Since 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has issued an annual peer-reviewed assessment of the Arctic. The tenth assessment was released on December 13, 2016. Arctic Report Card 2016 is remarkable for two reasons.
First, so many records were broken or ranked second in each respective observational period (see Table). The second reason is that change is happening so fast and with such great magnitude that NOAA included an addendum to log changes leading up to the report release. Typically the Arctic Report Card covers a year of observations from October through September – the latter being the month when the summer sea ice extent minimum occurs. The addendum included information about October and November 2016, such as the lowest ice extent observed over the satellite record for mid-October through late-November 2016. Likely contributing factors were unusually warm air brought up from mid-latitudes and sea surface temperatures near the ice margins that were far above normal for this time of year. All of the jaw dropping (at least to this scientist) charts and statistics in this report add up to multiple lines of evidence – ‘vital signs’ – that point to a diagnosis. As stated in the report: “Persistent warming trend and loss of sea ice are triggering extensive Arctic changes.” We know what the primary cause of the persistent warming trend globally is – burning coal, oil, gas and deforestation. The Paris Climate Agreement aims to put the breaks on that global trend.
Check out this brief video showing changes in Arctic sea ice, air and sea surface temperatures, Greenland ice sheet mass, parasites from lower latitudes reaching small mammals (e.g. shrews) and ocean waters becoming more corrosive to the base of the marine food web.
Beyond the charts: Yupik word for type of sea ice that is extremely rare to observe today
The report card includes a story recounted by Brendan Kelly, Executive Director of the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH) that gets to the heart of the jaw-dropping charts of plummeting sea ice age for greater proportions of the Arctic. Sea ice thickness, in general, increases with ice age (i.e. how many years the sea ice persists).
He learned dozens of Yupik words for sea ice from Conrad Oozeva, who is from St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. The Yupik word for thick, dark, weathered ice – tagneghneq – refers to a type of sea ice that is extremely rare to observe today. Passing on a language to the next generation involves context; it could be difficult to explain the meaning of a word that can’t be easily seen. This poses a risk to cultural heritage. While many are taking steps to preserve endangered Alaskan languages, over a hundred countries or parties have already ratified the Paris Climate Agreement. A significant reduction in emissions behind the global warming trend could mean less warming in the Arctic, and less impact on sea ice. There may still be hope for tagneghneq.