(CN) — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual Arctic Report Card released Tuesday painted an unequivocally grim portrait of a region and planet in peril, with permafrost shorelines crumbling, sea ice melting at increasing rates and the biology of the remote region undergoing major alterations. In short, the old Arctic of the 1980s is gone.
“The Arctic really has achieved a new normal,” said Jackie Richter-Menge, a researcher with the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. “It means warmer temperatures, a less frozen landscape and changed biological activity in both the ocean and the land basin ecosystem.”
Richter-Menge is partially retired as an Arctic scientist but stays involved in crafting select reports such as NOAA’s 2020 Arctic Report Card.
She also appeared in a virtual press conference hosted by the American Geophysical Union on Tuesday morning to share her findings. In her portion of the presentation, Richter-Menge drove home the dramatic changes she has witnessed over the course of her career by sharing a simple photo of a swath of the Arctic in 1982 and the same place shown this year.
The difference is stark. In 1982, the area was full of ice with wind-swept snowbanks cropping up every few hundred yards. At present, most of that sea ice is gone, replaced by open ocean dappled with a few floating pods of ice.
“We anticipated the Arctic would warm,” Richter-Menge said of her early research into the region. “But what surprised us was the accelerated rate of warming in the Arctic which now amounts to about twice the rate of warming around the world.”
The latest report card found the warming trend persists, with surface air temperatures in all places north of 60 degrees latitude the second-highest on record and the Eurasian Arctic — the area north of Scandinavia and Russia — seeing high temperature records.
“It is driven by extreme departures over the high Arctic, Siberia and the adjacent seas,” said Richard Thoman of the International Arctic Research Center.
Thoman, a co-author of this year’s report card, said the minimum sea ice extent was also the second-lowest on record.
“While the sea ice minimum gets the press and the headlines, changes in the sea ice thickness and quality along with the timing and seasonality of the sea ice has impacts on everything from the ecosystem to shipping to national security,” he said.
Another knock-on effect of a warming Arctic is the region’s new-fangled susceptibility to large wildfires. While much of the focus has been on wildfires in the American West, including Colorado, Oregon and California, Alaska has also witnessed record-shattering wildfires in the last few years.
“There is a higher probability for large fires around the circumpolar north since the turn of the 20th century,” said Alison York, a scientist with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “It sure seems like it’s always happening somewhere.”
Part of the reason is tundra is actually highly flammable due to a high amount of carbon embedded under the frozen portions of the landscape. As those regions defrost, the ground can be prey to fire, which would release vast amounts of carbon into an atmosphere increasingly replete with it.
“Once established, fires can smolder for a long time,” York said.
But the report did contain some good news.
The bowhead whale, the only true Arctic baleen whale, has recovered from overhunting the 19th and early 20th centuries. Furthermore, the vanishing sea ice has at least initially been a boon for their population numbers in certain sectors of the Arctic, according to scientist Craig George.
“The melting sea ice has actually benefitted bowheads; however, they do face threats,” George said.
Specifically, the warming waters of the Arctic means humpback and orca whales are increasing their range farther north.
Regarding humpback whales, it means more competition for krill. Regarding orcas, it means predation as the killer whales will hunt the bowhead whale calves.
Also, retreating sea ice may mean more industrial shipping or oil exploration, which could also have deleterious effects on the bowhead’s numbers — making their gains short-term and ultimately fleeting.
All told, this year’s report card portrays a region amid a fundamental transition from the cold frozen landscape to one that is thawed and warmer. Whether this will produce rising seas and debilitate the creatures that inhabit the Arctic remains to be seen.
NOAA also released its November climate report on Tuesday, finding the past month was the fourth-warmest November on record. The report also noted the Atlantic hurricane season was the most active on record.
“Thirty named storms formed in the Atlantic, which breaks the previous record of 27 set in 2005,” the report states.
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