Tag Archives: arctic

UN confirms scorching new temperature record in the Arctic

A new high-temperature record for the Arctic of 38ºC (100.4 Fahrenheit) was confirmed by the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The temperature reading was registered in June 2020 in the town of Verkhoyansk in Russia amid a severe heatwave.

Image credit: Flickr / Duncan C.

Petteri Taalas, the WMO’s secretary-general, said in the statement that the new record “sounds alarm bells” about the consequences the climate crisis — which is raising temperatures all around the world. Global average temperatures have already raised 1.1ºC compared to pre-industrial time and could reach up to 3ºC by mid-century without further climate action from every country. 

This increase is not uniform around the planet. The Arctic is among the regions in the world experiencing the highest levels of global warming, up to three times more than the global average, according to a study earlier this year. From 1971 to 2019, the Arctic’s average annual temperature rose by 3.1C. And the warming is not coming to an end any time soon, based on climate models. 

“If you cast your mind back to last year, you will recall there was an exceptional, prolonged Siberian heatwave, as a result of this heatwave we saw devastating and very widespread Siberian fires and we saw massive Arctic Sea ice loss at the end of the summer season,” WMO spokesperson Clare Nullis told journalists in Geneva.

Verkhoyansk, where the temperature levels were recorded, is located about 115 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. The meteorological station up there has been taking readings since 1885. According to the WMO, it’s very likely that the region will experience greater temperature extremes in the near future due to the climate crisis.

The UN agency is now trying to verify other temperature records. This includes readings of 54.4ºC in 2020 and 2021 in the Death Valley in California, usually described as the world’s hottest place, a new high of 18.3ºC in the Antarctic continent recorded at the Argentinian base and a record of 48.8ºC in the Italian island of Sicily this year. 

Cascading disruptions

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) published a new edition of the Arctic Report Card, reporting on temperature trends, sea ice cover and other indicators gathered in 2020 and 2021. The report details the changes triggered by climate change in the region, which continues to create “cascading disruptions.” For instance, hotter temperatures melt snow, leaving behind darker soil, which absorbs more solar heat, raising temperatures even more.

Speaking at a press conference at the American Geophysical Union NOAA administrator Rick Spinrad said the trends “are consistent, alarming, and undeniable.” Average temperature for this past year (October 2020 to September 2021) was the 7th warmest on record amid retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost and tundra greening. The warmest six years have all been since 2015.

The Greenland ice sheet had three extreme melt episodes in July and August, with rainfall observed at the Summit Station for the first time ever in August. Seven of the nine Arctic regions had a higher ocean primary productivity this year than the long-term average, and an expansion of beavers was reported in the Arctic tundra of Alaska.

“Our people live in these extremely variable conditions for thousands of years, and we’re very worried about the changes highlighted today,” Kaare Sikuaq Erickson, a science liaison from the Bering Sea village of Unalakleet, Alaska, said at the press conference. “It’s really tough for us to live up there, let alone thrive.”

Ancient hyenas hunted in the Arctic millions of years ago

Ice age hyenas may have hunted caribou and horses around the Arctic area or scavenged carcasses in the cold tundra, a study of two enigmatic teeth suggests.

An artist’s rendering of ancient Arctic hyenas belonging to the genus Chasmaporthete, known as the “hunting or running hyena.” Image credits: Julius T. Csotonyi

Lions and tigers usually take all the admiration, but you could hardly imagine a more robust and adaptable predator than the hyena. Hyenas outnumber lions and use their larger populations and social skills to compete with even predators such as lions.

Nowadays, hyenas roam Asian and African savanna ecosystems, but researchers suspect that they can adapt to almost any habitat from grasslands and savannas to woodlands, sub-deserts, and even mountains. Back in the day, they may have spread even farther, going as far as the Arctic.

The key to this finding are two Ice Age teeth, which paleontologists think belonged to an ancient hyena species — Chasmaporthetes, the “running hyena.”

Now, as if hyenas weren’t impressive enough, this finding also helps explain one of the mysteries about how hyenas achieved to their current geographical spread. Previously, Chasmaporthetes fossils had been found as far north as Mongolia in Asia and the southern United States in North America, with no sites in between.

“Fossils of this genus of hyenas had been found in Africa, Europe and Asia, and also in the southern United States. But where and how did these animals get to North America? The teeth we studied, even though they were just two teeth, start to answer those questions,” says paleontologist Jack Tseng, PhD, the paper’s first author and an assistant professor of pathology and anatomical sciences in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.

Humans also moved from Asia through Beringia to the Americas, though much later than hyenas.

The new findings seem to suggest that hyenas crossed through Beringia, the area which, in periods of low sea level, connects Asia to North America in places like Alaska and Yukon. From there, they moved south as far as Mexico. But their ability to pass through this area shows incredible hyena resilience, researchers say.

“It is amazing to imagine hyenas thriving in the harsh conditions above the Arctic Circle during the ice age,” says study co-author Grant Zazula, PhD, Government of Yukon paleontologist. “Chasmaporthetes probably hunted herds of ice age caribou and horses or scavenged carcasses of mammoths on the vast steppe-tundra that stretched from Siberia to Yukon Territory.”

The teeth were dated to between 1.4 million and 850,000 years old, but these aren’t the first hyenas to make the journey — the earliest known hyena fossils on the American continent date to about 5 million years ago.

The teeth were actually discovered earlier, during a 1970s expedition in the northern Yukon Territory, and it drew Tseng’s attention a couple of years ago. An expert in hyena paleontology, he identified it as belonging to the genus Chasmaporthetes and realized that this is the first evidence of hyenas crossing Beringia.

Hyenas disappeared from North America long before the first people arrived there, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. However, it’s possible that they were outcompeted by the short-faced bear Arctodus simus, which lived across North America until the end of the ice age about 12,000 years ago.

Nowadays, there are only four living species of hyena, but back in the day, hyenas were a more varied and diverse group — and may have played a more important role than previously thought.

“The Pleistocene age of these fossils, together with its Arctic Circle occurrence, necessitate a rethinking of the role of large-bodied hunter-scavengers in Ice Age megafaunas in North America,” the study concludes.

The study First Fossils of Hyenas (Chasmaporthetes, Hyaenidae, Carnivora) from North of the Arctic Circle was published in the Open Quaternary journal.

Shrinking sea ice is threatening polar bears and narwhals, study shows

The amount of energy required by polar bears and narwhals to survive in the warming Arctic has increased by 3-400% in recent decades, according to a new study — and it’s pushing them to extinction.

Image credit: Flickr / Christopher Michel

The Arctic has been melting at three times the global rate over the past 30 years, limiting the hunting grounds of apex predators. Unsurprisingly, Arctic animals are desperately struggling to cope with the changes.

Researchers Anthony Pagano and Terrie Williams explained that creatures such polar bears and narwals are particularly vulnerable to sea ice deterioration in the Arctic because of their hunting behaviors and their diet, as well as their physiological adaptations. These features make them excellently adapted to normal Arctic conditions, but are limiting their ability to adapt to the changing climate.

