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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"The Arctic as a Biocomplex System"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Keynote Address to the Arctic Forum
Arlington, Virginia

May 16, 2002

See also slide presentation.

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

[Opening Slide]
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Thank you Sue/Dr. Moore, for that kind introduction. I welcome the opportunity to deliver this keynote address to the Arctic Forum, and to discuss NSF's commitment to biocomplexity studies in the Arctic.

While I have long held an interest in Arctic research, it is one of the areas I have been fortunate to learn so much more about since coming to NSF.

A few years ago I had the privilege of joining Margo Edwards on a research dive aboard the submarine USS Hawkbill. It was an exhilarating and exciting experience to see the Arctic from the bottom up, punching through polar ice on our ascent.

I have since, through travels and my responsibilities at NSF and IARPC, had many opportunities to follow Arctic research. I have been learning first-hand about the wide variety of issues of concern to this community.

[Arctic change slide]
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One issue on all of our minds is the Arctic's transforming climate, and biocomplexity research will confront this challenge.

It is clear that the Arctic environment is undergoing significant change. Now is the time to respond, with clearly defined studies that will develop a comprehensive knowledge base.

NSF's research programs continue to evolve to meet this need. It is becoming apparent that we must look not only at which Arctic systems to explore, but also how we approach the scope and scale of studies in the region.

[Arctic change slide 2]
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The Arctic provides a unique laboratory for studying climate change. As climate models suggest, the poles are indicators for the Earth; many global climate shifts may reveal their effects first and most strongly in the Arctic and Antarctic.

And as evidenced by many of the papers presented at this Forum, the climatic trends already underway are placing natural systems and people's livelihoods at risk.

Average air temperatures in the Alaskan arctic increased 2 to 4 Celsius over the past 30 years. Sea ice cover is diminishing, leading to widespread coastline erosion. Permafrost is melting; animal migratory routes are shifting; and local populations are being affected.

In a striking analogy, there is an Alaskan saying that states, "When an elder dies, a library burns." Much may be lost as these changes take place.

[Artifacts slide]
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Already, once shielded archaeological and paleontological artifacts are melting out of glacial ice.

These extremely well-preserved objects are a bounty if we can get to them, a great tragedy if they are lost.

Two University of Colorado researchers supported by NSF, archaeologist Jim Dixon and glaciologist Bill Manley, are working together to find the best spots to harvest this thawing windfall.

[GIS Map slide]
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Using a GIS model, they have created a detailed map. The map marks a variety of factors - glacial melting altitudes, trade routes, ancient stone quarries, even mineral licks.

These clues point to where ancient peoples and animals may have traveled and where their remains, if buried in the ice, may now be coming to the surface.

However, direct studies of Arctic climate can be even more complicated. The extent to which human activities lead to climatic change is a major public and policy concern.

Understanding such processes involves studying complex interrelationships among many variables.

We need broad, interdisciplinary research to answer the necessary questions, and we must effectively communicate this need to politicians and the general public.

The short video you are about to see was prepared as part of my presentation to the Senate Appropriations Field Hearing in Fairbanks last year.

Our intent was to communicate our firm commitment to Arctic studies, our commitment to working with local populations, and the urgent need for research in the region.

Comprehending climate change is critical, not just for scientists, but also for local populations.

[Short video on NSF Arctic studies & environmental changes; Copyrighted Material Unavailable for Public Distribution]

The last words in the video are important: Arctic peoples have long adapted to change, yet recent variations in the environment are both new and disturbing.

Unaami, the Yup'ik word for "tomorrow," has been used to describe the new transformations because the rapidly changing environment makes it difficult to predict future living conditions.

[Arctic wildlife and researchers]
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If the research community is to make firm predictions, we need to simultaneously, and continuously, study vast areas, dynamic systems, diverse biomes, and all of their complex interactions.

As Oscar Wilde once said "Truth is never pure and rarely simple."

[Biocomplexity slide 1]
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Understanding biocomplexity as a derivative of complexity is becoming ever more important.

Simply stated, biocomplexity is the dynamic web of interrelationships between living things, at all levels, and their environment.

It is the product when components of the global ecosystem - biological, physical, and human - interact.

[Arctic research slide]
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For many years, NSF has supported integrated research. These studies established the roots from which we have cultivated our latest biocomplexity pursuits.

Since 2000, NSF has also been targeting resources towards the Biocomplexity in the Environment initiative.

The initiative is in its earliest stages. Recent incubation activities brought together Arctic researchers who may not have worked together before, from chemists to social scientists.

As the initiative progresses, it will grow in scope and impact. In the past year, the first long-term Arctic studies received funding under the umbrella of biocomplexity.

[Biocomplexity text slide]
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There are five main interdisciplinary programs in this year's Biocomplexity in the Environment competition. Three have direct applications in the Arctic.

[Natural resources slide]
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The Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems component investigates nature's economic relationships with our society.

Studies will determine how people value and influence ecosystems and natural resources, including not just product use but also land use.

Communities need sound science to protect local ecosystems from outside encroachment, and civic leaders need such information to allow carefully monitored economic growth.

