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Latest Arctic Report Card reveals rapid changes due to climate change

The clouds begin to thin over the Arctic Ocean Aug. 19, 2009.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty
U.S. Geological Survey/Flickr
The clouds begin to thin over the Arctic Ocean Aug. 19, 2009.

For the past 17 years, climate scientists and leaders from across the globe have come together to create an Arctic Report Card, an update about how the region is doing, which tracks things like wildfires, major storms, or extreme temperatures.

This year, Matthew Druckenmiller, a Boulder-based researcher at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, served as the report’s lead author.

He presented his findings from this year’s report card at the recent annual Geophysical Union Conference in Chicago, telling colleagues that the data they collected this year and, in recent years, has created a “new normal.”

"Seasons are shifting in the Arctic, altering ecological and landscape processes and increasingly misaligning with human expectations," he said.

Druckenmiller told colleagues that their findings this year have forced the team to reevaluate their models.

"We updated the climate baseline to calculate departures from what we may call normal," he said.

"Updating these baselines allows us to essentially calibrate how we assess departures from normal, and to establish a new normal to compare to," said Druckenmiller.

In the last decade, studies showed that climate change is warming the Arctic two to three, some say even four times faster than the rest of the globe.

The past seven years have been the warmest arctic temperatures on record.

This year's Arctic Report Card shows that the region's snow season is declining about 20 percent every decade.

John Walsh is the lead author of the Arctic Report Card's new chapter on precipitation.

He says, with longer and warmer summers, the Arctic has less ice, more water, and as a result, more precipitation.

But in a warming Arctic, this precipitation is turning from what was mostly snow to freezing rain.

"In a single event this past December, Fairbanks received over 1.4 inches of freezing rain. In the Arctic these freezing rain events can be devastating because the ice layer can persist for months. The ice remains on roads and it can prevent foraging by wildlife until the spring thaw," said Walsh.

Changes in seasonal ice, and warming sea waters, are causing domino effects within the Arctic's food chain, starting with microscopic algae which constitutes the base of the marine food web.

"Monitoring changes in marine algae growth is important for understanding how upper levels of the marine food web, including fish, marine mammals, and seabirds are impacted as well," said Karen Frey, a polar scientist at Clark University in Massachusetts, author of a report on primary productivity of Arctic plankton blooms.

Frey says 2022 was the sixth consecutive year that communities and tribal leaders encountered higher than expected numbers of dead seabirds across Alaska coastlines.

"The birds were found to be emaciated, which was the most significant factor contributing to these deaths. Seabirds and their eggs are important food for rural Alaska and residents are concerned about the loss of these subsistence foods," said Frey.

On top of warming waters and melting ice, food chains are being disrupted by shipping.

Matthew Druckenmiller says as quickly as the Arctic is melting, ships from all over the world are plowing new routes through it.

"This year's report details how the emergence and availability of satellite-based ship data since 2009 is helping to assess how the opening of the Arctic Ocean is driving more ships into its remote and ecologically sensitive waters," he said.

And as damage to the natural habitat grows, rising temperatures are affecting every part of Inuit life.

This year's Arctic Report Card ends with a chapter from and by Indigenous Alaskans.

It's the most comprehensive Indigenous contribution the Arctic Report Card has included, and looks at not just how climate change is affecting Indigenous people, but how Indigenous communities are addressing the change.

Jackie Qatalina Schaeffer directs climate initiatives at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and is one of the reports authors.

Schaeffer says Indigenous people have passed down knowledge about the Arctic for more than 20,000 years.

"I think if everyone thought like an Inuit, you wouldn't be sad," she said.

"The world and the place we live in is constantly changing. People have survived through all these changes for 20,000 years, and then we look at science, which is under 200 years old, there is hope."

As grim as this year's Arctic Report Card may sound, Schaeffer shared a grounds eye view as a member of a directly affected community.

"No one really paid attention to the Arctic or listened to the Arctic people for a multitude of reasons. We were just so far away from everything. I think now what we're seeing is a shift in the dialogue and the narrative and understanding that even through colonization and the displacement of our people, we still adapted and survive. So we have our language, we have our traditional cultural practices, but now we've mastered the western world as well. And so now we can share and find new spaces to co-produce knowledge systems so that the future looks different. And that to me is just simply evolution of humanity," she said.

Schaeffer says, when it comes to the future of the planet, people and cultures are going to have to start working together.

This story from KGNU was shared with KSJD via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.
Copyright 2022 Aspen Public Radio . To see more, visit Aspen Public Radio .