Alaska’s Temps Are Rising At Much Higher Rates Than The Rest of the Planet

Each year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issues an Arctic Report Card, and this year’s warns that Arctic ecosystems and communities are increasingly at risk and draws particular attention to the Bering Sea region, where declining winter sea ice exemplifies the potential for sudden and extreme change.  Echoing the UN’s Oceans and Cryosphere Report from earlier this fall, the Report Card found that the average annual land Arctic air temps for the period from  October 2018-August 2019 was the second warmest since 1900.

Why This Matters:  The Arctic is changing more rapidly than the rest of the planet.  And what happens in the Arctic does not just stay in the Arctic.  The warming air temperatures are driving changes in the Arctic environment that have ripple effects on ecosystems and communities on a global scale. Since 1900, the Arctic has warmed more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit, which is two to three times greater than the global average. And it is even worse in Alaska, where in just the past 50 years mainland winter temperatures have surged 6 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit.  As one Indigenous leader explained, “The world from our childhood is no longer here.” 

Impacts On Land and In the Sea – The Report’s “Highlights

On the Land

  • “The Greenland Ice Sheet is losing nearly 267 billion metric tons of ice per year and currently contributing to global average sea-level rise at a rate of about 0.7 mm yr-1.”
  • “North American Arctic snow cover in May 2019 was the fifth-lowest in 53 years of record. June snow cover was the third-lowest.”
  • “Thawing permafrost throughout the Arctic could be releasing an estimated 300-600 million tons of net carbon per year to the atmosphere.”

In the Ocean

  • “Arctic sea ice extent at the end of summer 2019 was tied with 2007 and 2016 as the second-lowest since satellite observations began in 1979. The thickness of the sea ice has also decreased, resulting in an ice cover that is more vulnerable to warming air and ocean temperatures.”
  • “August mean sea surface temperatures in 2019 were 1-7°C warmer than the 1982-2010 August mean in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, the Laptev Sea, and Baffin Bay.”
  • “Wildlife populations are showing signs of stress. For example, the breeding population of the ivory gull in the Canadian Arctic has declined by 70% since the 1980s.”

The Bering Sea – Really Bad News

  • “The winter sea ice extent in 2019 narrowly missed surpassing the record low set in 2018, leading to record-breaking warm ocean temperatures in 2019 on the southern shelf. Bottom temperatures on the northern Bering shelf exceeded 4°C for the first time in November 2018.”
  • “Bering and Barents Seas fisheries have experienced a northerly shift in the distribution of subarctic and Arctic fish species, linked to the loss of sea ice and changes in bottom water temperature.”
  • Indigenous Bering Sea communities note that “[i]n a warming Arctic, access to our subsistence foods is shrinking and becoming more hazardous to hunt and fish. At the same time, thawing permafrost and more frequent and higher storm surges increasingly threaten our homes, schools, airports, and utilities.”

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