This October has seen anomalously warm weather in the Arctic, at a period of the year when it should be heading towards its coldest. Usually, during the winter months, the temperature drops and the sea ice starts to thicken and grow in extent, but it appears that the region is currently running 20°C (36°F) warmer than it should be.
This, as if I really need to mention, is not good news. The whole Arctic ecosystem is driven by the fluctuating extent of sea ice. From polar bears that rely on it as hunting grounds during the harsh winter months to the seals they prey on using it as pupping grounds to give birth, the lives of the animals and the ice are inextricably linked. If the ice cannot form as it should during the winter, then things are not looking good for the following year.
The Arctic sea ice is loosely split into “young” thin ice that forms and melts each year and “old” thick ice that usually persists throughout the year, even during the height of the Arctic summer. The thicker the ice – generally speaking – the older it is. A worrying trend, however, has emerged over the past decade that has seen the extent of this older ice shrink more and more as the air and ocean temperatures have risen. It’s now likely we will soon see ice-free summers, where there is no ice older than a year persisting for 12 months.
While the entire planet may have only warmed on average by roughly 1°C (1.8°F), the far North is a different picture entirely. Known as “polar amplification,” the Arctic has been warming on average at twice the rate of the rest of the world, with some parts of Alaska recording temperatures 11°C (19.8°F) above the average for that region at that time of year. Things are seemingly, however, only getting worse.
Data coming from the Arctic as it enters winter are defying all expectations. “Despite onset of #PolarNight, temperatures near #NorthPole increasing. Extraordinary situation right now in #Arctic, w/record low #seaice,” tweeted Daniel Swain, a climate scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles. By this point in the year, sea ice should be reaching its maximum extent, but it is currently way short of what's expected and not following the usual pattern in any way.
How this will affect the region in the coming months is completely unknown. This is an unexplored frontier, something that has never been seen in our lifetime and something that could have a huge impact on not only the Arctic, but the entire planet.
[H/T: The Washington Post]