We might think of it as a cold, snow-covered desert home only to polar bears, seals and Santa. Thanks to climate change however, it seems the Arctic is going to look very different to future generations.
An annual report on conditions in the region has shown it is greener, warmer and less icy than ever before, with warming far outpacing what experts expected.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) annual Arctic Report Card has painted a bleak picture of near-record high temperatures and low ice levels that are transforming the Arctic into a place that is unrecognisable compared to just 15 years ago.
James Overland, an oceanographer at the NOAA, told CNN:
We thought the changes would take a lot longer, and the models were saying they would.
But the rate of change we’ve seen in the last 20 years – and especially the last five years – is beyond what we thought would happen.
The Arctic has long been viewed as an important indicator of the general state of the Earth’s climate, with changes in the region both foreshadowing and impacting conditions elsewhere in the world. Since 2000, the Arctic has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet, with the period between October 2019 and October 2020 being the second-hottest year in the past century for the region. The worst affected area, Siberia, saw temperatures 3-5°C above average, with surface temperature across the region averaging 1.9°C hotter.
Rising temperatures have caused record-setting levels of ice melting, with this summer’s minimum recorded sea ice level the lowest ever measured since records began 42 years ago. Sea ice has declined by about 13% per decade over the past 40 years, with the top 14 lowest measurements all recorded since 2007.
Snow still covers the Arctic for most of the year, but those levels are also declining at unprecedented rates, with snow cover in some areas melting far earlier than expected. Satellite records show that as snow melts, the Arctic is becoming greener, with the NOAA report stating that as warmer temperatures thaw the snow and ice, more and more shrubs and other plant species are appearing in places they couldn’t in the past. The speed of the Arctic’s decline has shocked scientists, who now say that a snow-free Arctic is a case of ‘when’ and not ‘if’.
Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center said:
For me being about 50-years-old, I thought [an ice-free Arctic in summer] would be something my grandchildren would probably live to see.
But now, if I have a reasonably average lifespan, then I’ll probably live to see it, which is really stark in my view in terms of how fast things have changed.
If this sounds like bad news for us, it’s worse for the wildlife in the area. A separate study has warned that if the Arctic continues to thaw, species like Polar Bears will struggle to survive in their natural habitats by 2100.
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