Temperatures in the Arctic this year were the highest since records started more than a century ago, and are driving a decline in sea ice cover, snowpack melt, ocean acidification, and other environmental catastrophes that will accelerate the decline of the Arctic’s fragile ecosystem — with potentially dire consequences for the rest of the earth.
On Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Research program released its annual Arctic Report Card — and it paints a bleak picture. “Rarely have we seen the Arctic show a clearer, stronger or more pronounced signal of persistent warming and its cascading effects on the environment than this year,” said Jeremy Mathis, director of NOAA’s Arctic Research Program.
On the Arctic’s overall health, “I would give it a F,” Mathis told Foreign Policy. “And I would give our response to the changes we’re seeing in the Arctic a D+.”
Unfortunately for the rest of the world, the Arctic’s environmental health has a major impact on the rest of the globe, he added. “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” Mathis told FP.
The Arctic in many ways acts as a global air conditioner — one that is slowly breaking down. In the past, the snow- and ice-covered polar region reflected a lot of sunlight back into space. The region stayed chilly, and helped circulate cooler air through the world’s oceans and jetstreams, regulating to a degree global climate.
But rising temperatures thanks to ever-higher atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are melting the snow and ice, making for a darker surface that absorbs more sunlight than it used to. That compounds the region’s warming and ensures that the earth as a whole absorbs more heat energy as the reflective ice layers recede.
Additionally, as the region thaws, it could release billions of tons of carbon trapped in the permafrost; NOAA’s report says that permafrost soils contain about twice as much carbon as is currently in the atmosphere.
“If all of that were to be broken down and released into the atmosphere, it could triple the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” Mathis told FP.
The litany of doomsday statistics in the report are numbing: The extent of North American spring snow cover was the lowest recorded since satellite coverage began in 1967; summer sea ice extent in 2016 tied 2007 for the second-lowest in the records dating back to 1979 (and in September was retreating even faster than in the record year of 2012); and there has been a 3.5° C increase in Arctic air temperature in the last 15 years, double the rate of global temperature increase. Some areas of the Arctic had temperatures more than 8° C above the norm in January.
Still, Mathis finds a few reasons for optimism. The Arctic has so far been an oasis of cooperation between many countries that are otherwise adversarial to the United States, including Russia and China. Matthis’ program runs a research station in Northern Russia, for example, and has kept working as normal despite U.S. and European sanctions on Russia.
The thawing Arctic also opens the region to new economic and commercial activities, from oil drilling to new maritime trade routes. “Communities living in the Arctic are struggling to deal with change,” Mathis said. “Commercial developments could provides jobs and resources for those communities. That’s an opportunity for us to not only grow the national economy but also interconnect other countries’ regional economies.”
The United States, which this year chairs the international forum overseeing the region, the Arctic Council, has prioritized improving Arctic communities, ocean stewardship, and addressing climate change under President Barack Obama. But a change in administration could usher a new approach to the region, as Donald Trump and his top cabinet picks, many of whom are climate change skeptics, take office in January. Some climate scientists, fearing the new administration’s hostility to their work, are even frantically copying down U.S. climate change data lest it vanish after Trump steps into the Oval Office. The Republican-controlled Congress has also been hostile to Obama administration climate-change initiatives, including climate research and efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Mathis, still living happily in a fact-based reality, is hopeful the change won’t impact NOAA’s mission to document the pace of change in the Arctic. “This report is really beyond reproach when it comes to presenting the facts,” he said.
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