'Expect Surprises': Records-Breaking Year Portends Vastly Changing Arctic

Most recent annual Arctic Report Card shows widespread changes in Arctic as world warms

Common Dreams

A series of record-setting events in the Arctic in 2012 foreshadow a dramatically different environment to come, one that will be greener and warmer, according to the most recent Arctic Report Card released Wednesday.

"The Arctic is changing in both predictable and unpredictable ways, so we must expect surprises," Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA administrator, told reporters. "The Arctic is an extremely sensitive part of the world and with the warming scientists have observed, we see the results with less snow and sea ice, greater ice sheet melt and changing vegetation."

Among the records noted in the report from NOAA representing 141 authors from 15 countries is the sea ice extent. September 2012 saw record minimum Arctic sea ice extent, 18% lower than the previous record from 2007. The year also saw the largest sea ice decline between the March maximum and September minimum extents.

Snow cover amounts also hit a record in the year, with a new record low June snow cover extent (SCE) for the Northern Hemisphere marked.

"The Arctic is changing in both predictable and unpredictable ways, so we must expect surprises"
-NOAA's Jane Lubchenco
And as more snow and ice melt, a "positive feedback" is created, and they "exemplify a major source of the momentum for continuing change," added Martin Jeffries, Report Card co-editor and Arctic science adviser, Office of Naval Research and research professor at University of Alaska-Fairbanks. There are less reflective surfaces and more dark surfaces of land and ocean, which in turn absorb sunlight and heat, therefore enabling more melting.

The NOAA details other major findings from the report, including:

  • Vegetation: The tundra is getting greener and there's more above-ground growth. During the period of 2003-2010, the length of the growing season increased through much of the Arctic.
  • Wildlife & food chain: In northernmost Europe, the Arctic fox is close to extinction and vulnerable to the encroaching Red fox. Additionally, recent measurements of massive phytoplankton blooms below the summer sea ice suggest that earlier estimates of biological production at the bottom of the marine food chain may have been ten times lower than was occurring.
  • Ocean: Sea surface temperatures in summer continue to be warmer than the long-term average at the growing ice-free margins, while upper ocean temperature and salinity show significant interannual variability with no clear trends.
  • Weather: Most of the notable weather activity in fall and winter occurred in the sub-Arctic due to a strong positive North Atlantic Oscillation, expressed as the atmospheric pressure difference between weather stations in the Azores and Iceland. There were three extreme weather events including an unusual cold spell in late January to early February 2012 across Eurasia, and two record storms characterized by very low central pressures and strong winds near western Alaska in November 2011 and north of Alaska in August 2012.

Jeffries adds an ominous prediction that the retreating snow and ice in the region will bring increased talk of "natural resource exploitation."

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NOAA released this video to accompany its Arctic Report Card 2012:

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