The Arctic is currently warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet on average. This is driven by declines in sea ice cover, leading to a sea ice-albedo feedback mechanism. These phenomena have resulted in declines in September Arctic sea ice at a rate of 13.3% per decade since 1979. The current record low happened in 2012, which was 49% lower than average.

Previous studies have shown that sea ice retreat is happening 3–9 days earlier per decade and sea ice advance 3–9 days later per decade. Additionally, winter sea ice extent has declined at a rate of 3.4% per decade since 2000. Forecasts anticipate the Arctic could be largely ice-free in summer by mid-century — which would be devastating for wild animals.

More energy

Pagano and Williams measured the energetic cost of movement specifically for polar bears and narwhals and found that major ice loss translated into a significant increase in energy consumption. Simply put, because of the changing conditions, the animals need to waste much more energy to hunt. The higher energy demand and the limitation of access to seals, one of their main sources of food, leave the animals more vulnerable to starvation.

In the case of polar bears (the largest land carnivores), their ability to catch ice seals has historically enabled them to meet their high metabolic demands. They are ambush hunters, waiting at seal breathing holes and catching them. But as the sea ice breaks are now breaking earlier and retreating, their chance of catching seals is significantly diminishing, the researchers wrote.

The polar bears are now relying much more on terrestrial food resources, which have considerably lower energetic densities and lower overall digestible energy. For example, they calculated that a polar bear would have to eat 1.5 caribou, 37 Arctic char, 74 snow geese, and 216 snow goose eggs to equal the digestible energy of an adult seal.

“The Arctic world is so much more unpredictable for these animals now,” Williams, a co-author of the report, told The Guardian. “With a finite amount of oxygen in their muscles and blood, we find that the narwhals budget their speed, depth, and duration of dives to match the capacity of their internal scuba tanks. One miscalculation could result in drowning.”

Meanwhile, the changes in ice cover with Arctic warming present a different energetic challenge for narwals. They obtain much of their annual energy intake during winter by diving for Greenland halibut (a type of flatfish). They rely on breathing holes in the ice to replenish their oxygen stores when finishing each dive. But changes to the sea ice have made the presence and stability of the holes less predictable.

The loss of sea ice has also resulted in a larger presence of killer whales – new apex predators in the Arctic marine ecosystem. They are one of the few aquatic animals know to attack and kill narwhals, affecting their behavior and distribution. Responding to the presence of the whales, the narwhals exhibit evasive movements towards areas of dense pack-ice or move to shallow waters.

For the researchers, the declines in polar bears and narwhals will lead to declines in other ice-dependent marine mammals and some of their principal prey, such as Arctic cod that rely on sea ice-associated zooplankton. The decline “is likely to alter trophic dynamics and thus lead to rapid changes in the entire Arctic marine ecosystem,” they conclude.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

The Arctic is packed with microplastics, and a lot of them are polyester fibers

By simply washing your clothes, you might be flooding the oceans with plastic pollution, a new study showed. Researchers found that nearly three-quarters of the microplastics in the Arctic seawater were polyester fibers, which are most likely coming from textiles manufacturing and household laundry.

Millions of tons of plastic enter marine ecosystems every year, and quantities are expected to increase in the coming years. Over time, plastic items in the ocean can break down into smaller pieces, known as microplastics. They can be the size of a rice grain or even smaller, making them easy to be ingested by sea creatures.

These very small pieces of plastic are literally all over the place, even on some of the world’s most seemingly unaccessible regions. Scientists are frequently finding them in the most remote regions of the world such as the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain or the chilling Arctic sea. But questions remain regarding where this severe plastic contamination is actually coming from.

Researchers from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Ocean Wise conservation group sampled seawater from the Arctic and found that synthetic fibers accounted for 92% of the plastic pollution. Of this, 73% was polyester, which resembles the dimensions and chemical identities of synthetic textiles.

“The striking conclusion here is that we now have strong evidence that homes in Europe and North America are directly polluting the Arctic with fibers from laundry (via wastewater discharge),” lead author Peter Ross told AFP, adding that ocean currents are playing a big role in moving the fibers northwards to the Arctic.

Ross and his team gathered near-surface seawater samples from a 19,000-kilometer section from the city of Tromso in Norway to the North Pole, through the Canadian Arctic, and into the Beaufort Sea. They looked at samples up to a depth of around 1,000 meters. All had microplastics except one, which shows the extent of the problem.

The researchers worked with microscopy and infrared analysis to identify and measure the microplastics. They found almost three times more microplastic particles in the eastern Arctic compared to the west, which supports the idea that the polyester fibers could be arriving at the east of the region by the Atlantic.

Ocean Wise has done tests on washing machines in the past, finding that a single item of clothing can release millions of fibers during a normal domestic wash. They also warned that wastewater treatment plants often don’t catch the plastic fibers, with households in the US and Canada releasing almost 900 tons of microfibers per year.

“The textile sector can do much to design more sustainable clothing, including by designing clothes that shed less,” Ross told AFP. Governments have to make sure wastewater treatment plants have installed technologies to remove microplastics, while households should choose products with more environmentally-friendly fabrics, he added.

A study in 2019 found as many as 10,000 microplastics per liter of snow in the Arctic. Being small and lightweight, the microplastics are easily blown by winds which transport them over long distances through the atmosphere. Finally, they’re washed out of the atmosphere by rain or snow. This means no place on the planet is spared from our plastic pollution.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

No pandemic break for the Arctic, as climate change continues to kick in

Warmer, less frozen, and biologically changed — that’s the new face of the Arctic, with record conditions registered across the region in 2020, according to a new report. Climate change is causing big disruptions, with second-highest air temperatures and second-lowest summer sea ice driving a wide array of impacts.

Image credit: Flickr / Fiona Paton

The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued its annual Arctic report card, which compiles observations and analyses of the region. More than 130 scientists from 15 countries were part of this joint effort to inform decision-makers about the fast changes happening in the Arctic’s climate and ecosystems.

In a summary video published with the report, NOAA said there have been “alarming rates of change observed” since the 2006 Arctic Report Card, and adds, “the rate of change has been extraordinary.” This is evidenced, for example, by the intense heat and wildfires registered across Siberia this summer.

The findings showed that 2020 was the second-warmest year in the Arctic since record-keeping began in 1900 — but this is actually part of a longer trend, as nine of the past ten years had air temperatures of at least 1ºC above the 1981-2010 average. Simply put, natural causes are not to blame here, it’s man-made climat heating.

There were specific places that were unusually hot this year. Parts of Siberia were 5ºC above the long-term average in the first half of the year. The town of Verkhoyansk in Siberia reached 38ºC in June, which is the hottest temperature ever registered north of the Arctic Circle, according to NOAA’s report.

The world had already warmed over 1ºC since the beginning of the industrial revolution. But not every part of it has been subject to the same temperature increase. The pace of warming in the Arctic is estimated to be two to three times the global average, making it one of the most at-risk areas in the world.

“It has been yet another year of breathtaking changes in the Arctic,” Jennifer Francis, the senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, told The Guardian. “Temperatures in Siberia have been off the charts most of the year, and the Arctic passages have been open for shipping much longer than any previous year.”

