The Arctic is in trouble. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have just released their latest annual Arctic Report Card created by more than 80 scientists from 12 nations, and it highlights some worrying trends at the very top of our planet.
Although surface air temperature in the icy north wasn’t as high as last year, it was still the second-highest recorded since the start of the 20th century. Meanwhile, not just the air but the waters of the Arctic are much warmer than they should be; in August 2017, the surface temperatures of the Barents and Chukchi seas were 4°C warmer than they were from 1982 to 2010.
And beneath the surface, changes in primary productivity are also occurring. Since 2003, primary productivity in the Barents Sea and Eurasian Arctic regions has continued to rise. Primary productivity is the rate at which organisms like phytoplankton and cyanobacteria turn energy into organic substances through reactions like photosynthesis. An increase in this might sound like a good thing, but actually it tends to be associated with earlier sea ice breakup in the spring and summer.
Unfortunately, the Arctic seems to be losing its sea ice at an alarming rate. Maximum winter sea ice levels in March were the lowest ever recorded. Meanwhile, sea ice cover is getting thinner and thinner, and most of it comprises new, young ice.
Back in 1985, 45 percent of Arctic sea ice was over a year old. Today, this proportion is just 21 percent – it’s more than halved in just over 30 years. According to NOAA, “sea ice more than four years old has nearly disappeared”.
In addition to this, Arctic permafrost – frozen soil, rock, or sediment that stays frozen for years – is experiencing record warming. The Arctic’s tundra is also getting greener.
However, NOAA found that cooler spring and summer temperatures in the Arctic this year did lead to a rebound in snow cover in the Eurasian Arctic. What’s more, it also meant that summer sea ice loss was lower, and the Greenland ice sheet experienced a below-average amount of melting.
Nevertheless, NOAA is quick to point out that these are anomalies and that a warmer Arctic appears to be the “new normal”. They also note that the Arctic “shows no sign of returning to [the] reliably frozen region of past decades.”
Changes in the Arctic environment have profound effects on unique creatures like polar bears and walruses, which rely on ample sea ice to catch their prey. Meanwhile, NOAA notes that the effects “disproportionately affect the people of northern communities”, like the Inuit, who are reliant on sufficient ice and snow to build igloos, hunt seals, and fish.
"Villages are being washed away, particularly in the North American Arctic – creating some of the first climate refugees," Dr Jeremy Mathis, director of NOAA’s Arctic Researcher Program, told BBC News.
And while the effects of climate change will harm these people the most, it will impact all of us. “What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic; it affects the rest of the planet," acting NOAA chief Timothy Gallaudet told ABC News. "The Arctic has huge influence on the world at large."
Changes in the Arctic can directly affect the food we rely on by altering the dynamics of fisheries. Meanwhile, alterations in sea ice and temperature can affect the jet stream, which influences weather patterns across the globe.
Arctic conditions are only expected to worsen, so it is essential that we act now. Many organizations and governments are already working to protect this unique ecosystem. Just recently, a number of global powers agreed to stop fishing in the Arctic over the next 16 years to allow scientists to find out more about the impacts of the quickly thawing ice.
So, although it will never return to its original pristine state, there is still a glimmer of hope for our planet’s frozen north.