Only 366 Endangered Right Whales Are Alive: New NOAA Report


But not this year. For the first time since records have been kept, open water still laps this coastline in late October though snow is already falling there.

“In one sense, it’s shocking, but on the other hand, it’s not surprising,” said Walt Meier, a research scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). Over the past 40 years, unprecedented climate change-driven events such as this have become the new normal in the Arctic — which is heating up far faster than the rest of the planet.

While weather patterns at the top of the world vary, the overall changes are dramatic and occurring so rapidly that the region may be entering a “new Arctic” climate regime, says Laura Landrum, an oceanographer with Colorado’s National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The Arctic is transitioning from a mostly frozen state into an entirely new climate — and impacting the entire planet, she said.

Meier calls the Arctic the “bellweather of climate change” because it’s a place where a small bump in temperature has real impact: a change from -.5°C to .5°C (31°F to 33°F) is the difference between ice skating and swimming, he said, while a couple of degrees warmer in Florida may not even be noticed.

Comparison of autumn sea ice formation for the first half of October 2012 (the record year for Arctic sea ice extent loss) and in 2020 (second place for sea ice extent loss). The satellite record goes back to 1979. @Icy_Samuel, data provided by NSIDC

An Extreme Year in a Region Known for Extremes

It’s been quite a year in Siberia — on land, and off the Arctic coast. The first six months were extraordinarily warm and the sea ice began melting early. By May, fires burned in permafrost zones that are usually frozen year-round. In June, temperatures hit a record-breaking 38°C (100°F), and by September, blazes incinerated about 14 million hectares (54,000 square miles) of tundra — an area the size of Greece.

A combination of changing climate and quirky weather are now preventing this fall’s freeze-up. Siberian sea temperatures are higher than usual because of this year’s extreme climate events. The heat wave warmed the many rivers that feed into the Arctic Ocean and also triggered an early melt-out. Without ice and snow that acts like a mirror — reflecting the sun’s heat back into the atmosphere — the dark ocean absorbed extra warmth over the summer. Much of the remaining ice disintegrated. Then in September, unusually strong, warm winds blew in from the south, pushing any newly formed ice out to sea.

In the past, a shift in the winds wouldn’t have mattered much. Back in the 1980s, Igor Polyakov, a climate scientist at the University of Alaska, remembers being part of expeditions that landed small seaplanes on sea ice to study the Siberian Arctic. He described the Laptev Sea as a solid, glaring white landscape punctuated by pastel-tinged ice: rose-colored, light blue and green. Since the regions’ deeply cut gulfs and bays are located in shallow continental shelf waters, they mostly stayed frozen.

But by summer 2002, sea ice was less stable, and today, ice breakers can travel the region through open water. “The changes are dramatic,” he said. “It happened in front of our eyes. Now, in the summer, there’s no ice at all for thousands of kilometers, sometimes as far north as the 85th parallel.” That’s five degrees from the North Pole.

In the 1980s, about 80% of the Arctic Ocean and its surrounding seas were frozen in thick, “old ice” that mostly survived the summer melt, said James Overland, an oceanographer with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who has studied the Arctic for decades. “Now much of that has to refreeze each winter. We did not expect to see this so soon.”

Arctic sea ice extent on Oct. 25, 2020 was at a record low 5.613 million square kilometers for this date, surpassing the record set in 2019 of 6.174…

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