Meanwhile, the Arctic minimum sea ice extent reached at the end of the summer was the second-lowest in the 42-year satellite record. The overall thickness of the sea ice cover is also decreasing as Arctic ice has transformed from an older, thicker, and stronger ice mass to a younger, thinner more fragile ice mass in the past decade.

The Arctic’s climate remains stable thanks to its large expanses of sea-ice, which regulate the air and ocean temperatures. But as global warming has expanded, ice cover has diminished fast, exposing more of the land and ocean to the sun. This causes a dramatic change, allowing currents to penetrate deeper into the Arctic.

This has been a tumultuous year for the Arctic’s glaciers. The melting permafrost led to a disastrous oil spill in Russia following the collapse of a fuel tank, leaking 20,000 tons of diesel. At the same time, Canada’s last fully intact Arctic ice shelf collapsed after losing more than 40% of its area in just two days at the end of July.

The report also warned that sea surface temperatures this summer were 1 to 3ºC above normal in the Arctic. This is mainly why sea-ice took so long to grow back. The warmer water has had positive biological impacts, NOAA said, as ocean primary productivity was between 2 to 6 times higher than normal in the Laptev Sea.

“If we do not bring emission rates down, Arctic climate will change so significantly that this year’s record low sea ice extents will look large and record warm temperatures will appear cool compared to what we will experience in the future,” Laura Landrum, the associate scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research Climate and Global Dynamics Laboratory, told The Guardian.

The Arctic sea ice keeps declining as the world gets warmer, setting a record low for October

The Arctic saw its lowest average October sea ice extent since satellite measurements began in 1979, according to European Copernicus Climate Change Service. Their monthly report also showed that last month was the warmest on record in Europe, with many areas seeing above-average temperatures in the East, but below average in the southwest.

Credit Flickr Fiona Paton

The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) publishes monthly climate bulletins reporting on the changes observed in global surface air temperature, sea ice cover, and hydrological variables. All the findings are based on computer-generated analyses using billions of measurements from satellites, ships, aircraft, and weather stations.

The average Arctic sea ice extent last month was 5.4 million km2, 1.5 million km2 above September. However, sea ice grew at a slower rate than in 2012, the year with the lowest sea ice extent for September, the report showed. This led to 2020 having the lowest extent recorded in October since observations started.

The map of average sea ice concentrations for October showed ice-free conditions stretching eastward from north of Svalbard to the Chukchi Sea. The largest negative ice concentration anomalies relative to the 1981-2010 average occurred north of the Laptev and East Siberian Seas and were associated with temperature anomalies.

Contrary to the Arctic, the Antarctic saw sea ice reach its annual maximum extent in September and the sea ice melting season has now begun. Sea ice extent reached 18.3 million km2 on average. This is 0.3 million km2 above the 1981-2010 average for October and is the first positive October anomaly observed since 2016.

The report showed above-average ice concentration in most of the Antarctic region. The east of the Antarctic Peninsula, as well as the north and west stretches of the Ross Sea had the largest positive anomalies, while the north Amundsen Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean sector had below-average ice concentration.

Europe sees a record October

Central, eastern, and northern Europe had a warmer October than the 1981-2010 average for the month, Copernicus showed. Temperatures were particularly high in countries near the Black Sea, while European countries southwest the Alps had cooler weather than average.

Many continental land areas and islands north of the Arctic Circle had extremely high temperatures in October. That was also the case of the Arctic Ocean and its bordering coastal seas, especially eastward of Svalbard to the Beaufort Sea. Temperatures were also higher than average around the Mediterranean Sea.

Temperatures over the western USA also continued to be high above average. Paraguay, Bolivia, and southern Brazil saw heatwave conditions, as well as Namibia and other countries in southern Africa. Much of the rest of Africa also had above-average temperatures.

Globally it was the third-warmest October, but only marginally from the fourth, fifth, and sixth warmest Octobers. It was 0.62°C warmer than the 1981-2010 average for the month. The six warmest Octobers occurred within the last six years, the report adds.

It’s almost certain that 2020 will be among the hottest years ever, with a higher than 98% likelihood it will rank in the top five, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which also releases monthly temperature analyses. Last year (2019) was the second-hottest year ever, and the last year of the hottest decade worldwide.

Melting caused by global warming creates more melt and it’s a dangerous vicious cycle

Global warming is melting the planet’s ice. Greenland is losing ice mass at record rates and parts of Antarctica have entered a phase of instability. But that’s more than just a problem in itself — it can trigger a whole new range of problems, a new study reports.

Credit Flickr Antti

The dark side of ice melt

It’s easy to forget that climate change isn’t just one phenomenon — it’s a massive chain of interlinked phenomena that affect and influence each other. So when we’re talking about something like polar ice melt, doesn’t end with just that, it triggers a chain of other events.

In a new study, a team of scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Research in Germany analyzed how rising temperature and ice melt feed off other.

“If global ice masses shrink, this changes how much of the sunlight that hits Earth’s surface is reflected back into space. Decreasing ice cover in the Arctic exposes more of the darker ocean water that absorbs more energy,” said in a statement Nico Wunderling, lead author of the study.

According to the findings, without changes in the levels of carbon dioxide, massive melting of the cryosphere (global ice) would raise temperatures by 0.43ºC — that’s the global average, in icy regions, it would be substantially higher. Thus, in Greenland and West Antarctica, the thermometer would rise up to 5ºC. Meanwhile, around the equator, it would barely register an extra 0.2ºC.

These differences are due to thermal amplification that causes warming in icy parts of the planet. The higher the temperature, the lower the amount of frozen mass. The process is fed back by the disturbance that heating introduces to other components of the system.

The most notable change would be for the so-called albedo effect — the ability of surfaces to bounce off sunlight. The more light surfaces reflect, the less heat they absorb, and snow and ice are excellent reflectors, returning most of the light and heat they receive back to space. But when ice disappears, the rebound diminishes. This process is especially important in the Arctic.

At first glance, the process is straightforward: ice retreats, it leaves behind darker surfaces, so there’s less light reflected and more heat trapped in the system. But there’s an important subtlety which makes that an oversimplification — when ice retreats, surfaces could still be covered by a layer of snow which wouldn’t change much albedo-wise. So researchers had to model this phenomenon, and only then could they confirm that retreating ice will affect the planet’s albedo significantly.

Other altered factors are the temperature in the atmospheric column, the formation of clouds, and the presence of water vapor. Warmer air can hold more water vapor, and water vapor increases the greenhouse effect, another feedback loop amplified by climate change.

“This is not a short-term risk. Earth’s ice masses are huge, which makes them very important for the system as a whole. But even if some of the changes might take hundreds or thousands of years to manifest, it’s possible we trigger them within just a couple of decades,” said in a statement Ricarda Winkelmann, who leads the research group.

Many researchers argue that in those few decades, the Arctic will become completely ice-free during the summer. If so, in addition to the local and global ecological consequences, the temperature will rise 1.5ºC in the Arctic region and 0.19ºC on a global scale, researchers estimate. This local increase in the Arctic will again reduce the albedo, generate even more melting in the land covered by the ice of Siberia, Canada, or Greenland, which will lower albedo even more, feeding back the warming and starting over. It’s quite a vicious cycle that we could do well without.

