The North Pole is getting wetter.
For a long time, scientists were unable to identify trends in the amount of snow, rain and sleet in the region, but that has now changed.
A University of Alaska-led study in Fairbanks has found a statistically significant increase in precipitation on the order of 10% to 15% since 1950.
Wetter everywhere, and in all seasons, with a shift from snow to rain at the edge of the Arctic where temperatures are highest.
October 2021 through September 2022 was the third wettest year in the past 72 years.
The assessment is contained in the Arctic Report Card 2022, an annual publication of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa).
This is a peer-reviewed paper that has charted climate impacts in the Arctic – one of the fastest warming regions on Earth – over the past 17 years.
It tracks key Arctic indicators, or “vital signs,” and this year adds precipitation to this list for the first time.
Prof John Walsh of the University of Alaska Fairbanks said the paucity of gauging stations in the Arctic, especially over the ocean, has always made it extremely difficult to assess some weather trends. But by using two independent analytical approaches – using the available data and a global climate model – it was now possible to get a meaningful picture.
“We also looked at trends in heavy precipitation events,” he explains.
For example, Utqiagvik in northern Alaska had its wettest day on record last July.
“In most parts of the Arctic, there are positive trends in the years’ heaviest one-day and five-day precipitation amounts. This is especially true in the subarctic North Atlantic, while the number of consecutive wet days is increasing for many years of the central Arctic. “
Freezing rain is becoming an increasing problem. Alaska’s second-largest city, Fairbanks, recently experienced a 35mm drop. The problem is the ice pack left behind, which makes the roads more dangerous and makes it difficult for wildlife to forage until the spring thaw comes.
Other complications include rapid melting of heavier amounts of snow, leading to flooding.
“The infrastructure that’s in place, the drainage systems in the villages, in urban areas, is designed for the past,” Professor Walsh said. “And if we get new extremes of precipitation, the infrastructure won’t be able to handle all that falls.”
Warmer temperatures mean more moisture evaporates from the ocean, which will eventually precipitate and appear as snow or rain. But the higher temperatures also melt the sea ice cover, exposing more ocean to evaporation, leading to more precipitation.
“The wolf is in the house,” said Noaa administrator Rick Spinrad.
By that I mean the climate effects we are seeing in Alaska: melting permafrost causing roads to warp; melting ice forcing entire native communities to relocate; warming waters forcing fish to migrate, with ripple effects for the entire Alaskan fishing industry; fire seasons that last much longer than ever – that’s just a snapshot of what parts of the lower 48 (U.S. states) can expect to see in the very near future.
Jackie Qataliña Schaeffer is director of climate initiatives for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. She said: “Arctic Indigenous people are in close contact with our environment. And our security depends on knowing how to operate on land and at sea.
“The distribution, quality, thickness and timing of ice on the ocean, lakes and rivers drives nearly every aspect of life in the Arctic, from boating to whaling, to seal hunting, to the safety of fishing and foraging.”