Things aren’t looking good for the Arctic. This year was the warmest on record for the region, with the peak ice extent occurring 15 days earlier than average – the lowest extent since records began. In addition to the rising air temperatures and decreased ice cover (not just of sea ice, but also of Greenland’s ice sheets), there have also been observable changes in animal behavior and plant cover in the region.
These changes have all been documented in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) report card on the state of the Arctic.
The average air temperature in the Arctic was 1.3°C (2.3°F) warmer between October 2014 and September 2015, when compared to the 1981 to 2010 average. But when compared to the 1900s average, this figure more than doubles to 3°C (5.4°F) warmer. Not only that, but scientists have found that most of the ice forming in the Arctic is only one year old, meaning that more and more is melting each year.
They also document how over 50 percent of Greenland’s ice sheet melted during 2015. This year, the annual report was compiled by over 70 researchers from 11 different countries.
Average temperature from October 2014-September 2015 compared to the 1981-2010 average (top). Annual temperatures for the Arctic compared to the whole globe since 1900 (bottom). NOAA/Climate.gov
“Warming is happening more than twice as fast in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world,” Rick Spinrad, NOAA's chief scientific officer, told a press briefing this week. “We know this is due to climate change and its impacts are creating major challenges for Arctic communities who depend on the region for sustenance and cultural identity. We also know what happens in the Arctic, doesn’t stay in the Arctic. Changes in the region affect climate globally and security internationally.”
The steadily increasing temperature is also causing changes in fish populations. Cold-loving species of Arctic fish are being pushed out of their native ranges and are having to move further north, while larger predatory species like cod, beaked redfish and long rough dab, are moving in from the warmer Atlantic. These larger fish cause further harm to the smaller native species that normally inhabit the region by voraciously preying on them, adding to the pressures they face from the warming waters.
Walruses are having to haul out on land more frequently as the sea ice melts. Polar Cruises/Flickr CC BY 2.0
These environmental shifts have also been impacting the larger inhabitants of the Arctic, including walruses. The marine mammals usually haul out onto ice floes in order to mate and breed, where they are protected from storms and predators, but with the shrinking of the sea ice, researchers have found the animals are spending more and more time on solid ground.
In recent years, groups tens of thousands strong have gathered on spits of land north-west of Alaska. This has led to increased mortality of calves, as the animals panic on the land, causing stampedes that kill the young. This also means that the females now have to travel around 177 kilometers (110 miles) to the feeding grounds.
Main image: NOAA Photo Library/Flickr CC By 2.0