From the late 1970s to the mid-2000s, Arctic summer sea ice area has declined by more than 10% per decade. If this trend continues, the Arctic could become ice-free in summer for the first time within the 21st century. At the same time, mountain glaciers world-wide have retreated, losing 21% of their volume between 1901 and 2009.

Moreover, both the West Antarctic and the Greenland Ice Sheet have lost mass at an accelerating pace in the past decades. As global warming progresses, ice loss from the polar ice sheets and subsequent sea-level rise is expected to further increase. Beyond a temperature threshold, large parts of the Greenland Ice Sheet might melt.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Pollution is impairing the growth of trees in Siberia and the Arctic

Industrial pollution in the Arctic is way worse than we’ve assumed, according to a new paper, and it’s affecting the life of trees.

Norilsk, Russia. Image credits Flickr / Ninara.

The findings are based on the analysis of tree-rings and wood chemistry around the city of Norilsk in the Russian Arctic. According to the authors, ecosystems in this region have been “devastated” by decades of nickel and copper mining, and the effects extend far enough to disrupt the global carbon cycle. They also explain that die-offs have spread to almost 100 kilometers away from the city.

Trouble in the north

“Using the information stored in thousands of tree rings, we can see the effects of Norilsk’s uncontrolled environmental disaster over the past nine decades,” said Professor Ulf Büntgen from Cambridge’s Department of Geography, who led the research.

“While the problem of sulfur emissions and forest dieback has been successfully addressed in much of Europe, for Siberia, we haven’t been able to see what the impact has been, largely due to a lack of long-term monitoring data.”

Norilsk is the northernmost city in the world, housing around 100,000 people. It’s also one of the most polluted places on Earth due to intensive mining operations for nickel, copper, and palladium which have been ongoing since the 1930s under very little environmental regulations. A spill in May 2020, which involved around 17,500 tons of diesel oil making its way into local rivers, further destroyed local ecosystems.

Airborne emissions from the city’s industries are directly responsible for the destruction of around 24,000 square kilometres of boreal forest in the last six decades, the team explains. However, even those areas of the forest that have survived are struggling. Tree growth is impaired by the polluted air, as it reduces the plants’ ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

However, these links are well documented. What the team studied is the ‘divergence problem’ in dendrochronology (the study of tree rings). The size of each tree ring is a great indicator of the environmental conditions during the year they developed in, including precipitation levels and average air temperatures. But researchers have noticed that the width of tree rings has become independent of (i.e., that it’s ‘decoupling’ from) air temperatures ever since the 1970s.

The team used data on tree ring and wood chemistry from both living and dead trees in the area to quantify the ecological damage caused by industrial emissions from Norilsk. They report that this damage peaked in the 1960s, but is still affecting the forests and trees around the city. Furthermore, the team explains that industrial emissions are at least partially responsible for the phenomenon of ‘Arctic dimming‘. This is the phenomenon where (natural or man-made) pollution particles block incoming sunlight, affecting plant growth and other natural processes such as evaporation and precipitation.

Wide-scale tree death caused by pollution in the Norilsk region began in the 1960s, the team explains. Dimming in the Arctic also began having a noticeable effect on the growth rate of local trees since the 1970s. Given that atmospheric circulation tends to accumulate pollution in the arctic area, not disperse it as in other regions, the researchers also looked at arctic areas farther away from the city. They report finding that “trees across the high-northern latitudes are suffering as well.”

All in all, the findings give us a glimpse into how trees in the Arctic region will likely fare in the future. Shifts brought about by climate change should make plants grow faster, but the team says that the trees of Siberia are actually growing slower than before. This is mainly caused by atmospheric pollution, which is impeding their ability to photosynthesize. Such changes reflect global trends, the team adds, giving us cause for concern in regards to the health of trees in the future.

“What surprised us is just how widespread the effects of industrial pollution are — the scale of the damage shows just how vulnerable and sensitive the boreal forest is,” said Büntgen. “Given the ecological importance of this biome, the pollution levels across the high-northern latitudes could have an enormous impact on the entire global carbon cycle.”

The paper “Ecological and conceptual consequences of Arctic pollution” has been published in the journal Ecology Letters.

Arctic ice shrinks to second lowest level on record

In another sign of the acceleration of global warming, ice in the Arctic Ocean has melted to its second-lowest level on record this year. The Floes glacier shrunk to 3.74 million square kilometers (1.4 million square miles) last week, according to preliminary data from satellite observation.

Credit Flickr Duncan C.

The only other time such a low level was seen was in 2012 when the ice pack was reduced to 3.41 million square kilometers after a late-season cyclonic storm. Arctic sea ice usually reaches its low point in September, but it’s melting more and more each year as the polar north warms due to climate change.

“It’s been a crazy year up north, with sea ice at a near-record low… heat waves in Siberia, and massive forest fires,” said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), in a statement. “The year 2020 will stand as an exclamation point on the downward trend in Arctic sea ice extent. We are headed towards a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean, and this year is another nail in the coffin.”

This year’s drop in sea ice levels was particularly sharp between August 31 and September 5 due to pulses of warm air from a heatwave in Siberia, according to the NSIDC. The rate of ice loss during those six days was greater than during any other year on record, with temperatures in the Siberian Arctic 8ºC to 10ºC (14 to 18 Fahrenheit) above normal.

Studies have shown the warming of the Arctic and the melting of sea ice is influencing weather further south, altering the jet stream that powers the weather system. As ice disappears, it leaves areas of dark water open, which absorb radiation instead of reflecting it back to the atmosphere. This amplifies global warming and explains why the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world.

The reduction on sea ice levels in the Arctic is threatening wildlife, from seals and polar bears to algae, said Tom Foreman, a polar wildlife expert, for Al Jazeera.

“The numbers that we’re getting in terms of the extent of sea ice decrease each year put us pretty much on red alert in terms of the level of worry that we have, our concern for the stability of this environment,” he explains.

A study earlier this month discovered that the Arctic sea ice has melted so much in the last few decades that even a record cold year won’t produce the amount of summer sea ice that existed in the mid-20th century. High air temperatures during autumn and winter will drive the region to a district climate by the middle of this century, they found.

At the same time, Hamburg University scientists found in a study last April that by 2050 the North Pole would be ice-free in some Arctic summers. Every ton of carbon dioxide emitted worldwide led to three square meters of ice melt in the highly sensitive Arctic, said the study’s lead earth scientist Dirk Notz.

Countries agreed to limit global temperature rises to “well below” 2ºC (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) through the Paris Agreement signed in 2015. But greenhouse gas emissions are still going up, with more ambitious climate action needed. The drops in emissions from the pandemic haven’t had a significant effect on climate change, and lockdowns are being lifted around the world.

Global warming is pushing the Arctic into a new climate

The Arctic, one of the regions in the world most affected by climate change, has started to move from a largely frozen state to an entirely different climate, according to a new study of the Arctic conditions. The transition could be more severe in the future as the effects of global warming continue to kick in even further.

