Each December since 2006, NOAA has pulled together Arctic experts to summarize the state of the high-latitude environment in the context of relentless human-caused warming. This year’s 15th annual Arctic Report Card doesn’t exactly give the region a failing grade, but it does stress that high northern latitudes are on a dangerous track.
Released on Tuesday, December 8, as part of the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (in this year of COVID, a remote meeting), the report portrays an Arctic that continues to get less cold, less icy, and less reliable.
One telling example: In October 1988, the United States and Russia teamed up to rescue three whales trapped in fast-growing near-shore ice just off the coast of Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska. What became known as Operation Breakthrough captured headlines across the world and inspired a 2012 film, “Big Miracle.”
On October 7, 1988, the day an Inupiaq hunter discovered the trapped whales near Point Barrow, the Arctic had 8.35 million square kilometers of sea ice. On the same date in 2020, the Arctic’s sea ice extent was 4.57 million sq km – down by more than 45%.
Utqiaġvik went on to record its third warmest November in 101 years of recordkeeping, topped only by 2017 and 2019. Even at the start of this past December, with round-the-clock darkness already in place for more than a week, the near-shore waters remained eerily open.
“We’re just now setting up our shore-fast ice,” said Craig George, a senior wildlife biologist emeritus at the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management in Utqiaġvik, at an AGU press conference December 8. In recent years, he added, “the big change here is the very delayed fall freeze-up.”
Each year seems to bring a new configuration of bizarre Arctic extremes, with subtle and not-so-subtle rearrangements playing out across the region. Through it all, heat continues to be imported by atmospheric and ocean currents from lower latitudes, joined by solar energy that’s increasingly absorbed by the landscape as warm-season sunlight lands on open ocean and snow-free land. The Arctic year from October 2019 to September 2020 was the second warmest on record.
More fire, less ice
One of the banner events documented by this year’s report card was unprecedented heat in the Sakha region of northeast Russia and the adjoining Arctic Ocean. Wildfires – some of which wintered over in the topmost layer of organic matter, lurking as “zombie fires” – burst onto the Siberian landscape months ahead of schedule, some burning within 10 miles of the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea. On June 20, the town of Verkhoyansk (latitude 67.55°N) reached 100.4 degrees F, the highest reading ever confirmed north of the Arctic Circle.
In tandem with the spring heat observed on land, sea ice pulled away from the Laptev coast far sooner than usual, with the basin seeing record-low ice extent for June.
The Arctic’s fire season began settling down on the early side this year (see graphic). Before that point, though, the Sakha blazes helped push the region to a new global record in the satellite-monitoring era (2001-present) for acreage burned north of the Arctic Circle, handily beating an impressive record set just last year.
The fires also underscored a trend toward increasing high-latitude northern wildfire, a topic highlighted in this year’s report card. The odds of at least 500,000 hectares burning in a given year have more than doubled since 1980, said ecologist Alison York (International Arctic Research Center) at the press conference.
Driving the trend is the sporadic arrival of particularly bad fire years, with those often marked by just a few cataclysmic days. The report notes that fully half of the area burned in Alaska over the nine-year period from 2002 to 2010 was charred in just 36 days.
Sea ice and the lack of it
The past year was another lackluster one for Arctic sea ice. The ice extent in September was the second lowest in 41 years of satellite monitoring, with only 2012 having seen less. In October, both the sea ice extent and sea ice thickness (the latter observed regularly over the past decade) were the lowest on record for the time of year, thus also producing the lowest ice volume on record for any October. As of early December, the sea ice extent was second lowest for the date, behind only 2016.
Authors of the report card reflected on the status of sea ice as one of the region’s most notorious and ominous markers of long-term change driven by greenhouse gases. The ice cover is “literally and figuratively central to the Arctic system,” observed Jacqueline Richter-Menge (University of Alaska Fairbanks) and colleagues in one chapter of the report.
By sheer coincidence, the series of Arctic Report Cards began in late 2006 just as the region was on what the authors termed a “cusp of transformation in the sea ice cover.” The Arctic’s sea ice extent plummeted to a record low in the summer of 2007, and then came an even lower record in 2012. The minimum ice extent observed each year has never returned to its pre-2007 levels.
