2020 is about to end as a year of catastrophic irreversible change in the Arctic.
Yesterday the conservative National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its 2020 “Arctic Report Card”, its annual report on how the climate crisis and global heating are changing aspect of the northern polar region of the planet. It is released every year as a guide to scientists and policy leaders from around the world, as they wrestle with the increasingly challenging fate of the Earth. Under Trump, the information has not been as reliable as in previous administrations. However, even watered-down, the report is an important wake-up call.
Normally the report has warned of slow but continuous shifts upwards in average temperatures, increases in ice melts, occasional unusual wildfires, and changes in the mix of living creatures on land, in the air, and in the seas. This time the conclusions were far more cataclysmic, setting the stage for the coming year being one of significant reckoning for all the damage we have caused to our planet after just under two centuries of ever-increasing fossil fuel emissions into the atmosphere.
This year’s report included peer-reviewed information and conclusions from 133 scientists from 15 countries.
Those scientists delivered a devastating picture of what happened to the Arctic this past year. Among their major conclusions were:
(top) Near-surface air temperatures across the Arctic from October 2019–September 2020 compared to the 1981-2010 average. Most of the Arctic was warmer than average (red), with only a few places colder than average (blue). Map by NOAA Climate.gov, based on NCEP/NCAR Reanalysis data from the Physical Sciences Lab at NOAA ESRL. (bottom) Annual temperatures over land in the Arctic (red) versus the globe (dark gray) compared to the 1981-2010 average from 1900–2020. Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
For the 12-month period between October 2019 and September 2020, the Arctic logged the second-warmest average annual land-surface air temperature ever, beating all but one other record set since temperatures in this region were first tracked in 1900. This includes past data records showing the air temperatures in the Arctic for nine of the years since 2010 as broaching at least 1 degree C (2.2 degrees F) since the mean temperatures for the entire period from 1981-2010.
Specific parts of the Arctic hit shockingly high temperatures this year, especially as summer began. Multiple regions in Siberia recorded temperatures at 5 degrees C (9 degrees F) over their typical average levels for the first half of the year. In June, the highest ever temperature recorded above the Arctic Circle was measured at Verkhoyansk, where thermometers peaked at 38° C (100.4° F).
A separate data summary showed Arctic warming running at rate of over 2X that of the warming rate for the entire planet averaged since 2000.
Rising surface temperatures have made fire fuels in Northern Hemisphere high latitudes more flammable over the past 40 years. This map shows the June trend (1979–2019) in the Build-up Index, an element of the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System that uses weather data to estimate the dryness of fuels. Brown indicates increasing flammability; purple indicates decreasing flammability. Photo: NOAA Climate.gov map
The extreme heat in the area during the spring and early summer contributed to other secondary effects. Among them were that:
Snow coverage measured across the entire Eurasian Arctic region for June was the lowest for over 54 years.
Uncontrollable wildfires of record proportions swept through Siberia’s Sakha republic in northern Russia. Those wildfires also released record amounts of greenhouse gases without a single direct human cause behind them.
The age of sea ice in the Arctic at winter maximum in 2000 (left, week of March 18) and 2020 (right, week of March 21). Ice older than 5 years (white) is very rare today; only a small ribbon remains along the islands of the Canadian Arctic. Photo: NOAA Climate.gov map, based on data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
As the Arctic spring began, the region already had some of the lowest ice coverage in twenty years, as the above graphic shows.
As the summer proceeded, the all-year-long MOSAiC Expedition of the icebreaker Polarstern, a research voyage traversing the central Arctic Ocean, found as a major surprise that it was floating along the Arctic waters in much thinner ice than the scientists had anticipated. Much of that thin ice has since melted, causing far less solar energy to be reflected from the ice surface and far more to absorbed by the oceans.
Melting this year continued so strongly that the last of Canada’s intact ice shelves collapsed this year
Sea surface temperature trends in the Arctic from 1982–2020, showing where waters are warming (red and orange) and where they are cooling (blue). The gray line shows the median August sea ice extent, and the white areas show the ice extent in August 2020. Photo: NOAA Map
As the Siberian fires continued to burn at the edge of the Arctic Circle, the surface temperatures of the Arctic continued to crack new high temperature records for these waters.
