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'The Changes Are Really Accelerating': Alaska at Record Warm While Greenland Sees Major Ice Melt

"The numbers needing relocation will grow, the costs are going up, and people's lives and cultural practices will be impacted."

The Sawyer Glacier in Alaska, July 2016. The Arctic is enduring unprecedented warming this year, affecting Alaska and Greenland specifically.

The Sawyer Glacier in Alaska, July 2016. The Arctic is enduring unprecedented warming this year, affecting Alaska and Greenland specifically. (Photo: Ian Keating, Flickr)

The climate crisis is rapidly warming the Arctic, and the effects are being felt from Alaska to Greenland.

The northernmost point on the planet is heating up more quickly than any other region in the world. The reason for this warming is ice–albedo feedback: as ice melts it opens up land and sea to the sun, which then absorb more heat that would have been bounced off by the ice, leading to more warming. It's a vicious circle of warmth that's changing the environment at the north pole. 

In Alaska, the crisis led this year to the warmest spring on record for the state; one city, Akiak, may turn into an island due to swelling riverbanks and erosion exacerbated by thawing permafrost and ice melt. Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Research Center scientist Susan Natali told The Guardian that what's happening in Akiak is just an indicator of the danger posed to Alaska by the climate crisis.

"The changes are really accelerating in Alaska," said Natali. 

Thawing will result in people losing their homes—in cities like Akiak, it already has—and, Natali warned, eventually the scope of the problem will be beyond the capabilities of the U.S. government to handle. 

"It's a real challenge because in the U.S. there isn't the precedence to deal with this and there isn't the political framework to deal with it either," Natali told The Guardian. "The numbers needing relocation will grow, the costs are going up, and people's lives and cultural practices will be impacted."

Meanwhile, in Greenland, 45 percent of the island's massive ice sheet is melting—much higher than the 10 percent that is normally melting at this point in the year. While much of the melt is expected to refreeze once temperatures stabilize, the integrity of the ice after the early melt makes it more likely to accelerate later in the year.

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That means the unprecedented June melt will likely combine with the ice–albedo feedback for record melting, Xavier Fettweis, a Greenland researcher at Belgium's University of Liege, told science hub Earther.

"Due to a lower winter accumulation than normal, the bare ice area has been exposed very early in this area enhancing the melt due to the melt-albedo feedback," said Fettweis. "Therefore, at the beginning of the melt season, the snowpack along the west coast is now preconditioned to break records of melt."

As Earther put it, the ice melt could lead to a repeat of a frightening situation in the Arctic not seen in almost a decade:

It remains to be seen if we'll get a meltdown like July 2012 when the entire ice sheet's surface destabilized, but regardless, it's a disconcerting June for an ice sheet that, if it completely melted away, would raise sea levels by about 24 feet.

The problem just isn't going away, Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy climate specialist Rich Thoman told news-channel KTUU.

"It's surely going to be the case that by the time we get to late September, there's going to be no sea ice within hundreds of miles of Alaska," said Thoman.

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