Credit Flickr NASA

Weather conditions in the Arctic have always changed from year to year, shifting from colder to warmer winters or from longer to shorter seasons of rain instead of snow. But this time is different. The research found the Arctic has warmed so significantly that the year-to-year variability is moving outside the bounds of any past fluctuations.

“The rate of change is remarkable,” Laura Landrum, a researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and lead author, said in a statement. “It’s a period of such rapid change that observations of past weather patterns no longer show what you can expect next year. The Arctic is already entering a completely different climate than just a few decades ago.”

In the new study, Landrum and her co-author Marika Holland discovered that the Arctic sea ice has melted so much in the last few decades that even a record cold year won’t have the amount of summer sea ice that existed in the mid-20th century. The air temperatures during autumn and winter will drive the region to a district climate by the middle of this century, they found.

The researchers used observations of Arctic climate conditions as well as hundreds of detailed computer simulations. Such a vast amount of data allowed them to establish the climate boundaries of the “old Arctic” and later to identify when global warming will push the Arctic beyond those natural bounds into a new climate. They based their predictions on a high-end scenario for future emissions.

The Arctic is known to be affected more severely by global warming than other lower-latitude regions. This happens because light-colored sea ice, which reflects heat back into space, is replaced by darker ocean water, which traps heat. At the same time, relatively warm ocean waters are no longer protected in the winter as effectively by the shielding properties of thick sea ice.

Landrum and Holland turned to multiple simulations from five of the world’s leading climate models that have been used for an international research project. These enabled them to have a statistically significant picture of the Arctic climate, differentiating year-to-year natural climate variability from a transition to a new Arctic climate.

They first compared the model output to observations, confirming that the models were accurately capturing past climate and therefore could reliably simulate future climate. Then, the researchers applied statistical techniques to determine when climatic changes exceeded the bounds of natural variability. They found the Arctic has already entered a new climate, confirmed by all the climate models.

Looking forward, Landrum and Holland found that the Arctic may start to experience largely ice-free conditions in the next several decades. The Arctic could become mostly ice-free between three to ten months annually by the end of the century, based on a scenario of high greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, air temperatures over the ocean will enter a new climate during the first half or middle of this century.

At the same time, the researchers found that the cycle of precipitation will also change dramatically in the Arctic. If emissions continue at a high level, most continental regions will see an increase in the rainy season between 20 to 60 days days by mid-century and between 60 to 90 days by the end of the century.

The study was published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Perfectly preserved Ice Age ‘cave bear’ remains found in New Siberian Islands

The remains of a perfectly preserved Ice Age cave bear were just discovered in the Russian Arctic, with its nose, teeth, and internal organs still intact. The finding was made by a group of reindeer herders on the Lyakhovsky Islands, which are part of the New Siberian Islands archipelago in the Arctic.

Credit North-Eastern Federal University

The bear’s remains were revealed by the melting permafrost. It is believed to have died 22,000 to 39,500 years ago. The species, Ursus spelaeus, lived in Eurasia during the last ice age and then went extinct 15,000 years ago. Previously, scientists only had been able to discover partial skeletons of cave bears, which makes the new findings groundbreaking.

Scientists of the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk, the leading center for research into woolly mammoths and other prehistoric species, highlighted the importance of the discovery. They were initially alerted by local reindeer herders but haven’t been able to travel to the site yet, as it’s a long way from Yakutsk.

“Today this is the first and only find of its kind — a whole bear carcass with soft tissues. It is completely preserved, with all internal organs in place including even its nose. Previously, only skulls and bones were found. This find is of great importance for the whole world,” scientist Lena Grigorieva from the North-Eastern Federal University said in a statement.

Cave bears roamed Europe and Asia when the continents were covered in glaciers. They shared the landscape with other impressive creatures such as mammoths, saber toothed cats and giant ground sloths. They could weigh up to 2,200 pounds (one tonne), which is 500 pounds (225 kg) heavier than the largest bears currently alive.

Greigorieva and her colleagues said the bear’s age was only an estimate until carbon dating could add precision. They will carry out studies to know more about the carcass, including a genetic analysis. The reindeer herders have transferred the right to research to the scientists of NEFU, according to Greigorieva.

As climate change kicks in across the world, the Siberian permafrost, which remains frozen all year, is beginning to melt. As this happens, more and more ice-age creatures are unearthed after lying frozen for tens of thousands of years. The Lyakhovsky Islands, where the bear was found, is also packed with mammoths from the last ice age.

Last year, a group of scientists discovered a 40,000-year-old severed wolf’s head, complete with fur, teeth, brain, and facial tissue on the banks of a river in Yakutia. Other ancient creatures found in the Yakutia ice include two extinct cave-lion cubs and a 42,000-year-old foal. More are expected to be found as the temperature rises.

Trump approves plan to open oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic refuge

Raising widespread criticism from environmental groups, the Trump administration has officially approved a plan to open an Arctic wildlife refuge in Alaska for oil and natural gas drilling. The idea has been in the works since 2017, with the first leases to drill expected to be granted by the end of the year.

Credit Frank Camp Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The news was confirmed to the Wall Street Journal by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, whose department will be in charge of the auctions. The fact that they will take place this year might make it difficult for Democrats to reverse the decision if presidential candidate Joe Biden wins the election in November.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the area to be auctioned off, is considered a wellspring for wildlife, housing polar bears, foxes, and migratory birds, among many other species. Of the 19 million acres of the refuge, 1.6 million will be available to be leased to fossil fuel companies.

Although many of them have long wanted access to the ANWR, it remains to be seen how many of them are willing to take a risk on an unexplored stretch of land where little data on its oil and gas resources is available. Bernhardt expects strong interest despite the lack of such vital data.

Companies have actually been leaving Alaska due to the high costs of drilling and shipping the oil and gas compared to the cheaper options in other states that already have pipelines installed. British oil giant BP was the last one to leave the area, selling its operations to Hilcorp.

Environmental groups reacted with anger to the news, and are likely to sue to stop the move. Once the drilling rights are allocated, it will be harder for a future president to reverse course, they argued. Oil operations in the area would severely threaten the pristine landscape, they added.

“This plan will not only harm caribou, polar bears, and other wildlife, it is foolish in the face of rapidly advancing climate change,” said, Jennifer Rokala the Executive Director of the Centre for Western Priorities in a statement.

“Oil companies will have to harden their infrastructure to withstand melting permafrost and rising seas, leading to an even greater impact.”

Alaska’s congressional delegation, including Republicans Lisa Murkowski, Dan Sullivan, and Don Young, celebrated the news, thanking President Trump and Bernhardt for what they said will be a boost for their state’s economy. It’s a “capstone moment,” Murkowski said, in their decades-long push for “responsible” oil extraction in the area.

A significant number of major global banks such as JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, and Goldman Sachs have already said they will not provide financing for drilling in the area. Environmental activists have also said that the reputational risks to companies operating in the ANWR would be severe.

The US government authorized drilling in the Arctic wildlife refuge in December 2017 when Congress added a stipulation to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The law states that the Interior Department has to make “at least two lease sales” within 10 years, with each lease containing “at least 400,000 acres.”

