Temperatures in the Arctic last year were among the highest on record, and the region continues to see the dramatic shifts that put it at the cutting edge of climate change’s effects, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The Arctic, which continues to warm at about twice the rate of the rest of the globe, saw its seventh-warmest polar year on record (from September 2020 through October) and the warmest autumn since 1900.
The Greenland ice sheet continues to lose mass and in August, its 10,500-foot summit saw rain for the first time in recorded history.
Ships are pushing deeper into the Arctic as the region loses sea ice, bringing noise and marine trash to new places. In each of the past 15 years, the extent of Arctic sea ice has been among the 15th-lowest in recorded history.
“Climate change has clearly arrived in the Arctic and created an environment fundamentally different than what was experienced by our parents and generations before them,” Twila Moon, an Arctic scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center and one of three editors of the peer-reviewed report, said during a news conference Tuesday.
These changes are among many that continue to threaten and disrupt life across the region, according to the report, which is called the Arctic Report Card. Scientists say it is urgent to identify climate hazards that could harm communities and infrastructure in the fast-warming region.
Warming can increase landslide risk and degrade permafrost, which can threaten supplies of drinking water and the ability to support structures.
Scientists view the dramatic changes in the Arctic as a harbinger for other areas.
“The vulnerabilities in the Arctic are more noticeable in today’s world with the arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe, but we’ll see vulnerabilities unfold for our entire planet in decades to come,” said Matthew Druckenmiller, of the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
The Arctic is warming faster than other parts of the globe because of polar amplification, a trend that allows more energy to be absorbed in summer months and is driven by atmospheric circulation patterns and other factors like the decrease of surface ice.
Arctic sea ice is now thinner and weaker. Within the next 30 years, scientists expect to see a summer without sea ice.
"We’ve lost most of the old ice already and that's a fundamentally different environment," said Walt Meier of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. "We’re on a trajectory as temperatures continue to increase toward a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean, but exactly what year is going to depend."
These changes are expected to change the growth of the phytoplankton at the base of the Arctic food chain, open navigation for shipping and force changes to how Indigenous communities hunt and travel.
The Arctic Report Card has been published every year since 2006, with similar themes. This year’s report was compiled by 111 scientists from 12 nations.
A new development in the 2021 report: Beavers, the world’s great landscape engineers, are colonizing western Alaska. Beaver ponds have doubled in number since 2000 on most parts of the Alaska tundra, the report says.
Scientists usually view the presence of beavers in the Lower 48 states as a boon. They help build complex ecosystems and environments rich in biodiversity.
But in Alaska, their activities are helping melt carbon-trapping permafrost by redirecting water.
"It’s a big change to have them moving into the area," said Kaare Sikuaq Erickson, a liaison between Indigenous communities and researchers, adding that the rodents' presence changes boat access, water quality and how fish interact within ecosystems. "There are some winners and losers in this climate change thing. However, there are lot more losers."
Sikuaq, who is based in the Bering Sea village of Unalakleet, said community members were deeply concerned over the environmental changes being observed, but also resilient because of the remote and harsh nature of their surroundings.
"In the Arctic, we have to put things aside and focus on practical solutions or we won’t survive," Sikuaq said, calling for other communities to reject polarization and work together to solve climate problems.