As humans warm the planet, the once reliably frigid and frozen Arctic is becoming wetter and stormier, with shifts in climate and seasons forcing local communities, wildlife and ecosystems to adapt, scientists said Tuesday in an annual review of the region.
Even though 2022 was only the sixth warmest year on record in the Arctic, researchers this year saw plenty of new signs of how the region is changing.
For example, a September heat wave in Greenland caused the most severe melting of the island’s ice sheet for that time of year in more than four decades of continuous satellite monitoring. In 2021, a heat wave in August had caused it to rain for the first time on the top of the ice sheet.
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“Insights about the circumpolar region are now more relevant than ever to the conversation about our warming planet,” said Richard Spinrad, administrator of the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We are seeing the effects of climate change first in polar regions.”
Temperatures in the Arctic Circle have risen much faster than the rest of the planet, changing the region’s climate to one defined less by sea ice, snow and permafrost and more by open water, rain and green landscapes .
Over the past four decades, the region has warmed four times faster than the global average, not two or three times as often reported, scientists in Finland said this year. Some parts of the Arctic are warming up to seven times faster than the world, they said.
Nearly 150 experts from 11 countries put together this year’s assessment of Arctic conditions, the Arctic Report Card, which NOAA has produced since 2006. This year’s report card was released Tuesday in Chicago at a conference of the American Geophysical Union, the Society of Earth, Atmospheric and Oceanic Scientists.
Warming at the top of the Earth is raising global sea levels, changing the way heat and water circulate in the oceans and could even affect extreme weather events like heatwaves and rainfall, scientists say. But Arctic communities are the first to feel the impact.
“Our homes, livelihoods and physical safety are threatened by the rapidly melting ice, thawing permafrost, increasing heat, wildfires and other changes,” said Jackie Qatalina Schaeffer, an author of a chapter in the report on local communities, the director of climate initiatives for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and an Inupiaq from Kotzebue, Alaska.
Between October 2021 and September, air temperatures over Arctic countries were the sixth warmest since 1900, the report card said, noting that the seven warmest years were the last seven. Rising temperatures are causing plants, shrubs and grasses to grow in parts of the Arctic tundra, and by 2022, levels of green vegetation were the fourth highest since 2000, particularly in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, northern Quebec and central Siberia.
A new chapter in this year’s report focuses on Arctic precipitation. Measuring snow, rain and ice is difficult there: there are not many weather meters in the northernmost corners of the region. Those attending may not be able to accurately measure the snow due to windy conditions.
Instead, scientists have begun to combine direct measurements with advanced computer models to get a more complete picture. These methods have given them the confidence to say that precipitation levels in the Arctic have increased significantly since the mid-20th century. This year was the region’s third wettest since 1950, the report said.
However, due to warmer temperatures, additional snow does not necessarily remain on the ground. Snow accumulation in the Arctic was above average during the winter of 2021-22, the assessment said. But by June, snow cover in the North American Arctic was the second lowest on record. In the Eurasian Arctic, it was third lowest.
Three major factors may be increasing precipitation in different parts of the Arctic, said John Walsh, a scientist at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and an author of the report. First, warmer air can hold more moisture. Second, as sea ice retreats, storms can suck up more open ocean water.
Sea ice indicators recovered this year from near-record lows in 2021, but they were still below the long-term average, the assessment found. March is typically when the ice is at its greatest each year, September at its lowest. At both points this year, ice levels were among the lowest since satellites have taken reliable readings.
The third factor is that storms move over warmer waters before they reach the Arctic, giving them more energy, Walsh said. The remnants of Typhoon Merbok traveled across unusually warm waters in the North Pacific in September before battering communities along more than 1,000 miles of the Alaskan coast.
The Greenland Ice Sheet has been losing ice for the past 25 years and this year was no different. But what caught scientists’ attention was an extraordinary burst of melting in September, the kind of event that would normally be seen in the middle of summer.
In early September, a high-pressure system brought warm, wet air that pushed temperatures in parts of Greenland as much as 36 degrees Fahrenheit above normal for that time of year. According to the report card, more than a third of the ice sheet is melting. Later that month, the remnants of Hurricane Fiona passed over the island, causing further melting of more than 15% of the ice sheet.
The seasons intermingle in the Arctic, said Matthew Druckenmiller, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, and an editor of the report. Last week, the mercury hit 40 degrees Fahrenheit in Alaska’s northern community of Utqiagvik, breaking winter records.
“At this time of year, the sun doesn’t even come up” in that part of Alaska, Druckenmiller said.
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