Higher temperatures during winters in the Arctic are more than just a temporary rise—they’re further signs of the warming of the Earth, and they’ll affect more than just polar bears.
Last year’s temperatures in the Arctic were the warmest on record. “Of nearly three dozen different Arctic weather stations, 15 of them were at least 10F (5.6C) above normal for the winter,” said a story in The Guardian. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet.
When we experience heat waves in the summer (no matter where we are in the world), the consequences of the high temperatures are often immediately obvious: drought, multiple health issues, higher death tolls from heatstroke, more severe wildfires, and crop failures, just to name a few.
When temperatures are abnormally high in the Arctic, the general population in the rest of the world doesn’t notice the effects immediately. The higher temperatures can have an immediate devastating effect on local inhabitants and the wildlife in the area, but they will hit us all in the long run.
The rest of the world will feel the consequences of warmer winters in the Arctic soon enough. Some of those consequences will be rising sea levels from melting glaciers and ice caps, which could be catastrophic for the millions of people living in low-lying areas, especially in Asia; increased release of trapped carbon dioxide and methane gas into the atmosphere as permafrost thaws; less salinity in seawater, causing a change in ocean currents; changes in precipitation patterns; and greater likelihood of extreme weather throughout the Northern hemisphere.
“The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on Earth, and the world is already feeling the effects,” explains a website from the World Wildlife Federation on how climate change affects the Arctic.
Among the species affected by warming Arctic temperatures, many of which depend on Arctic Ocean sea ice cover to survive: polar bears, which could face starvation and reproduction problems by the year 2100, as thinning sea ice isn’t strong enough to sustain their weight; walruses, which are forced to come ashore and can’t find food; and caribou, which have less lichen to feed on. As the seas grow warmer, fish are moving north, which poses a risk for commercial and subsistence fishing.
What about the species Homo sapiens? As air over the Arctic warms up, it pushes frigid air south, and we all feel it in extreme weather. As the World Economic Forum put it in a report:
The really bad news is that scientists have recently linked rapid Arctic warming to extreme weather farther south. Be it frigid cold spells, prolonged floods, persistent warmth, or long dry spells, it’s the persistence of weather patterns that is the connection.
We all know why this is happening. The lack of concrete steps to fight climate change, lessen the reliance on fossil fuels, and promote renewable energy is causing an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, with a projected global increase in temperature. The recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns of the need to limit the rise in global temperatures by 2030, or it will be too late. The report by the World Economic Forum gives a more urgent deadline: “There’s really only one treatment to cut our carbon emissions any way we can do it. We need to bend the emissions curve by 2020."
The average daily temperature in most parts of the Arctic from December through March historically is -20 degrees F, with the usual coldest temperatures occurring in February. So scientists were alarmed when last February’s temperatures reached 45 degrees above normal at one point. The Bering Sea in Alaska lost one-third of its ice in just eight days.
The problem is, these abnormally high temperatures are not a one-year occurrence and have been happening more frequently. In November 2016, for instance, the temperature at the North Pole was 36 degrees above normal. This is going beyond being just a weather anomaly.
Climate scientists worldwide said they have been “stunned” by the abnormal temperatures. According to a story from Live Science:
Weather conditions that drive this bizarre temperature surge have visited the Arctic before, typically appearing about once in a decade, experts told Live Science. However, the last such spike in Arctic winter warmth took place in February 2016 — much more recently than a decade ago, according to the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). And climbing Arctic temperatures combined with rapid sea-ice loss are creating a new type of climate feedback loop that could accelerate Arctic warming, melting all summer Arctic sea ice decades earlier than scientists once thought.
A story last February in Inside Climate News explained it this way:
The Arctic is often referred to as the world's refrigerator—cool temperatures there help moderate the globe's weather patterns. This winter, which has seen deep freezes at lower latitudes while temperatures have soared in the North, it seems like the refrigerator may have come unplugged.
The last two years were the Arctic's warmest on record as the region continued to warm at about twice the global average. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted in its annual Arctic Report Card in December that Arctic sea ice has been declining this century at rates not seen in at least 1,500 years.
Winter in the Arctic is just getting started. The weather forecast for the coming week includes a low of -4 degrees F and highs in the 40s. The weather pattern is being described as a period of “unusual warmth,” with measures of sea ice being the third lowest on record.
Looks like it could be another long, warm winter for the Arctic—one that could be way too warm. And we’ll all end up paying the price.