The Arctic Is Experiencing Its Earliest Ever Snowmelt

A polar bear shelters her cub in Arctic snow. outdoorsman/Shutterstock

Although it is only May, summer has already arrived in the Arctic. As confirmed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Barrow Observatory, located at the northernmost point of the United States in Alaska, snow there is already melting thanks to soaring temperatures.

The first signs of snowmelt were detected on May 13, the earliest date in 73 years of record-keeping, and trouncing the previous record set in 2002 by over a week. The fact that this is happening so early 515 kilometers (320 miles) north of the Arctic Circle is astonishing in the worst possible manner.

“It’s like a train wreck you can’t look away from,” wildlife biologist George Divoky said in a statement. “You never know what you’re going to see and this year’s as big a mystery as any.”

This series of images from April 1 to 24, 2016, depict recent fracturing and movement of sea ice near Alaska. National Snow and Ice Data Center

Alaskan temperatures have recently been 6.1°C (11°F) above the seasonal average, and its effects are showing. Not only is the snow cover being dramatically reduced already, but preliminary data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center indicates that this year will set the record for minimum winter sea ice extent.

“It looks like late June or early July right now,” David Douglas, research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, noted. “Polar bears are having to make their decisions about how to move and where to go on thinner ice pack that’s mostly first-year ice.”

When it comes to climate change, we’re great at smashing records. January of this year was the hottest on record, followed by February, then March, then April, thanks to both an incredibly strong El Niño event and our inability to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we pump into the atmosphere. If you were to make a bet, you’d be daft not to go all-in on 2016 being the hottest year overall since records began in 1880.

The ice in the Northern Hemisphere is feeling the brunt of this unseasonable warmth. A recent report revealed that Greenland’s Ice Sheet, roughly the size of Mexico, is melting ludicrously early, with 12 percent of it already thawing by mid-April. This melting extent is normal for mid-June, so it’s occurring several months early – spring is being replaced by summer.

An intensely warm winter and spring are melting climate records across Alaska. NOAA

The Greenland Ice Sheet has shed about 3.5 billion tonnes (3.9 billion tons) of ice since 2003, and this early April melting could be a sign that the annual rate of ice shedding is due to increase. Although the early snowmelt in the Arctic isn’t directly related to the Greenland Ice Sheet – whose accelerating disintegration directly contributes to sea level rise – it is nevertheless a sure sign of a warmer, more hostile world to come.

Disconcertingly, early snow and ice melting in or near the Arctic Circle also suggests that the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost, a widely acknowledged reservoir of locked-up greenhouse gases, will experience progressive melting too. Indeed, a recent study revealed that the extent of permafrost melt is vaster than it has ever been.

Several signs point towards this permafrost-based greenhouse gas time bomb going off if nothing is done to mitigate it. Sadly, this early Arctic snow and ice melt, likely due to both El Niño and man-made climate change, is yet another indication as to how our efforts are, at present, failing.

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