The Polar Research Board (PRB) of the National Research Council organized a workshop to address these issues on August 24-25, 2010, in Cambridge, Maryland. Experts gathered from a variety of disciplines with knowledge of both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The workshop sought to bring together different people and perspectives and to use existing information to illustrate the nature of multidisciplinary linkages among ecosystem components under a changing climate regime. It also sought to generate conversation about how to better study and understand these changes in the future.

Participants were challenged to consider what is currently known about climate change and polar ecosystems and to identify the next big questions in the field. A set of interdisciplinary “frontier questions” (discussed in more detail in Chapter 2) emerged from the workshop discussions as important topics to be addressed in the coming decades:

  • Will a rapidly shrinking cryosphere tip polar ecosystems into new states?

  • What are the key polar ecosystem processes that will be the “first responders” to climate forcing?

  • What are the bi-directional gateways and feedbacks between the poles and the global climate system?

  • How is climate change altering biodiversity in polar regions and what will be the regional and global impacts?

  • How will increases in human activities intensify ecosystem impacts in the polar regions?

The first frontier question concerns the need to identify the impacts of the rapidly disappearing cryosphere on polar ecosystems. Workshop participants noted that the continued loss of cryosphere will be a major driver of change in polar ecosystems and will play a role in amplification of climate change and its teleconnections with lower latitudes. The topic of tipping elements and thresholds is a key issue for polar ecosystems as well. In some instances, critical thresholds may have already been reached or may soon be reached that could bring ecosystems to a new state or level of activity or behavior. If potential tipping points are known or can be anticipated, then responses to the changes may be identified.

The second frontier question addresses the important processes that still need to be included in regional to global system models in order to characterize the response of polar ecosystems to climate forcing. Without these key elements the models cannot reliably predict future change. The third frontier question seeks to identify the key polar gateways (connections and feedbacks) to the global climate system, a considerable challenge due to the vast complexities of the Earth’s climate and its interactions

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