemistry, coastal erosion and flooding. Together, these factors affect the future of Arctic fisheries, local economies and overall sustainability of the Arctic’s coastal communities.
Atmospheric observing networks on the North Slope
Because the Arctic is warming so rapidly, the Office of Science deployed two of the most sophisticated observatories to the North Slope to study clouds, aerosols and meteorology influenced by oceanic and land-based processes. One observatory has been located in Utqiagvik for more than two decades and provides radiosonde support to the National Weather Service, and another observatory in Oliktok Point has been operating since 2013 and uses unmanned aircraft in unique campaigns. For both sites, radars, lidars, aircraft and dozens of sophisticated meteorological instruments are collecting data which has been used by researchers all over the world to better understand how future changes in the atmosphere’s clouds, aerosols and precipitation patterns will affect Arctic climate.
Looking to the Future
The world is changing, and with it comes new physical, political, socio-economic and energy landscapes in the Arctic. Scientific research based on field experiments, modeling and monitoring data provided by federal and state authorities are all important elements to unlocking a path toward navigating these new landscapes and an uncertain future.
Better characterization and forecasting abilities for both natural and built systems are required for more informed decision making, and the Department supports the observational, modeling and infrastructure development and deployment necessary to meet these Arctic needs.
The Arctic Energy Office is also working to coordinate the broad capabilities available across the Department focusing on understanding and addressing the pressing Arctic challenges. Its team looks forward to continuing to collaborate with partners across federal and local governments, academia and the private sector to find solutions which fit the Arctic and keep the conversation on climate change moving forward.