The Arctic – A Year in Review
The condition of the Arctic region provides a clear signal as to the direction of global warming. NOAA’s 2016 report for the Arctic region describes a persistent warming trend and loss of Arctic sea ice, and this is interpreted as being of planetary-scale significance and an amplifying feedback on further global warming. For instance, the thawing of permafrost releases carbon (CO2 and CH4) into the atmosphere. The greening of tundra can also absorb atmospheric carbon, but overall it appears that the tundra is releasing net carbon into the atmosphere. The Arctic Ocean is especially prone to acidification because of its lower seawater temperatures (relative to lower latitudes) and also because the marine ecosystem is especially sensitive to seawater acidity.
The long-term warming trend in the Arctic includes physical and biological changes, and some of the highlights of the 2016 report card are:
- An average surface air temperature (ending September 2016) by far the highest since 1900.
- New monthly record high temperatures recorded for January, February, October and November 2016.
- Minimum sea ice extent at the end of summer 2016 tied with 2007 for the second lowest in the satellite record, which started in 1979.
- Minimum spring snow cover extent in the North American Arctic being the lowest in the satellite record, which started in 1967.
- Northward shifting parasites and increases in Arctic biodiversity (i.e. biological markers of climate change).
Blue Ocean for the Arctic?
Scientific reputations may be sacrificed at the alter of predictions, and predicting the timing of the first ‘blue ocean event’ in the Arctic has so far been premature – however the warming trend in the Arctic is dramatic and major warming feedbacks could be triggered by sea ice melt and other related physical and biological processes. A book was published in 2016 that covers this very topic, called “A Farewell to Ice: A Report from the Arctic” by Professor Peter Wadhams. Professor Wadhams claims that the scientific establishment expects that the North Pole will be free of ice around the middle of this century, but Wadhams also claims that this forecast is optimistic. Important to appreciate is that sea ice is the ‘canary in the mine’ of planetary climate change, because sea ice reflects solar energy back into space and provides an ‘air conditioning’ system for the planet.