Arctic warming “twice as fast” as anywhere else on Earth

Sea ice levels showing signs of recovery, but rising temperatures spell radical change for polar region

(Pic: Gazprom)

(Pic: Gazprom)

By Ed King

Air temperatures are rising, sea ice is shrinking and the number of days when it snows are falling.

These are some of the key findings in the annual Arctic Report Card produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a US federal agency.

Produced by 63 scientists in 13 countries, the report says the region is undergoing dramatic changes, citing air temperatures that are doubling twice as fast as the rest of the Earth as a major find.

“Arctic warming is setting off changes that affect people and the environment in this fragile region, and has broader effects beyond the Arctic on global security, trade, and climate,” said Craig McLean, acting assistant administrator for the NOAA Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research

Sea ice in September was the sixth lowest since 1979, snowfall was below the long term average between 1981-2010.

Melt of the Greenland ice sheet, which contributes to rising sea levels, took place over 90% of the summer and was above the long term average.

However scientists say the thickness of sea ice showed a “modest increase” while the total mass of the Greenland ice sheet was “essentially unchanged”.

And despite some projections that Arctic sea ice would disappear altogether, it seems to have recovered slightly since the extreme loss years of 2007 and 2012.

Martin Jeffries, editor of the Arctic Report Card, said marine and terrestrial ecosystems were showing sign of strain and change as the region heated up.

“Given consistent projections of continued warming temperatures, we can expect to see continued widespread and sustained change throughout the Arctic environmental system,” he said.

Scientists are increasingly certain 2014 will be the hottest year since the 1880s, and possibly in Europe since the 1500s.

This week the UK Met Office announced that 2015 could be warmer than 2014. This was linked to the warmth in the Arctic, tropical Pacific Ocean and increases in greenhouse gas concentrations, it said in a statement.

Political hot-spot

The Arctic has assumed increased geopolitical importance since the region started warming, opening up previously impassable sea routes and offering explorers the chance to look for oil, gas and other minerals.

Earlier this year a senior official at the NATO military alliance told RTCC he feared Russia would exploit its rapidly changing environment, reopening old Soviet bases and increasing activity.

“When you have a situation where climate change opens up a new strategic paradigm, that’s the sort of thing that an organisation like NATO will take an interest in,” deputy assistant secretary general Jamie Shea said.

US officials say they will make climate change a priority when they assume control of the Arctic Council in 2015, a loose coalition of states with interests in the region.

“Unlike in Las Vegas, what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic,” said Admiral Robert Papp, US special representative to the region.

Tumbling oil prices have ensured parts of the region will remain untouched for now. Companies need prices of at least $85 per barrel to make drilling in such a hostile environment economically viable. This week they fell below $60.

On Wednesday Chevron announced it was suspending plans to drill in seas off Canada’s Arctic coastline due to “economic uncertainty in the industry”.

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