We’re being bombarded with images, stories, messages, research findings, opinions, opportunities, threats, sound bites and headlines of every kind that collectively tell us something’s up with the Arctic (no pun intended) and we should care. In general, we are confused. If you believe recent surveys in North America, we’re losing perspective, we’re losing trust, and we’re losing confidence that anyone out there knows what they’re doing about any of it.

This is the first of a series of posts exploring this Arctic ambivalence. There are many complex, interconnected factors. We’ll focus on one aspect: Arctic science—what we don’t know, how we try to learn it, and how we communicate about it all. We’ll start with the idea that Arctic science, as it’s conducted today, hasn’t been around that long.

It’s a young field

Unlike many of the fields of science we hear about, Arctic science is relatively new. It’s at best only in that awkward pre-teen stage: growing so quickly it sometimes hurts, still learning what it’s capable of while wanting to do everything, and optimistic yet scared stiff of what the future might hold.

Even the most basic relationships between Arctic animals, habitats, currents, temperatures, ice, pollution, and other human factors are still not well understood. Western science has only been using satellites to study weather, ice, currents and temperature for 30 years—a very brief period of time for such large scale processes. While many are working to incorporate traditional Inuit knowledge—an oral history that extends back many generations—and historical accounts from whaling and exploration records, there are still many more questions than answers. We’re racing to understand what was and is, let alone predict what will be in the decades to come.

Still, there is a lot of good Arctic science and traditional ecological knowledge available to inform our actions—and more emerging every day. In some areas, scientific consensus exists (more on this in a coming post), and in others our understanding is extremely dynamic. Our knowledge base is changing faster than most journal publication cycles can even accommodate. It’s no wonder, then, that the rest of us, who read one headline today and a seemingly conflicting one tomorrow, have a hard time knowing what to believe (we’ll discuss this one soon as well).

But Arctic science will continue to become more accurate in its assessments and predictions—especially if we acknowledge the value of generations of environmental observations provided by local aboriginal knowledge. It would be a grave mistake to write off Arctic science as simply a “work in progress”. Indeed, all science by definition is a work in progress. Instead, the race for better understanding of the Arctic, how it’s changing, and our relationships to it should be taken as a strong call for the application of the precautionary principle, variously described this way: Where potential exists for serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty is not an excuse for inaction on preventative measures.

While most often applied to environmental risk management, the precautionary principle can be equally applied to social, economic, political and cultural impacts of our actions. Issues of cost-effectiveness and how much scientific certainty is enough create plenty of debate, but the key point is that we can’t become paralyzed for lack of complete scientific understanding.

These areas of uncertainty drive much of the scientific agenda because they are some of the highest priority questions. They also get much of the media attention, sometimes reducing a series of complex scientific discussions to seemingly conflicting and confusing headlines and sound bites. Which leads us back to Arctic ambivalence.

Rooted in the issues above are two common themes: the public’s (mis)understanding of how science works; and the disconnect between the way that science studies and describes the world and the tools we use to communicate about it. We’ll discuss these two factors in the next parts of the Arctic Ambivalence series.


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