In ArcticInfo a team of social scientists, meteorologists and sea ice experts study the development of infrastructures to monitor weather and sea ice to get a better sense of how these systems might affect economic decision-making and potentially alter the marine Arctic as a zone of risk.
On one hand, the Arctic is depicted as the last frontier: a region of opportunities, which will become more accessible due to receding sea ice. On the other, it is portrayed as a vulnerable region in need of preservation, with growing concerns about the effects of climate change and its consequences for ecosystems and human living conditions. Both images trigger efforts to improve mapping, surveying and monitoring capabilities in the Arctic. Focusing on weather and sea ice information services, ArcticInfo aims to enhance knowledge about the development of such information infrastructures and to understand how they can affect economic decision-making and alter the Arctic as a zone of risk. ArcticInfo will also generate knowledge about the user-producer interface in weather and sea ice information provisioning, which can be used as input to strengthen interaction and communication between forecast providers and users.
Networked information provisioning
Information about weather and sea ice conditions in the Arctic is created, delivered and utilised in complex networks in which many actors take part. The main providers of operational meteorological information are the national meteorological services (NMS) and the national ice services. While these entities produce large amounts of data through a variety of observation technologies, they also depend on external actors such as space agencies, ships, aircraft, and others who provide regular observations. Over the last decades, new weather and sea-ice information services have been developed at scales from international and pan-Arctic to national or even local. In the first phase of the ArcticInfo project, we studied several such initiatives to learn more about the drivers and dynamics of information provisioning in the Arctic (see text box for examples).
We identified four main driving forces behind the establishment of collaborative information platforms. First, advances in information and communication technology, including satellite technology, lay the basis for new services. Second, the desire to overcome the huge challenges of data management and data sharing prompts establishment of new platforms. A third factor is the expected need for service improvements such as more frequent updates, higher resolution sea ice charts, or improved extreme weather alerts. A fourth driver relates to problems of access to data in the remote Arctic, with low bandwidth and unreliable connections.
Dynamics of information infrastructures
The information platforms we have studied have a highly networked character. The NMS continue to play key roles, in particular in delivering operational services to end users. Most of these platforms have emerged through project funding, leaving them vulnerable to funding discontinuity. BarentsWatch is an interesting exception. Some of the private or public-private platforms, like Polar View, charge fees for the use of services on a non-profit basis. Revenues are used to improve or develop new services. In general, open data sharing is strongly emphasised.
Challenges and paradoxes lie ahead
In the development of information services for marine arctic areas, there is an inherent tension between standardisation and flexibility. Standardisation is required to provide consistent services, to enhance interoperability between systems and organisations, and to support coordination. On the other hand, the infrastructures need to be flexible to respond to changing situations, expectations and needs.
Improved information services allow for better-informed decision-making. Consequently, information infrastructures mitigate risk. However, they also introduce new risks by allowing further expansion of activities and enhancing the users’ dependence on technologies in remote areas where other infrastructures do not develop at the same pace (such as Search and Rescue).
To become functional and durable, arctic information infrastructures need to build on robust and up-to-date technical and scientific components. However, they are inherently social as well, and their socially networked character is as vital for their long-term success as their technical functionality.
To improve our understanding of the workings of arctic information infrastructures, more research is needed into the user-producer interface. What are specific users’ needs and how are they – or can they be – involved in co-designing the information services? Follow-up research will uncover the potential for more user-friendly and salient information provisioning in the Arctic.