FAIRBANKS, ALASKA--Japan and the United States have launched a $32 million research center to plumb the consequences of climate change in the Far North. The International Arctic Research Center (IARC), based here on the campus of the University of Alaska, plans to do "big picture, big science," says Gunter Weller, director of the Cooperative Institute for Arctic Research.
By compiling satellite data on everything from sea ice to vegetation patterns in the Arctic, where the effects of global warming are being felt first, IARC hopes to do some informed crystal-ball gazing. "The ultimate purpose of IARC is to make it possible to predict global change," says Taro Matsuno, director-general of Japan's Frontier Research Program, a key player at IARC.
Climate models suggest that the Arctic is a good place for predicting climate change, because global warming, stoked by rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, should be amplified there. Higher temperatures melt permafrost--possibly liberating trapped CO2 and methane, two greenhouse gases--and drive the boundary of permanent snow cover northward, eating away at a layer of white that reflects sunshine back into space. Both effects could feed back to spur global warming. Indeed, temperatures in many parts of the Arctic are already climbing faster than in regions to the south.
Changes in the Arctic may also be having effects at lower latitudes, a link that IARC researchers will probe. For instance, 6 years ago a quarter of Japan's summer crop of rice was wiped out during a frigid year that resulted from shifts in the Arctic atmosphere. Japanese researchers also worry that changes in Arctic Ocean circulation will further affect fisheries in the North Pacific and the Bering Sea.
Most of the center's funding is expected to come from Japanese and U.S. agencies and universities. Besides supporting outside scientists, the center hopes to triple its 50-person research staff by 2005. The center's backers expect to have little problem attracting funding or researchers: After all, IARC is a sleek new facility where the climate action is.