Warming trends are pushing the Arctic into uncharted territory, and scientists say the sweeping changes are poised to affect people well beyond the polar region.
Surface temperatures over Arctic lands in 2018 ranked second highest since the observational record began in 1900, topped only by 2016, according to the 2018 Arctic Report Card released Dec. 11 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe due to climate change.
The report, in its 13th year, begins for the first time to make connections between the warming Arctic and climate change impacts felt by the rest of the U.S. and other regions.
Hotter oceans and air temperatures in the polar region prompted a sluggish and unusually wavy jet stream, allowing warm air to move farther north and cold air farther south.
The phenomenon helped to drive a heat wave at the North Pole in autumn 2017, severe winter storms in the northern U.S. in 2018, and the extreme cold outbreak in Europe in March 2018, the report finds. It also looks at other aspects of Arctic warming.
“We’re continuing to see that this warming is causing these changes across the system, and those changes are building,” Emily Osborne, program manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Research Program, told reporters during a Dec. 11 press conference at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting.
The Arctic Report Card, written by 81 scientists from 12 countries, is the latest in a series of national and international reports showing continuing warming trends and worsening impacts from climate change.
Thirteen federal agencies, including NOAA and the Environmental Protection Agency, released the fourth National Climate Assessment on Nov. 23. That assessment, the most comprehensive to date of climate change impacts in the U.S., finds the effects of a warming world could cause public health damages and cost the U.S. billions.
President Donald Trump and members of his administration have openly questioned the National Climate Assessment.
“I don’t believe it,” Trump said after the report was released.
Timothy Gallaudet, NOAA’s acting administrator, said he hasn’t briefed Trump on the Arctic Report Card, but he stressed the White House’s support for continuing research in the region. He said he recently attended the Arctic Science Ministerial, where the administration backed increased international cooperation on Arctic research.
“NOAA continues its mission in various ways, and one of them being climate science and research,” Gallaudet said. “We have been supported by the administration in continuing our great research and science on climate.”
Communities and Ecosystems
The Arctic report finds sustained warming trends are taking tolls on communities and ecosystems in the polar region.
For example, caribou and reindeer populations in the region are dropping sharply, Howard Epstein, an environmental sciences professor at the University of Virginia, told reporters. The herds are shrinking due to increased frequency of droughts and longer, hotter summers in the region, bringing flies and parasites, Epstein added.
The latest report also features for the first time research on toxic, harmful algal blooms in the Arctic region, with toxins expanding northward, Karen Frey, a professor of geography at Clark University, told reporters. That is affecting birds, mammals, and shellfish in the region, and is also causing food safety concerns for Arctic coastal communities, she added.
Those toxic blooms can drive significant economic losses, too, as fishing and tourism in the region suffer, Frey said.
One striking finding from the 2018 report card is how interconnected the impacts the Arctic is facing are, Donald Perovich, an engineering professor at Dartmouth College, told Bloomberg Environment.
“The Arctic is really a system where what happens to one part of it has impacts on other parts,” he said.
For example, less sea ice in the polar region is driven by the warming atmosphere and warming oceans, melting the ice from above and below, he said. But less sea ice also means more sunlight is deposited in the oceans, heating them up more and leading to more melting ice. Those sorts of feedbacks can accelerate changes from warming, Perovich said.
“It’s all new and we’re not sure how to understand what’s going on. If you don’t understand it, you can’t predict what’s going on,” he said. “It’s exciting, challenging, and a little bit worrisome.”
NOAA’s Gallaudet said the changes also offer opportunities to advance research, and he said scientific improvements can help the U.S. and the Arctic region endure those changes.
“The data is the data. Changes are occurring,” Gallaudet said. “What we need to do is adapt to those changes. We can adapt as a country effectively by better understanding and improving our observations and predictions.”
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