Space & Innovation

Arctic Report Card Shows Warming Air, Less Ice

The Arctic has experienced more than twice the level of warming seen elsewhere on Earth.

Surface air temperatures over the Arctic have climbed 5.2 degrees Fahrenheit since the beginning of the 20th Century – more than twice the level of warming experienced elsewhere on Earth, scientists said Tuesday in an annual report.

Between October 2014 and September 2015, the average surface air temperature in the region was 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the baseline average set between 1981 to 2010 - the highest temperature in 115 years, said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cold regions researcher Jackie Richter-Menge.

"In general, air temperatures in all seasons were above average throughout the Arctic, with extensive regions exceeding 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the 1981-2010 baseline," Richter-Menge told reporters at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

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The warmer air contributed to changes in the amount of Arctic sea ice, which peaked on Feb. 25 – 15 days earlier than average. This winter ice pack was the smallest on record since 1979.

In addition, only 3 percent of the ice cover in February and March 2015 was so-called "old ice," which is older than four years. New, first-year ice made up 70 percent of the pack, the research showed.

Three decades ago, 20 percent of the ice pack was more than four years old and just 35 percent of the pack was first-year ice, Richter-Menge said.

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After the summer, the level of sea ice receded to the fourth lowest level on record since satellite observations began in 1979.

"These observations collectively confirm a trend toward a thinner and more vulnerable Arctic sea ice cover," Richter-Menge said.

The changes are impacting Arctic marine animals, including walruses, which have taken to congregating on land, rather than sea ice, said researcher Kit Kovacs, with the Norwegian Polar Institute in Norway.

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"This new haul-out behavior is raising concerns about the well-being of females and their young that must now have to make 110-mile feeding trips, each direction ... rather than just simply going to nearby ice edges as they did in the past," Kovacs said.

"Given consistent projections of continued warming temperatures, we can expect to see continued widespread and sustained change throughout the Arctic environmental system," she added.

The changing Arctic is impacting the rest of the planet as well, said Rick Spinrad, chief scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which released the 2015 Arctic Report Card.

Photographing Skinny Polar Bears: First Person "What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic," Spinrad said. "What happens matters to all of us from strategic, climate and national security perspectives."

The 2015 Arctic Report Card, now in its 10th year, is a collection of 12 independently reviewed essays authored by 72 scientists in 11 countries.

Walruses have taken to congregating on land, rather than sea ice, as ice thins.

Sept. 17, 2012

French photographer Samuel Blanc has been leading tours to Svalbard, Norway's archipelago in the Arctic, since 2007. This year the reduced sea ice extent allowed his expedition aboard the 12-passenger Polaris to circumnavigate the northern islands in early July rather than mid-August. Climate change is having a direct impact on the unique ecosystem isolated on these islands more than 400 miles north of Europe. In the following photos, Blanc gives us a tour of life on the archipelago's largest island, Spitsbergen. You can see more of his work at www.sblanc.com.

Little Auks

In west Spitsbergen, Little Auks, such as those pictured here, and other birds aren't safe on the cliffs. Hungry polar bears have learned to climb the steep gradients in search of food.

Polar Bears and Bleeding Glaciers

The dissolved iron seen in this glacier may help fight climate change. As the iron washes into the northern seas, it can help fertilize phytoplankton blooms that draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Tundra

As global warming melts permafrost in the arctic, more carbon is released into the atmosphere. Meanwhile areas of tundra are also seeing a rise in fires.

Svalbard Reindeer

Walruses

The vast stretch of open water due to thinning of the Arctic sea ice is forcing walruses to often crowd together on beaches.

Bearded Seal

This bearded seal has found a safe spot away from polar bears and sharks. Many seals however also snooze in the water, where they are at risk of becoming of meal for the Greenland shark, the world's slowest shark.

Arctic Fox

Only three percent of the total population of arctic fox are called "Blue fox" and unlike the rest of the population, these blue critters don't turn white in the winter.

Arctic Foxes

These foxes are showing their summer colors.

Ivory Gull

Sabine Gull

Svalbard Poppy

Spitsbergen, Svalbard