SAN FRANCISCO, CA, DECEMBER 17, 2014 – The Arctic has already been the source of many of the surprises that climate change has brought. But this year’s surprise is a little different: Greenland seems to have lost no ice compared to a year ago.

That hardly means that the Arctic is no longer a region of great concern, said scientists here at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting. It simply means that there will always be a good deal of natural variability in the region. It’s what keeps their annual Arctic Report Card interesting.

Despite the status in Greenland ice over the past year, the long-term trend is troubling: as ice loss accelerates over the years, the continent is getting darker.

Greenland 2014
Source: NOAA

This long-term trend in Greenland, when added to the loss-trend of Arctic sea ice and decreased snow cover in northern latitudes, means the entire region is reflecting less sunlight (because there’s less white ground cover) but therefore also absorbing more sunlight.

Looking at the entire Arctic Ocean, the increase in absorbed sunlight is relatively large — about 5 percent since 2000, said Norman Loeb, a researcher at NASA’s Langley Research Center. That’s equivalent to about one extra Christmas light over each square-yard of the Ocean — not insignificant in the context of climate.

Arctic Changes Matter

These changes matter. A study published last year found an astonishing result: the decline in Arctic sea ice since 1979 had, by 2011, caused about 25 percent as much change, globally, as changes in CO2 did over the same period. The authors called it “considerably larger than expectations from models and other less direct recent estimates.”

These changes also matter because “the U.S. is an Arctic nation,” said Martin Jeffries, Program Officer for the Office of Naval Research’s Arctic and Global Prediction. Alaska has more than a thousand miles of Arctic coastline, and changes in Arctic sea ice may now be influencing weather patterns in the continental U.S, especially in winter.

Stakeholders such as oil drillers, fisherman, indigenous peoples and the U.S. Navy are already asking scientists for their yearly expectations and decade-long projections of Arctic sea ice melt, looking to adapt to new conditions, exploit uncovered resources, or defend national interests.

This week Denmark claimed ownership of the North Pole (and the resources within), based on an extension of its ownership of Greenland. The region is estimated to hold 15 percent of the world’s remaining oil, and 30 percent of its natural gas.

Needless to say, there will be a great deal of politics in coming years as the four other countries that border the Arctic — Russia, the United States, Canada and Norway — dispute Denmark’s claim with their own sovereignties.

There is growing evidence that sea ice cover is affecting polar bears, said Geoff York, Senior Director of Conservation at Polar Bears International in Montana, “in areas where we have long term data.”

Changing Environment

The yearly September minimum in Arctic sea ice has come to be somewhat of a horse race — to many it’s a gauge of the seriousness of manmade global warming. The extent of the sea ice reached a record low in 2007, and then dipped even lower in 2012.

“We can’t expect records every year,” said Jeffries, “and the changes need not be spectacular” to have serious effects.

“It’s important not to dwell on the records,” he said. “You don’t have to reduce the ice cover much to change the environment there…. [Arctic sea ice] doesn’t have to go to zero” for large and increasingly irreversible changes to take place.

A surprising trend in the Arctic

Audio with Jennifer Kay from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science (CIRES) in Boulder, Colorado, whose research has found, to the surprise of many, no change in cloudiness over the increasingly open summer Arctic ocean in the last 15 years.

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David Appell

A regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections since 2012, David Appell, Ph.D., is a freelance writer living in Salem, Oregon, specializing in the physical sciences, technology, and the environment. His...