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The Arctic is reaching a tipping point
It's mid-November, the sun has already set for the winter, and the Arctic is in 24-hour darkness. But the sea ice north of Siberia is basically still in a state of mid-summer.
Current sea ice extent in the Arctic is roughly equal to the summertime lows during the 1980s – two months after the typical start to the freeze-up season. There’s never been this little sea ice this late in the year, for at least a thousand years.
The worst of the unusual warmth is concentrated near Siberia, where current temperatures in the Laptev Sea are more than 20°C (36°F) warmer than normal for this time of year. Large stretches of the ocean are returning to ice for the winter, but were open water up until just a few days ago.
Scientists have begun referring to the region as the ‘new Arctic’, because fundamental ecosystem and weather shifts are happening so rapidly. Three years ago, in the first region-wide assessment under President Trump, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wrote that the “Arctic shows no sign of returning to [the] reliably frozen region of recent past decades.” Since then, the changes have only become more stark.
For one thing, the evidence connecting the Arctic to the rest of the planet’s weather and climate system has grown stark: Melting sea ice makes weather across the entire Northern Hemisphere more extreme. Those changes are having compound and cascading effects year after year, which beget faster ice loss, which beget faster changes to the planet at large.
This year has been a shocking example. In Siberia, the combination of spring and summer thunderstorms and an impressive heat wave created enormous wildfires. In June, temperatures reached 100°F about 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in a multi-month heat wave scientists found was made 600 times more likely because of greenhouse gases produced by human activity. In July and August, the last fully intact ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic collapsed. By September, the Siberian fires had burned around 34 million acres, more than eight times the size of this year’s record-setting California wildfires.
On the timespan of a single human lifetime, changes this drastic are essentially unrecoverable, but that doesn’t mean catastrophe is permanent or inevitable. It means we have entered a new era in the Arctic.
There is hope
People have lived and thrived in the Arctic for thousands of years, and that’s not going to change any time soon.
Right now, the Arctic Council, a group of eight nations and six Indigenous councils, is hosting the Arctic Resilience Forum, a multi-week virtual gathering of people from around the Arctic focused on building resilience of Arctic communities and ecosystems in the face of this change. The first session features a discussion of youth leaders from across the region and gives an incredible insight into the daily lives of people who call the Arctic home. I highly encourage you to check it out.
Protecting Arctic ecosystems won’t be possible until we radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it also won’t be possible until the rest of us understand and learn from the people who know the Arctic best.