These Canadian ice caps were estimated to melt by 2022 — they’re already gone

A paper published back in 2017 estimated that the St. Patrick Bay ice caps in Canada would disappear in 5 years due to climate change. We’re barely halfway through that time, and they’ve already melted.

Satellite images show the location where the St. Patrick Bay ice caps used to exist on the Hazen Plateau of northeastern Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Canada.
Image credits NSIDC.

NASA imagery shows that the ice caps have melted far faster than scientists predicted — 3 years instead of 5. That initial estimation was made by scientists from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2017.

The melting of these caps should be a very clear warning that climate warming is picking up around the world, and shows the dangers of officials choosing to ignore or confound science consensus.

Melt rate — fast

The ice sheets spread over more than 10 square kilometers (around 4 sq miles) in total back in 1950. Mark Serreze, a geographer, NSIDC director, and lead author of the 2017 paper, remembers the striking view when he visited the area in 1982.

“When I first visited those ice caps, they seemed like such a permanent fixture of the landscape,” says geographer and NSIDC director Mark Serreze. “To watch them die in less than 40 years just blows me away.”

By the time Serreze started writing the paper, these ice sheets were only 5% of the size they were in 1959. Today, satellite images from NASA’s Terra satellite shows that no trace of this ice remains — and with the way things are progressing, it won’t be back in the foreseeable future.

The ice caps are part of a larger body of ice sheets in the Hazen Plateau on Ellesmere Island. This land stretches well into the Arctic and is one of the most northerly points in all of Canada. Two other glaciers that would often link with the now-melted pair, the Murray and Simmons ice caps, are faring better due to their high altitude. However, researchers think these two will also collapse soon, as their size was at 39% and 25%, respectively, of what they were in 1959.

This outline of the St. Patrick Bay ice caps, taken from the 2017 The Cryosphere paper, is based on aerial photography from August 1959, GPS surveys conducted during August 2001, and for August of 2014 and 2015 from NASA’s Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER).
Outline of St. Patrick Bay ice caps recorded over time.
Image credits NSIDC.

One thing I find particularly heartbreaking about this story is that Serreze and his team first started work in the Hazen Plateau around 1980 as they were trying to understand whether human activity was causing climate change. At the time, scientific consensus was not yet established on the issue, and some research suggested we were actually going through a period of global cooling (at least publicly — Shell knew).

So one of the sites that helped us prove once and for all that the way we do things is hurting the planet has been destroyed exactly because of that damage.

But it’s also a sobering wake-up call that the climate isn’t changing in the future — it’s changing right now.

“We’ve long known that as climate change takes hold, the effects would be especially pronounced in the Arctic,” says Serreze. “But the death of those two little caps that I once knew so well has made climate change very personal. All that’s left are some photographs and a lot of memories.”

The Arctic Ocean is blooming with algae as the ice sheet melts

A surprising shift is currently happening in the Arctic Ocean, a new study has found. Dark water is blooming with phytoplankton, the tiny algae at the base of the food web, as sunlight floods spaces that used to be obscured by ice that is no longer there.

Credit Flickr

Researchers from Stanford University found that there has been a 57% increase in phytoplankton in the Arctic ocean over the past two decades. This has exceeded the researcher’s expectations, as it’s changing the way the ocean stores carbon and sucking up resources needed for the rest of the ecosystem.

“The rates are really important in terms of how much food there is for the rest of the ecosystem,” Earth system scientist and co-author Kevin Arrigo told Science Alert. “It’s also important because this is one of the main ways that CO2 is pulled out of the atmosphere and into the ocean.”

The Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet, having experienced a temperature increase of 0.75 degrees Celsius (1.35 degrees Fahrenheit) in the last decade alone. Meanwhile, Earth as a whole has warmed by nearly the same amount, 0.8 degrees C, but over the past 137 years.

Arrigo and his colleagues looked at net primary production (NPP), which is a degree of how fast plants and algae convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into sugars that other creatures can eat. They found that NPP in the Arctic increased by 57% between 1998 and 2018. That’s a record jump in productivity for an entire ocean basin.

Even more surprising, they discovered that while NPP increases were initially linked to retreating sea ice, productivity continued to climb even after melting slowed down around 2009. “The increase in NPP over the past decade is due almost exclusively to a recent increase in phytoplankton biomass,” Arrigo said.

This means that phytoplankton was once metabolizing more carbon across the Arctic just because they were gaining more open water over longer growing seasons, thanks to changes in ice cover driven by climate change. Now, they are growing more concentrated, according to the study’s findings.

“In a given volume of water, more phytoplankton were able to grow each year,” said in a statement lead study author Kate Lewis, who worked on the research as a Ph.D. student in Stanford’s Department of Earth System Science. “This is the first time this has been reported in the Arctic Ocean.”

Phytoplankton is absorbing more carbon year after year as new nutrients come into this ocean

Phytoplankton needs plenty of nutrients and light to grow. But their availability on the water column depends on complex factors. As a result, despite the fact that Arctic researchers have observed phytoplankton blooms going into overdrive in recent decades, they have debated how long the boom might last and how high it might climb.

The researchers assembled a massive collection of ocean floor measurements for the Arctic Ocean and built algorithms to estimate the concentration of phytoplankton. This allowed them to find new evidence that continued increases in production may no longer be as limited by scarce nutrients as once suspected.

“We knew the Arctic had increased production in the last few years, but it seemed possible the system was just recycling the same store of nutrients,” Lewis said. “Our study shows that’s not the case. Phytoplankton are absorbing more carbon year after year as new nutrients come into this ocean. That was unexpected, and it has big ecological impacts.”

The work will help to clarify how climate change will shape the Arctic Ocean’s future productivity, food supply and capacity to absorb carbon. There’s going to be winners and losers, according to Arrigo. “A more productive Arctic means more food for lots of animals. But many animals that have adapted to live in a polar environment are finding life more difficult as the ice retreats,” he argued.

The study was published in the journal Science.

The Arctic sees record heatwave amid forest fires. What does it mean for the world?

The Arctic is currently going through a severe heatwave, with temperatures recently reaching a record of 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit), on the backdrop of expanding forest fires. In response, scientists have raised the alarm, warning over the acceleration of global warming.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The record-high temperature was registered in the city of Verkhoyansk, Russia. But the Siberian town isn’t alone. Much of Russia has recently been dealing with a heatwave, with multiple locations reporting temperatures as high as 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).

“Apparently, this particularly region of eastern Siberia has very, very cold extremes in winter, but is also known for its extremes in summer, so temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius in July are not unusual,” World Meteorological Organization spokeswoman Clare Nullis said in a statement. “but obviously 38 degrees Celsius is exceptional.”

The surprising hot weather was also registered in other parts of the Arctic such as northern Canada and Scandinavia. Meteorologists agree it is part of a pattern seen this year of higher temperatures in usually cool areas of the world. This type of weather stands to have global consequences and foreshadows the future of the Arctic.

Russia is emerging from its hottest winter on record, and since the beginning of the year, temperatures have averaged 12.4 degrees Fahrenheit above what’s typical in Siberia. And this polar heat has led to a string of woes for the region, from a major oil spill stemming from thawing permafrost to early wildfires north of the Arctic circle.

