An Arctic heat wave sounds like an oxymoron–but welcome to the new normal. The last week of February will see record cold weather in the UK, while in the Arctic temperatures are way above normal. In a few day’s time, London may be colder than the North Pole—as the frigid weather system called the Beast from the East arrives.
But we already know that the changing climate can give us totally weird weather.
In the US last week over the period February 20 – 21, so many temperatures records were broken the meteorologists had a hard time keeping track. One report counted 24 locations in the eastern US that broke or tied local record highs for the month of February.
New York’s Central park hit 24.4°C, while further north in Vermont the mercury rose to almost 27°C. In Pittsburgh, a high of 25°C beat a record set in 1891 by 5.5°C . That’s a huge amount.
Spells of warmer weather during the winters of the northern hemisphere are always welcome. Particularly in February—often the harshest of the winter months. But behind the balmy February temperatures lies a much darker reality.
The Arctic climate is in crisis.
The North Pole is warming more quickly than anywhere else on the planet—double the rate of the rising global temperatures. There are continuing decade-long declines in the extent and volume of sea ice cover, the extent and duration of the winter snow cover, and the mass of the Greenland ice sheet and and Arctic glaciers.
In March 2017, satellites recorded the lowest Arctic winter sea ice extent on record. In August of the same year, the Barents and Chukchi seas experienced surface temperatures up to 4°C warmer than the long-term average.
The polar jet stream has become more variable. A powerful current of air that flows at high altitude around the Arctic like a gatekeeper, it traps the frigid polar air close to the pole. Or rather…it used to.
Now much weaker–it meanders. Wandering north and south like an old elastic band, it sometimes allows frigid Arctic air to descend much farther south—as it did in early February in North America; or—as it meanders in the other direction it does the reverse, and allows much warmer air from the south to breeze northwards—as it’s doing this week in Canada.
But the warming temperatures have strongly negative impacts on the environment.
On the land, the once rock-hard permafrost is softening. Houses built on permafrost lose their foundations; trees lose their grip and tip over producing ‘drunken forests’. Coasts erode as coastline soil softens and crumbles into the sea. The warming permafrost’s ‘active layer thickness’ grows deeper, awakening microbes that feed on carbon stored in the soil—releasing carbon doxide and methane into the atmosphere that fuels further warming—which in turn provokes more emissions, a feedback mechanism that once started may prove impossible to stop.
And trapped in the black organic soil is that silver lining: mercury.
The arctic tundra and the permafrost hold thousands of tons of mercury. It’s an element that occurs naturally in the Earth’s rocks and soils. Released into the atmosphere through natural processes, precipitated by rainfall, drained into the oceans, and finally absorbed into the marine food chain, it is found in trace amounts in all living things. This powerful neurotoxin is now present in every creature—and every human being–on Earth.
The big melt
The ice, of course, is melting. That’s what ice does.
The massive Greenland icesheet, the second largest after Antarctica, has been melting for some time. The figure below from NOAA shows the long term trend.
Recent data show an annual loss of about 265 billion tons a year. That’s a lot of ice –no surprise then that the melting Greenland ice sheet makes a major contribution to global sea level rise.
Sea levels are rising so slowly that looking out to sea you would never notice the difference–but when this year’s Atlantic hurricanes start to power up—fueled by the warmer waters of the Caribbean, the storm surges will be just that little bit higher. And every year they will get higher still.
The extent of sea ice in the Arctic has been declining for decades. Melting sea ice doesn’t raise sea levels, but for the polar bears it’s a disaster. The disappearing sea ice will starve the polar bears to the brink of extinction.
The 2017 Arctic Report Card issued by NOAA calls it the ‘new normal’ .
“These are crazy temperatures”–one alarmed scientist protested . The record temperatures in February were described as “an anomaly among anomalies” .
Welcome to the New Arctic.
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