“Every year I worry about another big drop-off” in sea ice extent, said Don Perovich, Dartmouth College, at the news conference. A polar researcher, he called the spectre of a 2007- or 2012-type downward ratchet his “recurring nightmare.”
Progress in Arctic science
On the plus side, one major trend in the era of Arctic Report Cards is the advent of enhanced observing tools since 2006, including an array of new satellites. For example, sea ice thickness – a crucial measure of ice health that wasn’t being comprehensively measured when the reports began – is now being sampled regularly by the CryoSat-2 and ICESat-2 platforms.
Another boon for research is the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) project, a multi-year, 20-nation effort involving 300 people that was centered on the region’s largest research expedition in history. It began when the Polarstern icebreaker lodged itself in the Arctic ice pack in the fall of 2019, then rode with an ice floe for the better part of a year, surrounded by a fleet of ice-top observing equipment dubbed the Central Observatory. Other semi-autonomous observing systems were deployed by a Russian icebreaker from 3 to 25 miles around the Polarstern.
The ice around the Polarstern’s floe proved thinner than researchers had expected, and the ship was shoved south through the Central Arctic more quickly than they’d bargained on, leaving it more than 1000 miles from its starting point. Cracks, leads, and ridges in the ice forced instruments to be shuffled and hindered access and power. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the ship to make a brief southward jog in late spring.
“This year in the Arctic was a real adventure, and not an easy one,” said Matthew Shupe (CIRES/NOAA/University of Colorado).
The work will pay off, though, he added. “Overall, MOSAiC represents the most comprehensive set of observations ever collected in the central Arctic,” said Shupe. As he and colleagues put it in the report card, “The remarkable stability of the [ice] floe’s ridged core enabled the unique opportunity to follow this floe to the very end of its lifecycle a few kilometers from the open ocean. Measurements continued to the last possible moment.”
One creature that’s thriving in a transformed Arctic
Amid the clearly gloomy indices that pervade the 2020 Arctic Report Card is a surprisingly upbeat wildlife story. The massive, long-lived bowhead whale – the only baleen (non-toothed) whale species commonly found so far north – appears to be thriving in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas. This area now has some 16,800 bowhead whales, the largest of the Arctic’s four bowhead populations by far. The count appears to be nearing the numbers that prevailed in those seas in the early 1800s, before commercial whaling decimated the species over the following century.
Today, entanglement in fishing nets is the main threat to bowhead whales. Traditional whaling of bowheads by Indigenous peoples, in much smaller numbers than from the European whaling of the 1800s, remains a sustainable practice. And the warming Arctic itself seems to be giving bowhead whales a boost. The increased sunlight reaching Arctic waters because of reduced sea ice has fostered a boom in phytoplankton, which in turn has helped keep the bowheads well fed.
A planned section in this year’s report card from Indigenous experts on climate change and subsistence hunting had to be postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the report’s writers emphasized the need to continue building bridges. As Craig George (North Slope Bureau of Wildlife Management) and colleagues put it, “The scientific collaborations between Indigenous peoples and researchers are critically important to both high-quality science, conservation, and arguably the survival of these human societies in a changing Arctic.”
If there’s one thing that 15 years of Arctic Report Cards has made clear, it’s not to expect any kind of long-term pause in the region’s epochal transformation. Since 1900, the region has warmed twice as much as the entire planet, and that trend has only accelerated since 2000.
Based on projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other sources, James Overland, of the NOAA Pacific Marine Environment Laboratory, said he expects to see an Arctic by 2040 or 2050 that’s up to 5°C warmer than in preindustrial times.
“That’s pretty much locked in. What we do now will greatly impact what happens in the second half of the century,” said Overland.
According to the report card’s executive summary, “In 2006 it was clear that the Arctic was changing. However, the complexity of change was less understood and the rapidity of change that would occur in just a few years … was unanticipated.”
Alaska climate specialist Rick Thoman, of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, hit a similar note at the press conference: “Nearly everything in the Arctic, from ice and snow to human activity, is changing so quickly that there is no reason to believe that much of anything in 30 years will be as it is today.”