Rising Arctic temps cause sea ice to melt at alarming level, threatening habitats and cultures

“Unprecedented” warming and “exceptionally low levels” of sea ice are bringing rapid, dramatic and disruptive changes to the Arctic, according to a new report released Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“A lot of people think of the Arctic as being a faraway place, but the loss of ice is affecting people now – it’s changing peoples’ lives,” said Don Perovich, a Dartmouth College geophysicist who contributed to the report. “It isn’t just a bunch of cold statistics.”

NOAA said that this years-long pattern of climate warming and ice loss in the Arctic is likely to continue, threatening habitats, fisheries and local cultures, with far-reaching global implications.

Especially troubling is that the Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet: In fact, Arctic air temperatures were some 3.4 degrees above average in 2019, and were the second-warmest since records began in 1900. 

The report also said that ice was once seen in the Bering Sea for about eight months of the year, but now it’s only around for three or four months. And the Bering Sea has been nearly ice-free for two winters in a row. 

“Overall, the Arctic sea ice cover has transformed from an older, thicker and stronger ice mass in the 1980s to a younger, thinner, more fragile ice mass in recent years,” said the report.

In this Aug. 16, 2019, file photo, large icebergs float away as the sun rises near Kulusuk, Greenland. Rising temperatures and diminished snow and ice cover in the Arctic are imperiling ecosystems, fisheries and local cultures, according to a report issued Tuesday, Dec. 10 by NOAA.

The warmer water has caused marine species to move farther north, the report said, impacting vital commercial fisheries and indigenous subsistence harvests. 

For the first time, the U.S. agency’s annual “Arctic Report Card” includes observations from indigenous peoples who hunt and fish in the region.

“The Bering Sea is undergoing changes that have never been observed in our lifetimes, but were foreseen by our elders decades ago,” wrote 10 representatives of the region’s more than 70 indigenous communities. “Global climate change is one of many forces beyond our control that are threatening the entire Bering Sea food chain, of which we are a part.” 

“We look for the return of the sea ice every fall season,” they wrote. “The ice provides access to seals, whales, walrus, fish, crabs and other marine life for our subsistence harvests.”

SOURCE NOAA 2019 Arctic Report Card

The report also found that Arctic Canada’s breeding population of ivory gulls has declined 70% since the 1980s. This is likely due to loss of sea ice as well contamination in the food chain.

The speed and trajectory of many of the changes sweeping the Arctic are “occurring faster than anticipated,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, acting NOAA administrator.

Now in its 14th year, NOAA began its annual Arctic report in 2006. This year’s peer-reviewed report was compiled by 81 scientists from 12 different countries and issued during a briefing at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting in San Francisco.

Also Tuesday, a scientific paper published in the journal Nature found that Greenland is losing ice seven times faster than it did in the 1990s. If this trend continues, some 40 million more people around the world could be exposed to coastal flooding by the year 2100, the study said.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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