Arctic region sees unprecedented warming in 2016


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NASA scientists surveying Arctic melt ponds during the summer months of 2011. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 14, 2016

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) presented its annual Arctic Report Card on Tuesday, and there’s no cause for celebration.

Scientists say that the Arctic experienced its warmest year ever recorded, and temperatures in the region are rising at “astonishing” rates. Jeremy Mathis is director of NOAA’s Arctic research program, he said, “Rarely have we seen the Arctic show a clearer, stronger or more pronounced signal of persistent warming and its cascading effects on the environment than this year.”

Scientists explained that warming which used to only have an effect in the summer months is now affecting the Arctic year-round. Mathis added, “The Arctic as a whole is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the planet.”

The report said that the warming of the Arctic can be explained by long-term increases in carbon dioxide emissions and air temperatures as well as natural seasonal and regional variability. These effects are compounded by the feedback loops in the Arctic climate system. Before human-induced climate change, the Arctic region remained cool because large areas of ice and snow reflected much of the sun’s rays back into space. Now that large areas of the ice and snow are melting away, the sun’s rays absorb into the dark land masses and ocean water, causing temperatures to rise more quickly.

Mathis said, “What happens in the Arctic, doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”

He explained that warm temperatures in the Arctic could be influencing jet stream patterns in the Northern hemisphere, potentially causing extreme weather in the United States.

Rafe Pomerance, a member of the Polar Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences, was not involved with the report card. He said,“The 2016 Arctic Report Card further documents the unraveling of the Arctic and the crumbling of the pillars of the global climate system that the Arctic maintains.”

Wild reindeer shrink in size and number


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A recent study found that the largest herd of wild reindeer in the world’s population is decreasing rapidly due to warming temperatures in northern Russia. (Hermanni Tommonen/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 13, 2016

The wild reindeer, a holiday icon, is facing sharp population decline due to climate change.

Andrey Petrov, director of the University of Northern Iowa Arctic Center, led a study of the largest reindeer herd in the world, located on the Taimyr Peninsula in the northernmost tip of Russia. Petrov’s work shows that the herd’s population has dropped from 1 million reindeer in 2000 to about 600,000 today. Scientists say rising temperatures in the region may be the cause.

Petrov said, “Climate change is at least one of the variables.” He added, “We know in the last two decades that we have had an increase in temperatures of about 1.5C overall. And that definitely impacts migration patterns.” During his presentation at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco on Monday, Petrov explained that the longer distance the animals have to travel in order to find cold weather is increasing calf mortality. When the reindeer have to travel further and to higher elevations in the winter, it is also more difficult to find land bearing food in the summer months. Petrov also explained that the region’s rivers are growing wider as ice in the area melts, causing more deaths as the herd attempts to swim across bodies of water.

“Reindeer are tremendously important for biodiversity – they are part of the Arctic food chain and without them other species would be in trouble,” he said. Petrov added, “Thousands and thousands of people rely on wild reindeer; it is the basis of their subsistence economy. So it’s about human sustainability too.”

Wild reindeer are also shrinking in size. Scottish and Norwegian researchers recently released a study which found that the average weight of reindeer on Svalbard, a chain of islands north of Norway, has fallen from 121 lb. in the 1990’s to 106 lb. today. Professor Steve Albon, an ecologist at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, said, “Warmer summers are great for reindeer but winters are getting increasingly tough.” The researchers explained that less snowfall during warmer winters means that the reindeer have to traverse sheets of ice, making it harder for the animals to reach food sources.

In contrast to the Tamiyr population, the Svalbard herd is growing in size.”So far we have more but smaller reindeer,” Albon said. He added that the growing population means competition for food has become more intense.