Climate crisis driving ‘rapid’ transformation of Arctic into ‘warmer, less frozen’ wilderness

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual report card paints worrying picture of warming region

National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration's annual report card on the state of the Arctic

Extreme wildfires, unparalleled warm air temperatures and record snow loss combined in 2020 to cement a “sustained transformation” of the Arctic to a “warmer, less frozen and biologically changed” region, US scientists have said.

Bleak in its outlook, the annual report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said average air temperatures in the Arctic for the year to September 2020 were the second highest since record-keeping began in 1900.

In the oceans, the end of summer sea ice extent in 2020 was the second lowest in the 42-year satellite record, with 2012 being the record minimum year.

August mean sea surface temperatures in 2020 were between 1-3C warmer than the recent average, with unusually warm temperatures in the Laptev and Kara seas north of Russia.

An exceptionally warm spring in Siberia resulted in the lowest June snow extent across the Eurasian Arctic observed in the past 54 years, while wildfires in the Sakha Republic of northern Russia coincided with unparalleled warm air temperatures and record snow loss in the region.

The 2020 Arctic minimum sea ice extent reached in September was the second-lowest in the satellite record. Overall thickness of the sea ice cover is also decreasing as Arctic ice has transformed from an older, thicker, and stronger ice mass to a younger, thinner more fragile ice mass in the past decade, the NOAA said, calling the rate of change “alarming” and “extraordinary”.

Climate change continues to disrupt the polar region, with second-highest air temperatures and second-lowest summer sea ice driving a cascade of impacts,” the authors of the study, dubbed an annual “report card”, said.

“While sometimes referred to as ‘the new normal’, in reality, most parts of the Arctic environmental system are continuing to change very rapidly.”

Compiled by 133 scientists from 15 countries, the 2020 report card reflected on an alarming year for the region, the state of which is seen as a key indicator of the rate at which the climate is changing. Rapid warming there could herald dire consequences for the rest of the world. For example, the Greenland ice sheet alone holds enough water to raise the global sea level by 7.4 metres.

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“Taken as a whole, the story is unambiguous,” said Rick Thoman, Alaska Climate Specialist with the International Arctic Research Center, and one of three editors of this year’s report card. “The transformation of the Arctic to a warmer, less frozen and biologically changed region is well underway.”

In a slither of good news, Pacific Arctic bowhead whale numbers have rebounded in the past 30 years, due to increases in both local plankton blooms and transport of increased krill and other food sources northward through the Bering Strait – although this is a signal of long-term warming in the Arctic Ocean.

Nearly hunted to extinction by commercial whaling, populations are thought to have now recovered to early 19th century levels.

The whales can live to be over 200 years old but continue to face threats from habitat loss, pollution and climate change and increased shipping in Arctic waters.

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