On Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its annual Arctic report card. It chronicles all the ways we’re causing the Arctic to fail at being, well, the Arctic. The most astounding fact? Ice is shrinking faster and reaching lower lows than it has in at least 1,500 years.
Climate change has caused the region to warm twice as fast as the global average, which is causing a variety of systems and processes to break down. Permafrost is thawing, old sea ice is nearly gone, and the Arctic Ocean is turning into the Atlantic. This was the second hottest year for the Arctic on record, trailing only 2016.
The list goes on, but perhaps nothing is as shocking as the rapid disappearance of sea ice.
This year was the third year in a row of a record low winter sea ice maximum for the Arctic. The sea ice minimum this year was the eighth lowest in the satellite record. According to this year’s report card, the sea ice minimum has declined by 13.2 percent per decade since satellite record keeping began.
But at the American Geophysical Union conference in New Orleans today, scientists put that trend in an even bigger-picture context using data from ice cores, tree rings, fossilized shells, and lake sediments. Those datasets all overlap to provide scientists a proxy for Arctic sea ice that extends back 1,450 years. The results are astounding: in all that time, there’s never been anything like the current rapid loss of ice.
“The magnitude of the decline is unprecedented in that period of time,” Emily Osborne a fellow at NOAA’s Arctic Research Program, said. “We can confidently say we haven’t observed that magnitude of change in the Arctic.”
1,450 years is just how far back this particular dataset goes. Osborne said that the changes we’re observing are likely unprecedented over an even longer period.
Along with ice loss, sea ice is also getting younger as old, thick ice melts away. In 1985, old sea ice accounted for 45 percent of the Arctic’s icepack. This past year, it accounted for just 21 percent.
The breakneck changes to ice cover are highly disruptive to coastal communities in the region, who rely on the sea ice to hunt and for protection from storms. But the impacts also extend well outside the region.
“Unlike Vegas, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” NOAA Acting Administrator Rear Admiral Timothy Gallaudet said during an AGU press briefing.
According to Gallaudet, the main takeaways for the Trump administration are looking at the changes through a lens of economic opportunities and national security.
Citing naval readiness and Russia’s search for shipping lanes as examples, he said “the White House is addressing it [the report], acknowledging it and factoring it into their agenda.”
There’s every reason to be prepared for the proverbial Arctic gold rush already underway. The Arctic is becoming the Wild West as ice recedes, exposing minerals, oil and gas and opening shipping routes and tourism opportunities.
But for me, the main takeaway from this report is that we are seriously screwing over the planet in ways that will last for centuries and have far-ranging impacts we’re probably not even considering.
Jeremy Mathis, the head of NOAA’s Arctic Research Program, talked about the growing body of evidence that rapid Arctic warming and loss of sea ice are responsible for extreme weather in the U.S., including heat waves and droughts driven by weird kinks in the jet stream. The connection is still being researched, but the basic premise is that rapid warming in the Arctic means the temperatures difference between it and the mid-latitudes decreases. The jet stream is caught in the middle, and the lower temperature gradient causes it to warp in ways that make weather patterns get stuck in place, sometimes with dire impacts.
That research should give us pause to consider whether drilling the Arctic for more oil is really a good idea. Instead, you could argue it’s a clarion call for the U.S. and the world to do everything possible to cut carbon pollution before things get truly out of hand.