Climate change continues to create “cascading disruptions” in the Arctic as the region experiences rapid warming, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) writes in its 16th annual Arctic Report Card released earlier today.
Pulling together the most recent data on temperature trends, sea ice cover, and more gathered in 2020 and 2021, this year’s Arctic Report Card includes 111 contributing writers from 12 countries, who detail the transformation taking place across the far north as a result of human-caused climate change. That includes dramatic sea ice losses, rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheet, and exceptionally warm autumns. The Arctic experienced its warmest autumn on record between October and December 2020.
None of these observations are terribly surprising at this point — the Arctic is one of the fastest-warming regions on the planet, and scientists at NOAA and elsewhere have been documenting a cascade of impacts for decades.
“The trends are consistent, alarming, and undeniable,” NOAA administrator Rick Spinrad said at a press conference at the American Geophysical Union today.
Twila Moon, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center who edited the report, noted that a series of “extreme events” brought “unprecedented conditions” to the Greenland ice sheet, which experienced three separate ice melts during the summer of 2021 for just the second time on record, Moon said. This year, Greenland also experienced rain in its summit for the first time in August. This sort of event has the potential to make the ice sheet more vulnerable to melt in the future, Moon said.
In addition to melting ice on the land and at sea, the report highlights how rising temperatures are shifting the ecosystems of the Arctic. One species in particular gets spotlit in the new report: beavers. According to NOAA, these ecological engineers are rapidly colonizing the warming Alaskan tundra, modifying the landscapes as they go by creating ponds that can affect the underlying permafrost soil.
Populations in the Arctic region have made efforts to adapt to the changing conditions, but the Arctic’s rapid evolution calls for more attention from those who reside there.
“Our people live in these extremely variable conditions for thousands of years, and we’re very worried about the changes highlighted today,” Kaare Sikuaq Erickson, a science liaison from the Bering Sea village of Unalakleet, Alaska, said at the press conference. “It’s really tough for us to live up there, let alone thrive.”
“The Arctic is the Earth’s air conditioner.”
Experts who spoke at the press conference emphasized that what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay there and that the changes will continue to intensify unless humanity takes more aggressive action on climate change. According to NOAA, since the mid-1960s, the Arctic has seen nearly 3 degrees Celsius of warming — far more than the global average rise of just over a degree Celsius since the late 19th century.
“The Arctic is the Earth’s air conditioner,” Spinrad said. “Billions of people rely on its moderating influence on climate. We have a narrow window of time to avoid very costly, deadly, irreversible future climate impacts.”