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Greenland glaciers

Icebergs are shown near Ilulissat, Greenland. (Photo: Ulrik Pedersen/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

New Climate Study Predicting More Rain Than Snow in the Arctic 'Rings Alarm Bells'

"There are huge ramifications of these changes," said the lead researcher, "all of which have implications on wildlife populations and human livelihoods."

Jessica Corbett

Research published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications suggests rainfall will become more common in the Arctic than snowfall, and decades sooner than previously thought—findings that elicited fresh warnings about the necessity of ambitious climate action.

"The new models couldn't be clearer that unless global warming is stopped, the future Arctic will be wetter."

"As the Arctic continues to warm faster than the rest of the planet, evidence mounts that the region is experiencing unprecedented environmental change," says the study, spearheaded by Michelle McCrystall, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Manitoba.

"The transition from a snow- to rain-dominated Arctic in the summer and autumn is projected to occur decades earlier and at a lower level of global warming, potentially under 1.5°C, with profound climatic, ecosystem, and socioeconomic impacts," the paper continues, referencing the Paris climate agreement's lower temperature target for the end of this century.

McCrystall detailed the anticipated consequences of this transition, which is happening because of rapid global heating, poleward moisture transport, greater Arctic amplification, sea-ice loss, and increased sensitivity of precipitation to regional warming.

"People might say, 'Well, what has that got to do with me?' Well, this is going to affect you, and in actual fact, it is affecting you now," McCrystall said in a statement. "For me, I think what people need to understand is, we live in a global society where everything is interconnected, and that's true of the climate. We have a global climate. So, what happens in one region, will affect what happens everywhere else."

"There are huge ramifications of these changes, which we note in the paper, such as a reduction of snow cover, increased permafrost melt, more rain-on-snow events, and greater flooding events from increased river discharge, all of which have implications on wildlife populations and human livelihoods," the lead researcher explained.

Her team was finalizing their paper this year when, in August, rain fell on the highest point of the Greenland ice sheet for the first time in recorded history.

"The fact that we're getting rainfall on the summit of Greenland right now, and that we're maybe going to get more rainfall into the future—it kind of staggers me," she said. "And when we talk about this happening in 2100, it seems like such a long time away, but it's only 80 years. That's the next generation. And if we continue the trajectory that we're going, a lot of issues might happen even faster than what we've projected."

As co-author James Screen at the University of Exeter put it: "The new models couldn't be clearer that unless global warming is stopped, the future Arctic will be wetter; once-frozen seas will be open water, rain will replace snow."

In addition to reducing snow cover—which will further exacerbate warming in the region and globally—the shift to more rain will impact soil moisture and groundwater "as well as flora, fauna, and linked social-ecological systems."

While the researchers expect migratory birds to do well with the changing conditions, increased rainfall could have a "devastating" impact on wild caribou, reindeer, and muskoxen populations.

"The issue facing us today is that the Arctic is changing so fast that Arctic wildlife might not be able to adapt," said co-author Mark Serreze, director of the United States' National Snow and Ice Data Center. "It's not just a problem for the reindeer, caribou, and muskox, but for the people of the North that depend on them as well."

Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told Agence France-Presse that he felt the study did not prove the rain shift would come earlier than expected, but also said its results "imply that the worst impacts can be avoided if countries match their stated intentions to cut emissions in line with the Paris agreement."

As Common Dreams reported earlier this month, during the COP26 climate summit in Scotland, a recent analysis found that even if countries meet their emissions targets for this decade, the global temperature could still climb to 2.4°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

Richard Allan at the U.K.'s University of Reading—who, like NASA's Schmidt, was not involved in the research—framed the findings about Arctic rainfall as an urgent warning to humanity.

"Exploiting a state-of-the-art set of complex computer simulations, this new study paints a worrying picture of future Arctic climate change that is more rapid and substantial than previously thought," he told The Guardian. "This research rings alarm bells for the Arctic and beyond."


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