Sustainability Climate Change

Climate change shows perilous acceleration in the Arctic

NOAA's Arctic Report Card tells the story of a planet in the grip of climate change

Story at a glance

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its annual Arctic report card on Dec. 10.
  • The report reflects a year of bad news and accelerating climate change in the polar region.
  • Its pages detail record high temperatures, faster-than-predicted melting of the Greenland ice sheet and a potentially disastrous tipping point for thawing permafrost.

Climate change is wreaking havoc on the Arctic. The last six years have been the warmest ever recorded in the region, heating the once reliably frozen polar expanse at double the pace of any other place on Earth.

Now, a comprehensive new report enumerates the cascade of grim consequences that are destroying ancient ways of life and could push the rest of the planet towards even more unpredictable and rapid climate change. 

For those who track news of how climate change is warping the Arctic world, the report contains familiar elements: record high air temperatures, retreating and thinning sea ice, thawing permafrost and an accounting of the billions of tons of ice lost from Greenland’s massive ice sheet. 

But while these changes are not new to climate science, some appear to be accelerating towards a new climate change-altered state that could have dire consequences for sea-level rise and greenhouse gas emissions. 

The report suggests that thawing permafrost — a frozen storehouse of carbon buried in the dirt — may have passed a long-feared tipping point, the Washington Post reports. The deep freeze of permafrost soil holds the carbon-rich bodies of millions of years worth of dead plants, animals and microbes and prevents them from breaking down. But if it thaws, those bodies start decomposing, which leads to the release of all that carbon in the form of greenhouse gases such as methane or carbon dioxide. 

The gravity of the climate threat posed by permafrost lies in just how much of it there is. It covers 24 percent of the land mass in the Northern Hemisphere and contains between 1,460 billion and 1,600 billion metric tons of organic carbon — that translates to nearly double the amount of greenhouse gases currently present in the atmosphere.

If the extent of the thaw is as great as research suggests, it would be like an industrial nation with emissions on par with Canada appearing out of thin air. This would not only change the face of the world’s carbon budget, it could jumpstart a dreaded positive feedback loop whereby warming thaws more permafrost, which in turn causes more warming, which thaws more permafrost… If allowed to accelerate unabated, this feedback could bring about a catastrophic increase in global emissions. 

Global sea-level rise also appears to be accelerating into line with the worse-case scenario predicted by climate scientists, driven by unprecedented melting of Greenland’s ice sheets. A separate recently published study found that Greenland is melting seven times faster than it was in the 1990s — adding almost 3 inches to current estimates of global sea-level rise. Three inches might not sound like much, but a rise of that magnitude could place an additional 40 million people at risk of coastal flooding by century’s end.

For the first time, the 14th edition of the Arctic Report Card also highlighted the firsthand accounts of Alaskan natives whose traditions and way of life have been upended by climate change. Their narratives reveal the human toll of environmental changes like retreating sea ice and warmer than usual water temperatures that can seem abstract. 

Sea ice coverage at the end of the summer of 2019 tied with 2007 and 2016 for the second lowest since scientists started keeping track of it in 1979. The ice is also getting thinner. The degradation and loss of sea ice makes it impossible or unsafe for humans and wildlife to travel across it to hunt marine mammals like seals, walrus and bowhead whales. 

“[I]n a warming Arctic, access to our subsistence foods is shrinking and becoming more hazardous to hunt and fish. At the same time, thawing permafrost and more frequent and higher storm surges increasingly threaten our homes, schools, airports, and utilities, ” wrote a group of Indigenous Elders from communities around the Bering Sea.

“The way that the lower 48 relies on, say, citrus or grapes or the potato as garden food sources, the Bering Sea, when the sea ice comes, it is our garden,” Mellisa Johnson, member of the Bering Sea Elders Group, told the New York Times. “It is our way of life.”

The ecosystems these communities depend on are becoming harder to access because of the loss of sea ice, but the ecosystems themselves are also showing signs of stress. For example, the breeding population of the ivory gull in the Canadian Arctic has declined by 70 percent since the 1980s. Underwater, important fisheries are shifting north due to the lack of sea ice and changes in water temperature close to the bottom of the sea. 

Those fisheries are worth more than $1 billion and account for roughly 40 percent of the United State’s annual haul of fish and shellfish.

For the indigenous communities all these changes accumulate into a landscape that is becoming increasingly unfamiliar, unmooring them from the thousands of years of accumulated environmental knowledge that undergirds their culture. 

“We fear for our young people; we worry that they will grow without the same foods and places that we have known throughout our lives,” the Indigenous Elders wrote in the report. “We are no longer able to reliably predict the weather.” 

Practically, this makes it hard for hunters to know how long they can safely stay out, but, in the swiftly changing Arctic, it also means the world being handed down to the children of these indigenous communities is no longer one their elders recognize.