More than four million hectares of forests in Siberia were on fire last August, according to Greenpeace. This year the fires have already started raging much earlier than the usual start in July, said Vladimir Chuprov, director of the project department at Greenpeace Russia.

Persistent warm weather in the Arctic coupled with wildfires can cause the permafrost to melt faster. This would exacerbate global warming by releasing growing amounts of methane, a strong greenhouse gas, Katey Walter Anthony, an expert on methane release from frozen Arctic soil, told AP.

“Methane escaping from permafrost thaw sites enters the atmosphere and circulates around the globe,” Anthony said. “Methane that originates in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. It has global ramifications.”

And what happens in the Arctic can even alter the weather in the United States and Europe. The unusual warming can reduce the temperature and pressure difference between the Arctic and lower latitudes where more people live, Judah Cohen, a winter weather expert, told AP.

Meteorologists at the Russian weather agency Rosgidrome said a combination of factors can explain the temperature spike in the Arctic. “The ground surface heats up intensively, the nights are very warm, the air doesn’t have time to cool and continues to heat up for several days,” said Marina Makarova, chief meteorologist.

Researchers said the spike is indicative of a much bigger global warming trend. “The key point is that the climate is changing and global temperatures are warming,” Freja Vamborg, senior scientist at the Copernicus Climate Change Service in the U.K, told AP. “We will be breaking more and more records as we go.”

The largest ozone hole over the Arctic ever recorded is now plugged

The polar vortex weakened and split in two has diluted the ozone hole. Credit: Copernicus ECMWF.

This spring season, the ozone layer over the Arctic experienced a tear, which grew into the biggest ozone hole across the North Pole in recorded history. Amid tensions and gruesome daily news about the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed like the apocalypse was nigh. Good news, though: the ozone hole was plugged nearly as fast as it appeared thanks to natural atmospheric activity.

Since it was first spotted in February, the hole in the Arctic ozone layer stretched over 620,000 square miles (1,600,000 square kilometers). No sizable hole that comes near this caliber has been reported in the Arctic since 2011.

Now, the hole has been plugged.

Researchers affiliated with the Copernicus Program, the European Union’s Earth observation program, have been on top of the situation since the ozone hole was first signaled.

This week, they announced that the “rather unusual” hole over the Arctic was not related at all to human activity and was instead caused by a strong Arctic polar vortex.

As such, the ozone layer recovery cannot be pegged to massive reductions in pollution to the coronavirus-related nationwide lockdowns.

Polar vortexes, the kind that triggered this recent massive gaping hole in the ozone layer 11 miles above the Arctic surface, are essentially large areas of low pressure and cold air that surround both of the planet’s poles.

These atmospheric phenomena wean over the summer and strengthen in the winter. Typically, polar vortexes are much weaker over the Arctic compared to the Antarctic due to local topography, as nearby land and mountain ranges disturb the flow of air more.

Ozone hole in Antarctica is a different matter entirely

At ground level, ozone or smog is a poisonous chemical often expelled by vehicle exhaust. Higher up in the stratosphere, ozone accumulates at altitudes between 10 and 50 km where it acts as a shield against the harmful ultraviolet rays, which can cause cancer. Ozone holes occur naturally from cooling, but man-made chemicals greatly accelerate their formation.

While ozone depletion over the Arctic in natural, the same can’t be said about the one in the stratosphere above Antarctica.

Almost four decades ago, scientists had learned that chlorine-containing industrial chemicals triggered the formation of a gaping hole in the ozone layer right above the icy continent.

Since then, the ozone layer has recovered after a UN emergency panel banned the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) under the Montreal Protocol. This was one of the few highly commendable episodes where nearly all the world’s countries chose to set aside their differences and work for the common good of the planet and all life that calls it home.

Currently, the ozone hole above Antarctica is the size of North America, which sounds humongous. However, it’s the smallest it’s been since 1988, according to NASA.

The Arctic’s oldest and thickest ice is disappearing fast

Credit: Pixabay.

Arctic ice north of Greenland is, historically speaking, the oldest and thickest ice in the north pole. But although this is the last place that might lose its year-round ice cover, ice mass in the area is already declining at twice the rate as the rest of the Arctic.

Not as stable as once thought

Most of the ice that covers the Arctic is only one to four years old. However, there is a 2,000-kilometer-arc of ice, stretching from the western Canadian Arctic Archipelago to Greenland’s northern coast, which is more than five years old and can measure more than four meters thick. This relatively old region of ice is known as the Last Ice Area.

Although, historically speaking, this band of old ice is stable, recent findings suggest that the Last Ice Area cannot be spared forever from the melting that plagues seasonal ice in the Arctic. According to a new study, ocean currents and atmospheric winds have made the old ice more mobile and have transported it to other parts of the Arctic.

“We can’t treat the Last Ice Area as a monolithic area of ice which is going to last a long time,” said Kent Moore, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Toronto in Canada and lead author of the new study. “There’s actually lots of regional variability.”

For their new research, Moore and colleagues employed satellite and atmospheric data to model sea ice cover, thickness, and motion across the Last Ice Area from 1979 to 2018. The results suggest that the Last Ice Area is made of two important subregions — one to the east and one to the west. — where ice thickness varies from 1.2 meters from year to year. Moore and colleagues concluded that ice in both subregions are thinning, losing about 0.4 meters of ice thickness per decade.

Annual mean sea ice thickness (m) over the Arctic Ocean from 1979 – 2018. The black line surrounds the area where the ice thickness exceeds 3 m and can be considered as the region known as the Last Ice Area. The white lines surround the two areas where the ice thickness exceeds 4m. Credit: Kent Moore/University of Toronto.

Since the 1970s, the Last Ice Area has lost 1.5 meters of thickness and Arctic summers could soon become totally ice-free as early as 2030. For many species of wildlife, such as polar bears and seals, this could signal a disaster.

“Eventually the Last Ice Area will be the region that will repopulate the Arctic with wildlife,” Moore said. “If we lose all the ice, we lose those species. This area will be a refuge where species can survive and hopefully expand their regions once the ice starts returning.”

Moore claims that the dramatic loss of ice in the Last Ice Area can be pinned to the movement of the ice out of the region, towards the west.

These findings don’t bode well in the context of the climate emergency that we are currently experiencing. The Arctic is warming faster than any other region of the globe. For instance, this last June, average temperatures were warmer than usual by nearly 5.5 degrees Celsius (10 degrees Fahrenheit). And since climate models haven’t taken into account the possibility of ice loss in the Last Ice Area, it is possible that the Arctic could reach an ice-free state much earlier than previously predicted. In the face of such calamity, the only solution is the rapid decarbonization of society.

“Historically, we thought of this place as an area that just receives ice,” said David Barber, an Arctic climatologist from the University of Manitoba in Canada who was not involved in the new study. “But these results are teaching us that this is a dynamic area.”

The findings appeared in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

As glaciers melt, new islands are discovered in the Arctic

The effects of climate change are becoming every day more visible in the Arctic. The Russian navy said it has discovered five new islands revealed by melting glaciers when carrying out an expedition in August and September in the area.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The head of the northern fleet, Vice-Admiral Alexander Moiseyev, said this was mainly due to the “changes to the ice situation,” speaking at a press conference. “Before these were glaciers; we thought they were (part of) the main glacier. Melting, collapse, and temperature changes led to these islands being uncovered.”