The southern extent of the Arctic Ocean is now so warm that scientists have begun detecting steady streams of dangerous methane hydrate melting hundreds of meters below the ocean surface.
(left) Sea ice concentration in July 2020 compared to the 2003–2019 average. Red areas had up to 100% less than their average sea ice, while blue regions had up to 100% more ice than average. (right) Chlorophyll amounts—an indicator of ocean plant productivity—in July 2020 as a percent of the 2003–2019 average. Very low sea ice in the Laptev Sea in July was linked to much higher than average phytoplankton productivity (deep green). Photo: NOAA
With much less sea ice and warmer oceans than last year, the seas showed far higher concentrations of Chlorophyll than normal. Chlorophyll is considered by marine biologists as a major measure of the accelerated growth in sea plant growth.
Bowhead whales are common to the Arctic region. This year their numbers increased significantly. Photo: Public Domain, via Wikipedia
That growth in turn has been responsible for a major increase in the populations of Pacific Arctic bowhead whales. The plankton blooms as well as krill moving northwards in waters once far too cold to support them, in the Bering Strait, made the bowhead numbers the largest seen in three decades. Plankton in some other regions have been collapsing.
The Greenland Ice Sheet lost mass again in 2020, but not as much as it did 2019.Adapted from the 2020 Arctic Report Card, this graph tracks Greenland mass loss measured by NASA's GRACE satellite missions since 2002. The background photo shows a glacier calving front in western Greenland, captured from an airplane during a NASA Operation IceBridge field campaign. Photo: NOAA
With a much warmer year throughout, Greenland, one of the biggest sources of Arctic Ice in the world, saw continued strong ice sheet mass loss. While the rate was slower than in the last several years, the melting is continued at strong levels this year.
In separate studies also conducted this year, researcher found Greenland’s ice sheets were now melting underneath, at the junction between glaciers and the rocky masses underneath, faster than in the past. That “bottom melt” is expected to result in rapid slippage of glaciers in years to come, causing far quicker sea level rises than in the past.
(top) Arctic sea ice concentration on September 15, 2020—the day of the smallest extent of the year—compared to the median extent (gold line) reached on this date in Septembers from 1981 to 2010. (bottom) Annual maximum (dark blue) and minimum (light blue) ice extents from 1979 to 2020. Photo: NOAA Climate.gov, based on data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center and the 2020 Arctic Report Card.
By fall, what should have happened in the Arctic was a significant refreezing of ice on the surface of the Arctic. The combination of less sea ice to start with, much warmer ocean waters for multiple reasons, and shifting deep sea regional ocean currents resulting from the hotter ocean waters, caused the 2020 Arctic minimum sea ice levels to be the second lowest ever recorded since satellites began to be use to measure their extent.
Even where ice was refreezing, this time much of it was “young” sea ice, refrozen directly on the surface rather than spread on top and across from existing ice floes. That ice is by its nature far less resilient in the face of continued high temperatures. It will likely set up 2021 as a year with even lower sea ice levels than ever before, possibly including the first completely ice-free Arctic Ocean in modern history, at least for a period of time.
“Taken as a whole, the story in unambiguous,” Rick Thoman, one of the three editors for the 2020 Report Card and an Alaska Climate Specialist with the International Arctic Research Center. “The transformation of the Arctic to a warmer, less frozen and biologically changed region is well underway.”
Laura Landrum, an associate scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research Climate and Global Dynamics Laboratory, sounded an even stronger level of alarm at this year’s results. “The Arctic is transitioning from a predominantly frozen state into an entirely different climate, due to emissions of greenhouse gases,” she said.
Transitions like this are now happening in multiple areas of the planet nearly simultaneously:
The 2020 Arctic Report will be read by many as a warning about what might happen if we do not do anything about greenhouse gas emissions. That, however, is precisely the wrong way to see it. The report should be understood instead as documenting the rapid transformation of our world from one of much cooler temperatures, lower sea levels, and moderate, predictable weather, to one our grandparents would barely recognize. It is only a partial joke that one might soon look forward to buying future beachfront property in the southern Arctic Ocean.
It is time to accept that the climate crisis is unstoppable, and that conventional fixes such as cutting back on fossil fuel emissions and investing in carbon capture technology will not work fast enough to save us. What is needed instead are radical new approaches for how to live and work in a much hotter future.
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