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On Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its 15th annual Arctic Report Card. It observed a “sustained transformation to a warmer, less frozen, and biologically changed Arctic.” The holistic report is a collection of “vital signs” from the Arctic ecosystem and factors in variables like wildlife, air temperature, wildfires, and sea ice. Compiled by 133 researchers from over a dozen countries, the report states that the climate of the Arctic is racing toward catastrophe.
Why This Matters: In a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification, the Arctic is warming at a rate 2 to 3 times higher than the global average. Arctic warming isn’t only causing damage to the environment; it’s also robbing the environment of its ability to heal and regenerate. The changing temperatures, storm patterns, and sea ice levels have increased permafrost erosion near coastlines where most Arctic residents live and work. Experts say the rapid warming in the Arctic should serve as a warning to those south of it. “The Arctic continues to sound the bell as a warning to lower latitudes on how rapidly things can change when thresholds are crossed,” said Rick Thoman, an Alaskan climate specialist and co-author of the report. “The thresholds will not be the same, of course, but the Arctic is living proof that major environmental change need not proceed gradually over generations.”
Land, Air, and Sea
Researchers reported that the average surface air temperature north of 60° N from October 2019 to September 2020 was the second-highest on average since 1900. Average sea surface temperatures this summer were 1 to 3 degrees Celsius above normal. The amount of sea ice recorded at the end of the summer of 2020 was the second-lowest ever behind only the summer of 2012. Unlike the summer of 2012 however, when sea ice rebounded as usual, it didn’t rebound in 2020 and dropped to the lowest levels on record. “Because the Arctic changes are intimately tied with ice and snow changes, and these are positive feedback loops, this is not something that can be reversed with one cold winter (multi-year ice takes, well, multiple years to grow),” explains Thoman.
Together, these changes have short-term pros, but long-term cons. Warming in Arctic waters like the Laptev Sea in Siberia has allowed zooplankton populations to thrive, attracting and sustaining bowhead whales which have been a staple resource for Indigenous peoples from Russia to Greenland. In the past decades, the bowhead whale population has been increasing with temperatures. This momentary bowhead boom could be a boon to the people who rely on it, but it won’t last long. The speed at which these changes are occurring are destabilizing Indigenous communities with increased wildfires, harsh and unpredictable weather, and eroding coastlines. Thoman says there is no “new normal” for the people who rely on the Arctic ecosystem; the only constant is climate change.
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