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"The world from our childhood is no longer here": Report details drastic changes as Arctic warms

Arctic report paints dire climate picture

The Arctic is increasingly at risk as temperatures warm and sea ice melts away, NOAA warns in its annual report card on the state of this crucial ecosystem. At the end of a very dense, very lengthy report loaded with scores of scientific stats, the seemingly abstract science of climate change collides with the sobering humanity of its impacts, with the words: "The world from our childhood is no longer here." 

In that one sentence, quoted from an essay titled "Voices from the Front Lines of a Changing Bering Sea," ten indigenous tribe members sum up the central message of the report — the fundamental and systemic change threatening their homeland. 

The report documents rapidly rising temperatures, vanishing sea ice and thawing permafrost. Its scientific findings are echoed in the words of these keen observers of nature, who write, "The Bering Sea is undergoing changes that have never been observed in our lifetimes, but were foreseen by our elders decades ago."

The Arctic climate is changing faster than any other place on Earth. And while the changes are felt most dramatically above 60 degrees north latitude, the ripple effects are felt all across the U.S. and other parts of the world in the form of magnified extreme weather. 

Dr. Judah Cohen of MIT studies how changing Arctic conditions impact weather patterns in the mid-latitudes. As a specific example, Cohen explains, "There is a remarkable relationship between Arctic temperatures and severe winter weather in the northeastern U.S. The risk for severe winter weather is greatest when the Arctic is at its warmest."    

Since 1900, the Arctic has warmed more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit — a remarkable amount, two to three times the global average. According to NOAA's Arctic Report Card, the past year's Arctic air temperatures tied for the second highest with 2015-16, and temperatures for the past six years (2014 to 2019) all exceeded previous records since 1900.

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Temperature and Sea Ice Extent trends in the Arctic since the late 1970s. Courtesy Zach Labe / @Zlabe

According to Rick Thoman, a longtime Alaska climate scientist, in just the past 50 years mainland Alaska winter temperatures have surged 6 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit. 

This dramatic warming is rapidly melting sea ice, which typically acts as a cooler of sorts, regulating the Arctic and keeping it cold. But in the past 40 years, the loss of Arctic sea ice extent has increased by 50 percent relative to average values, as measured at its yearly lowest point in the month of September. In September of this year, sea ice cover was tied for the second lowest in the 41-year satellite record. 

The oldest, thickest ice in the Arctic Ocean, greater than 4 years old, now makes up just a small fraction of the sea ice cover. In fact, in March 1985, 33% of the ice cover was very old ice, but in March of this year old ice constituted only 1.2%. This thinner ice is more fragile, making it easier for storms to break it apart. 

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The amount of Arctic sea ice that is over 4 years old has declined sharply. Newer ice is thinner and more vulnerable. NOAA

While the melting and breakup of ice may not seem like a big deal, its significance is profound. That's because the mirror-like ice surface reflects most sunlight back into space. But less ice exposes darker water, which absorbs 10 times more light and accelerates Arctic heating. This feedback loop is enhancing a phenomenon called Arctic amplification.

A recent study illustrates just how significant Arctic amplification can be. In a future scenario keeping global temperature rise to under 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F) — the goal of the Paris climate agreement — the Arctic will experience 13 degrees Fahrenheit of warming during winter. This all but ensures the extreme record low sea ice experienced on the Bering Sea and across much of the Arctic in recent years will become a typical yearly event.

The heating is not just limited to air temperatures. August mean sea surface temperatures in 2019 were up to 13 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 1982–2010 average in most of the waters, like the Bering Sea, which lie near the Arctic's perimeter.

Greenland's disappearing ice sheet worries scientists: "One degree is everything"

CBS News asked one of the authors of the 2019 Arctic Report Card, Dr. James Overland, what he considers the most stunning finding of this year's report. He replied, "The lack of sea ice formation in the winter Bering Sea is beyond experience and its effect has cascaded through the ecosystem."

These startling changes in the ocean are causing indigenous people in the region, who depend on a reliable ecosystem, great concern for the health of their fisheries. Recently they have noticed changes in fish migration timing and patterns. The Arctic Report Card finds that in the past two years, cod and pollock were found hundreds of miles north of their typical homes.

On land, conditions are changing so fast that the icy ground, called permafrost, which supports infrastructure and people, is literally giving way. "We are seeing coastal landslides, large sinkholes and methane bubbling up through our ponds in summer," the indigenous authors write. It's that last part, methane release, or greenhouse gases in general, that extends far beyond the Arctic. 

That's because permafrost soils, composed partially of carbon-rich organic matter, contain at least two times the amount of carbon than there is currently in the atmosphere. Because of warming, permafrost is no longer a net sink for carbon; it has become a net emitter of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Dr. Ted Schuur is the author of the permafrost section of the report. He says these emission signals are "kind of like a 'canary in a coal mine' telling us that permafrost ecosystems are out of historical balance, and are starting to cause climate change to happen faster." This is yet another feedback which accelerates Arctic amplification.

That acceleration is vividly illustrated by melting water cascading into the ocean from Greenland.  According to a separate study released Tuesday, Greenland is shedding ice seven times faster than in the 1990s. This pace is on the high end of the warming scenarios laid out by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). As a result, the study estimates that 40 million more people worldwide will be exposed to coastal flooding by 2100, for a total of 400 million.

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Greenland ice melt in 2019 (in red), compared to the record year of 2012 (in purple). NOAA

The Arctic Report Card makes clear that what happens in the Arctic will not stay in the Arctic — the changes reverberate all around the world and will only accelerate as the globe continues to heat. But the ones most at risk right now are the indigenous people who count on knowledge passed through the generations. 

"The world from our childhood is no longer here. Our young children today are seeing so much change, but it is difficult for them to understand the pace. We are losing so much of our culture and connections to the resources from our ocean and lands," they write.

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