Once again, Arctic Report Card says abnormal the new normal

Reasearchers on some spotty sea ice

The 2020 Arctic Report Card is out, and results show life in the Arctic is heating up — faster. This year was the second-warmest on record in the Arctic, directly affecting sea ice, erosion and marine ecosystems.

In 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its first Arctic Report Card, laying out a timely, baseline snapshot of how the coldest parts of the world look as the climate warms.

Rick Thoman is a climate specialist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“Things were starting to change rapidly enough that folks were interested in this near-real time update of a variety of the different parts of the Arctic system,” he said.

Fifteen years later, Thoman is the lead editor of the 2020 Arctic Report Card. He said even though Arctic Alaska didn’t experience highly unusual weather patterns this year, the Arctic as a whole did.

“Some place in the Arctic every year has some extreme. It varies place to place,” Thoman said. “This year, Siberia, especially Western Siberia, was the focus of the warmth: the very early snow melt, the wildfires, some of which were overwinter fires — zombie fires. Last year was Alaska. A couple years ago, it was Greenland.”

Thoman said even though Alaska didn’t have the highest intensity impacts of a warming climate this year, it’s still following the same trend.

“Whatever the trend is, there’s always going to be years above and years below that,” Thoman said. “We’re at the point now, though, for instance, with erosion: It wasn’t as much as last year, but it’s always going to be more than it was in the 1950s.”

One of the facets of the Arctic most affected by the warming climate is sea ice. Thoman said this year followed a trend of shrinking sea ice in the Arctic.

“The lowest it got at any point [this year] was the second lowest [on record]. Only the 2012 minimum extent was lower,” Thoman said. “And in the winter, the maximum extent it got on any one day was the 12th lowest.”

The limited reach of sea ice interrupts many Arctic systems, forcing marine mammals such as walruses and seals to haul out on tiny patches of land rather than the thick, rich floes they’re accustomed to. Thoman said bowhead whales in Alaskan waters are in a slightly better position than other marine mammals, since they can swim much farther to find zooplankton.

“If their food supply is very far north one year, because that’s where the ice is, they have the ability to go and get that food, unlike other species which have a much shorter range,” he said.

While hungry whales have a work-around, Thoman said new feeding routes have the potential to upset subsistence whale harvests from Alaska’s northernmost Indigenous populations.

“From a whale perspective, if they have to go 600 miles off the Alaska coast to find food, that’s not a problem,” Thoman said. “At what point it becomes … the whales are there, but they’re not accessible for Alaskans? That’s a different question.”

In summary, Thoman said what was once abnormal or unusual in terms of Arctic climate is the new normal. The Arctic is transforming. Populations — zooplankton, marine mammals, and people alike — will have to adapt.

Wesley Early is a reporter with Alaska Public Media, covering municipal politics and Anchorage life.

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