The dazzling icescape at the top of our planet is mutating into a place that is barely recognizable to those who have studied it for years.
The Arctic is home to some of the world's most dramatic climate change, scientists say, with warming oceans and air melting ice at a rate experts never imagined possible. The warming there has drastic implications for the rest of the earth, scientists say.
"The Arctic is a very useful bellwether of change, and it's ringing," Jason Box, an American glaciologist, told NBC News' Ann Curry. Curry traveled to far corners of the globe for "Ann Curry Reports: Our Year of Extremes - Did Climate Change Just Hit Home?"
The special, which takes a look at the Arctic, drought-stricken regions in the American West, rising seas on Florida’s coastline, and extreme weather events all over the world, comes days after a panel of some of the world's top scientists delivered the sobering news that climate change is already being felt in every continent and across the oceans.
"It is a call for action," Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which issued the groundbreaking climate report Monday, told the Associated Press.
Those who have witnessed the Arctic's transformation loudly echo that call.
Aqqaluk Lynge, a leader of the Inuit — the indigenous people of the Arctic regions — told Curry that not long ago, the water behind him was once solid ice and served as a road for Inuit hunters' dogsleds during hunting season. But in the past 20 years, the sea ice has become unpredictable.
"Two years ago here, a young couple died falling through the ice," Lynge said.
"We don't have time to argue. It's here. It's happening and we need to do something."
Now when the Inuit hunt for traditional food for their families, such as walruses and seals, they sometimes have to use their dogs to haul motorboats into the water instead of sledding across ice.
Box, who has been studying Arctic ice for 20 years, accompanied Curry to Iceberg Alley in Greenland. He says the glacier has been discharging ice into the sea for thousands of years, but in the last 10 years, the rate has has doubled.
"Greenland each year recently is losing about 300 billion tons [of ice]," Box said.
The rapid pace of change isn't just in the Arctic: Scientists have observed record ice melt all over the globe, from Alaska to Peru, from the Himalayas to the Swiss Alps.
Though scientists generally do not link specific weather events to climate change, they also say as the earth warms, we will have to get used to living with more extreme weather.
In California, an unrelenting drought has gripped the state — threatening communities and the states farming industry. And since California supplies about half the nation's fruit and vegetables, that could mean food prices will rise.
But drought poses additional threats.
In other places in North America, where communities have developed in wildfire danger zones, millions of people are potentially at risk from longer wildfire seasons.
Amazingly, some scientists say the effect of those longer fire seasons can be witnessed as far as the Arctic. During her journey there, Curry noticed large dark swaths covering parts of the normally white ice.
"Most likely it's dust, but also in that is some wildfire soot," Box said, explaining that some of the soot had traveled from North American wildfires and coated the ice with carbon particles. The problems can multiply from there.
"Light-absorbing impurities trap more sunlight, and that can hasten the melting process," Box said. "It's a good example of human activity and climate change combining in complex ways that further promote melting."
Box is still conducting research, investigating the effect of what he calls "dark snow" on the rate of ice melt.
That the ice is melting is not in doubt. But the impact of ice melt is the subject of an ongoing debate.
Jennifer Francis, a research professor with the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has a bold and controversial theory that Arctic ice melt is changing the polar jet stream in the northern hemisphere.
"As the Arctic is warming faster, it's causing these waves in the jet stream to get larger," she said. As the waves get larger, the jet stream moves more slowly, she says, and that has the effect of holding weather - good or bad - in place.
If we want to stop the impact of climate change, there's no time to waste, experts say. In 2013, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions went up for the first time in years, although they're down 10 percent since 2005.
"We don't have time to argue. It's here. It's happening and we need to do something, and there's an urgency about it," said Keren Bolter, a research scientist at Florida Atlantic University's Center for Environmental Studies.
Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, believes human activity impacts global warming, but does not link recent extreme weather to climate change. And he too believes that urgent action is needed. He argues the introduction of something like a multibillion-dollar government initiative, possibly a carbon tax, may be necessary to fund energy innovation.
"Changing your light bulb is not going to make a big difference. We need to go after the big sources of energy," he said.
According to scientists, a huge volume of greenhouse gases is trapped under permafrost — frozen soil that spans large areas of the Northern hemisphere, at a thickness of up to one mile in places — and that permafrost is showing signs of thawing. If the trapped greenhouse gases escape, Box says there could be severe consequences — something he calls the "doomsday scenario."
"That's climate catastrophe. Runaway climate heating," he said. "That would ravage agricultural systems. We cant feed people, mass starvation, famine, breakdown of civilization."
In the meantime, in the Arctic, some Inuit families are abandoning the melting ice that no longer provides for them. But they have an urgent message for the rest of the world.
"Protect it, take good care of it," said Inuit leader Lynge.
First published April 6 2014, 8:14 AM