Santa Claus will need to find a new place to stow his sled and set his elves to work making toys. Scientists are predicting “dark times ahead” for the Arctic, according to an annual assessment of the environment in the far North.
In what is called “Arctic amplification” of global warming, the Arctic is actually warming twice as fast as lower latitudes (these image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows the dramatic increase in temperatures in the Arctic from 1971-2000). The list of changes, some portending the extinction of animal species, is depressingly long:
- Both spring snow cover and summer sea ice in the Arctic were at record lows this year.
- The Greenland ice sheet experienced a rare, “nearly ice sheet wide” melting event this past July, over 97 percent of the ice sheet on just one day.
- Forget your images of the tundra as an expanse of whiteness, of ice and snow. Due to more above-ground growth ever, the tundra is getting greener. From 2003-2010, the growing season in the Arctic grew longer.
- Sea-surface temperatures continue to be warmer than the long-term average.
- Three extreme weather events occurred, an “unusual cold spell” with snowfall in late January to early February of 2012 across Eurasia and two record storms with strong winds and very low central pressure offshore of western and northern Alaska.
- Scientists have found “massive” phytoplankton blooms below the summer sea ice that were ten times higher than predicted.
- The Arctic fox (pictured above) is close to extinction, with only 200 left in Europe. It remains vulnerable as the red fox encroaches on its habitat and the number of rodents including lemmings, whose population has fallen in some regions, declines.
These record-breaking findings mean that conditions in the Arctic are unlikely to return to their former state any time soon. They are harbingers of what could already be a “new Arctic,” says Martin O. Jeffries, a co-editor of the Arctic Report Card and the Arctic science advisor at the Office of Naval Research, at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union last week in San Francisco. In a press release, Jeffries emphasizes that we can no longer think of the Arctic as “a distant, icy, cold place that has little relevance to those outside the region,” the popular perception that makes it the remote home of Rudolph and abominable snowmen.
What happens in Arctic ecosystems directly affects all of us, Jeffries underscores:
The record low spring snow extent and record low summer sea ice extent in 2012 exemplify a major source of the momentum for continuing change. As the sea ice and snow cover retreat, we’re losing bright, highly reflective surfaces, and increasing the area of darker surfaces — both land and ocean — exposed to sunlight. This increases the capacity to store heat within the Arctic system, which enables more melting — a self-reinforcing cycle.
With snow and ice retreating, Jeffries also notes that human activity — tourism, exploitation of natural resources and marine exploration — is likely to increase, leading to unknown consequences on Arctic ecosystems on both land and sea. Those who say “pshaw” to global warming by pointing to snow mounds in their driveways are only further displaying their ignorance. The Arctic Report Card makes too clear that what happens in one part of the earth (CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels) has huge and lasting effects on another part. Maybe only a Santa retreating from a snow-less North Pole and packing away his fur-trimmed suit for shorts will convince the climate change deniers of how very mistaken they have been.
Photo from Thinkstock