Surprise, surprise: The Arctic didn’t do too well this past year. You can thank global warming for that.
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its annual Arctic Report Card Tuesday, and the findings show a region in the midst of a rapid transformation. Wildlife populations are decreasing, sea ice is melting, and the Arctic is warming the fuck up. Even more ominously, the frozen soil that rings the region is now unleashing more carbon than it takes up speeding up climate change.
This year, however, the report card highlights some new points, including the impact of shifting wind patterns and how indigenous people in the Arctic are particularly vulnerable.
The clearest sign of Arctic change are rising temperatures. The average temperature over the past 12 months ranked as the second-highest value since 1900 coming in at 1.9 degrees Celsius above normal. That’s helping melt Arctic sea ice cover, which has seen rapid declines in thickness and extent.
The fragile state of ice leaves it vulnerable to random weather happenings, such as when the jetstream sends warm southerly winds north. That’s exactly what happened this past year, particularly in Alaska when unusual southwestern warm winds in fall 2018 kept sea ice from freezing in along the coastal Bering Sea. This happened again in winter 2019 and continued into the spring.
“In the past when that happened, it hasn’t had a big impact because the ice is already there and very thick,” James Overland, an oceanographer at NOAA who worked on this report, told Earther. “This year, you started with thin ice, so when winds shifted around to coming from the south and bringing more warm temperatures, the ice could never form, and that was a huge change that we never expected would happen this soon”¨.”
The only year worse was 2012. This presents a long-term concern for sea level rise worldwide, but the loss of sea ice throughout the Arctic threatens the culture and livelihoods of the people who live there. And, for the first time ever, the Arctic Report Card pays special attention to the impacts indigenous people face. It even includes a whole section featuring voices from the frontlines. Overland said that was intentional.
“Most of us are looking at the Arctic from satellite pictures from way above and the big picture,” he said. “Particularly with emphasis on the Bering Sea, loss of ice and these changes in the ecosystem are erratically impacting these coastal communities from the timing from when they hunt for whales and seals and so forth.”¨”
Sea ice loss really damages the way of life for these communities because they depend on the ice’s stability to travel and reach the waters they depend on to hunt. But the shifts in the Arctic aren’t just a concern for the people who live there. They could have a profound impact on the climate.
This year’s report also contains a major warning siren about permafrost, icy soil that stores roughly 10 times more carbon than the Amazon. Rising temperatures are causing it to thaw. That means many indigenous families are also losing access to their traditional means of storing food in ice cellars.
But for the rest of us, the impacts are also extremely worrisome. This year’s report card shows that melting permafrost is releasing carbon back into the atmosphere at a faster rate than the region’s plants are taking up. Estimates for how much carbon the Arctic is emitting range from 300 up to 600 million tons. Those emissions mean the Arctic isn’t just being impacted by the climate crisis. It’s now contributing to it.