The debate over resource exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - located near our own Toolik Field Station - is testament to our need to understand, and even quantify, such natural capital.

[Biogeochemical cycles slide]
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The Coupled Biogeochemical Cycles component is the largest in this biocomplexity solicitation. It draws together biology, geochemistry, geology, and physical processes, at all scales of time and space.

From these studies we hope to uncover the critical links between chemical and physical cycles, and the influences of humans and other organisms on them.

[Instrument technology slide]
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Clearly, for such broad projects as these to succeed, technology has to catch up. We need to instrument the Arctic for long-term, continuous, networked studies.

The Instrumentation Development for Environmental Activities component of the biocomplexity initiative will develop the next generation tools. The resulting software, microelectronics, sensing systems, and other technologies will bring laboratory advances to bear on biocomplexity questions.

These advances will allow real-time, Arctic data collection for weather, sunlight, even biological measurements - 365 days a year.

Power sources will operate efficiently and affordably in remote areas and without frequent human intervention. Micro-electronic and micromechanical "labs on a chip" will bring state-of-the-art to the heart of the wilderness.

In addition to critical scientific gains, these technologies may also have a significant impact on our nation's homeland defense.

[NEON slide]
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Across the agency, NSF is supporting the development of biologically and chemically sensitive early warning systems.

In programs ranging from those I have already mentioned to the National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, resources will go toward devices that could detect, in real-time, a chemical or biological threat.

Such threats can arise anywhere, even in our remote, yet resource-critical, regions.

These NSF ecosystem studies will serve the dual purpose of understanding life and the environment and protecting life and the environment.

It is clear that the NSF Biocomplexity initiative builds upon a foundation of physical, biological, and scientific standards put into place by existing interdisciplinary studies.

[Healy slide]
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Last year, such an interdisciplinary, in fact international, collaboration produced remarkable results - results which showed that biocomplexity in the Arctic can cross disciplines, even when we least expect it.

Researchers with the Arctic Mid-Ocean Ridge Expedition, or AMORE, sailed aboard the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, together with colleagues aboard the German research vessel Polarstern.

The researchers were surprised by some of the fascinating things they saw at the Gakkel Mid-Ocean Ridge - the feature studied earlier by Margot Edwards on her travels aboard the Hawkbill.

[Vent researchers slide]
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The teams found that Gakkel Ridge, the slowest spreading of the mid-ocean ridges, is volcanically active.

[Gakkel Ridge slide]
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Because of this activity, undersea vents associated with the ridge now appear to have conditions that would support life.

Life, yet again, may be found in a region where only a few years ago no one would ever have thought to look.

As many of you know, the Arctic System Science Program, or ARCSS, has supported a great number of remarkable interdisciplinary projects since its inception over a decade ago. One such project currently underway incorporates many of the Biocomplexity themes.

[SBI Map with Chukchi Sea]
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The Western Arctic Shelf-Basin Interactions, or SBI, expedition is also aboard the Healy. As we speak, the expedition is conducting research here in the Chukchi Sea.

[Wildlife slide]
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SBI is studying how chemical resources turn into biological components. The team will examine, in great detail, every aspect of the shelf-basin food web - from the simplest chemical nutrients deep in the oceans to the resource needs of Inupiat hunters at the surface.

SBI also involves collaborations with other federal agencies, including the Office of Naval Research and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Office of Naval Research is already meeting instrumentation needs by emplacing unmanned moorings that will collect data year round. The result is a practically limitless field season for some data.

[SEARCH slide]
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Another interagency effort that confronts biocomplexity issues - clearly on a much larger scale - is SEARCH.

The program involves nine Federal agencies and also the Coast Guard . . . admittedly a coordination to get started. However, I'm pleased to say that things have started moving.

NSF announced this year that we will designate $30 million over five years towards SEARCH programs.

[SEARCH slide 2]
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As many of you know, the SEARCH project is an interdisciplinary study of the interrelated atmospheric, oceanic, and terrestrial changes in the Arctic.

SEARCH will look at these changes and their potential impacts on the environment, regional societies and economies.

In funding SEARCH, NSF is acting on the Arctic Research Commission's recommendation for a long-term study of the causes and consequences of Arctic climate change.

Thanks to funds from the Biocomplexity in the Environment initiative, Polar Programs has recently announced a first-stage contribution to SEARCH, the Arctic Freshwater Cycle: Land/Upper-Ocean Linkages program.

[Arctic water slide]
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This effort represents the first coordinated study of both the terrestrial and marine aspects of the freshwater cycle - information that is critical to understanding global climate.

[Closing slide]
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Arctic research is poised to build a foundation of knowledge for our planet's pending climatic changes.

The answers will not be easy to find, or interpret.

John Maynard Keynes once said, "The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones . . ."

We should remember that we really do not know what we will find. It is therefore imperative that we pursue broad, collaborative studies over the extended Arctic region.

We must work with researchers from other concerned nations, and as importantly, with researchers outside of our immediate disciplines.

Then finally, when we see the entire canvas, we will better understand the scope of human impact on the global climate landscape. Thank you.



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