According to a recent report by the United Nations, glacier loss in the Arctic in the period from 2015 to 2019 was more than in any other five-year period on record. This agrees with other changes seen in the Arctic due to global warming such as ecosystems under threat.

Russia has opened a string of military and scientific bases in the Arctic in recent years, with interest in the region growing as rising temperatures open up shipping routes and make hitherto inaccessible mineral resources easier to exploit.

The summer expedition to two archipelagoes – Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya – involved a team of 60 people, including civilians from the Russian Geographic Society, and was the first onboard a rescue towboat instead of an icebreaker.

“The two months this year when we held our expedition to Franz Josef Land can be described as warm,” said Denis Krets, commander of the northern fleet’s expedition force. “We were very lucky because we could land on islands where not every year the shore and the inshore water is free of ice.”

The islands, which will be named soon, were found in Vize Bay off Novaya Zemlya, a vast mountainous archipelago with two main islands. They had previously been seen on satellite images, but the expedition was the first to confirm them.

Russia’s Defense Ministry also said it had confirmed the existence of an island that had been previously mapped as a peninsula of Hall Island, part of the Franz Josef Land archipelago, west of Novaya Zemlya.

If global warming is stabilized at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the Arctic ocean would only be ice-free in September – the month with the least ice – once in every hundred years. For global warming of 2°C, this would occur up to one year in three.

Permafrost ground that has been frozen for many years is warming and thawing and widespread permafrost thaw is projected to occur in the 21st century. Even if global warming is limited to well below 2°C, around 25% of the near-surface (3-4-meter depth) permafrost will thaw by 2100.

Climate change is affecting the Arctic ecosystem due to extreme weather events

Climate change is affecting ecosystems not only through warming but also by delivering more extreme weather events, according to a new study, which looked at the consequences of snow in the Arctic.

Image Credits: Wikipedia Commons

Back in 2018, snow was spread out in most of the Arctic and did not melt fully until late summer, if at all. Researchers looked at the consequences of this phenomenon by extensively monitoring all components of the local ecosystem for more than 20 years, comparting life last year with other more “normal” years.

The snow conditions of 2018 resulted in the most complete reproductive failure ever encountered and only a few plants and animals were able to reproduce due to abundant and late-melting snow. In order words, the extra snow completely destroyed the breeding season.

While poor reproduction had been observed in individual species before, such poor reproduction across all levels of the ecosystem had never been seen before, according to the research, published in PLOS Biology.

“One non-breeding year is hardly that bad for high-arctic species”, says Niels Martin Schmidt (Aarhus University, Denmark), lead author of the study. “The worrying perspective is that 2018 may offer a peep into the future, where increased climatic variability may push the arctic species to – and potentially beyond – their limits.”

For Schmidt, the study showed that climate change can be hard for ecosystems, highlighting the importance of long-term observations of the ecosystems and the effects of temperature increase.

Home to a diverse and specialized group of organisms, the Arctic and its ecosystems are used to living under severe climatic conditions. But, like the rest of the world, the Arctic is now changing, and the region is experiencing both long-term warming and retreating snow-cover.

The impacts of climate change are being observed earlier in the Arctic, and with more immediate and severe consequences, than in most of the rest of the world. The Arctic is warming at a rate almost twice the global average and reductions in Arctic sea-ice and permafrost and changes in weather are increasingly visible.

Climatic variability and the risk of extreme events is increasing in the Arctic, studies have shown. But, while the consequences of longer-term change are well-documented, almost nothing is known so far about the impacts of climatic variability and extreme events on the Arctic ecosystems.

The last mammoths lived on a remote island in the Arctic

The last woolly mammoths lived on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, a new study reports.

Exhibit at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria (Canada).

An international team of researchers with members from the Universities of Helsinki, the University of Tübingen, and the Russian Academy of Sciences reports that the wooly mammoths likely went extinct due to a combination of habitat isolation and extreme weather events — as well as the spread of ancient humans.

Within a very short timeframe some 4,000 years old, the last population of these animals — which lived on Wrangel Island — went extinct, they add.

Last of the mammoths

“It’s easy to imagine that the population, perhaps already weakened by genetic deterioration and drinking water quality issues could have succumbed after something like an extreme weather event,” says professor Hervé Bocherens from the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen, a co-author of the study.

Mammoths enjoyed great success during the last ice age, from around 100,000 to 15,000 years ago. The species ranged from Spain to Alaska and fared quite comfortably during that time. Around 15,000 years ago, however, temperatures started picking up, and the mammoths’ natural range started to shrink. The Wrangel Island population, the team notes, was cut off by rising sea levels from their mainland counterparts and would live in isolation for the next 7,000 years.

The team examined carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, and strontium isotopes from a large set of mammoth bones and teeth dug up from Northern Siberia, Alaska, the Yukon, and Wrangel Island. These specimens ranged in age from 40,000 to 4,000 years ago. The researchers aimed to document possible changes in the mammoths’ diets over this time (which would be ‘recorded’ in their bones as different isotope ratios) as proxies for the environmental disturbances the species was exposed to.

The results showed that the carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios in the collagen of Wrangel Island mammoths did not shift as the climate warmed up some 10,000 years ago. The values remained unchanged until the mammoths disappeared, seemingly from the midst of stable, favorable living conditions.

Such results show a stark contrast with those obtained from wooly mammoth bones in the Ukrainian-Russian plains, who died out 15,000 years ago. It’s also different from the mammoths of St. Paul Island in Alaska, who disappeared 5,600 years ago. In both cases, the last representatives of these populations (that we’ve found) show markedly-different isotope compositions, suggesting changes in their environment shortly before they became locally extinct.

Earlier research had shown that mammoths on Wrangel Island suffered certain mutations that affected their fat metabolism. In the present study, the team reports finding a different ratio of carbon isotopes in their bones compared to Siberian mammoths, likely due to a difference in the fat and carbohydrates in the diets of the two groups.

The bones of Wrangel Island mammoths also showed higher levels of sulfur and strontium, likely due to increased weathering of bedrock in the area close to the mammoths’ extinction. These elements likely found their way into rivers and streams, affecting the quality of the animals’ drinking water.

All in all, the mammoths of the island disappeared suddenly, but perhaps, not dramatically. The team says short-term events like extreme weather is what likely did them in in the end. A simple icing event can cover the ground in a thick enough layer of ice to prevent the animals from finding food — which is enough to cause a dramatic drop in numbers. Another possible reason is the spread of humans in the area, with the earliest evidence of their presence on the island preceding the last mammoth fossils by just a few hundred years. The chance of finding evidence that humans hunted Wrangel Island mammoths is very small, the team explains, yet a human contribution to the extinction cannot be ruled out.

The study shows just how fragile a small population of large mammals is to environmental shifts and human activity. The team says their findings can help preserve species by aiming conservation efforts at the populations that are not isolated from one another.

The paper “Thriving or surviving? The isotopic record of the Wrangel Island woolly mammoth population” has been published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.