Global Warming Has Pushed the Arctic into a “New Normal,” Report Says

By: Angela Fritz , 5:35 PM GMT on December 02, 2011

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By Andrew Freeman
Climate Central

Since 2006, the Arctic has been less Arctic — warmer, and with less snow and ice than the region used to have — according to the latest comprehensive analysis of the Arctic environment released today by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

This doesn't come as a huge surprise. Scientists have long expected that greenhouse gases would warm the Far North up faster than other parts of the globe since various feedback cycles unique to the Arctic can magnify relatively small temperature changes (melting ice and snow, for example, let exposed land and water absorb more of the Sun's heat, which melts more ice and snow, and so on). This "Arctic amplification" is one reason why the polar bear, which relies on sea ice for survival, has been the enduring symbol of global warming activism.

arctic warming
This past year (October 2010-September 2011), surface temperatures in the Arctic were 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than average. The image above shows where average air temperatures were up to 3 degrees Celsius above (red) or below (blue) the long-term average (1981-2010). Credit: NOAA


Cute as they are, though, polar bears don't have much to do with the lives of most Americans, so using them as a global-warming mascot sends the message that it's happening far, far away.

But as the new NOAA report makes clear, it isn't. More and more, what happens in the Arctic isn't staying in the Arctic. One of the more intriguing findings of the 2011 Arctic Report Card concerns what some scientists are referring to as the "warm Arctic/cold continents" climate pattern, featuring winds that drive warmer air into the Arctic, while displacing frigid Arctic air masses to the south, into the US and Europe.

When this pattern occurred during December 2010, it contributed to freak snowstorms in the eastern US and western Europe. In western Greenland, meanwhile, and in other parts of the Arctic, temperatures were above average. At Climate Central we like to refer to this pattern as the "Arctic Paradox." We even made a nifty graphic to describe it.This climate pattern may be triggered in part by the loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic, since this alters the exchange of heat and moisture between the Arctic Ocean and the atmosphere.

According to the Report Card, the five deepest summer meltbacks in sea ice in the satellite record, which extends back to 1979, all occurred during the past five years. In 2011, sea ice extent at the end of the melt season was the second-lowest on record, while sea ice volume (that is the ice's extent times its average thickness) set a new record low.

arctic paradox

Jim Overland, an oceanographer at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, notes that during the 2011 melt season, 35 percent of the Arctic sea ice area was lost, and this is only expected to get worse in coming decades as the climate continues to warm. "We're starting to see modifications of weather patterns... it's a major research question over the next few years of how the climate will change overall [in response to sea ice loss]."

According to the report, the warm Arctic-cold continent climate pattern existed in late fall 2010 and part of last winter. During both periods, the report says, "an increased linkage between Arctic climate and mid-latitude severe weather occurred."

The report warns that it's very tough for the Arctic climate system to reverse course from the accelerated warming and melting path that it is on right now. "Once multi-year sea ice and glacial mass is gone," it says, "it is difficult to return to previous conditions."

The peer-reviewed report, which is the result of an international collaboration among 121 researchers from 14 countries, contains many other findings that point to the rapid pace of climate change in the region. Here are just a few of them:


  • In 2011, the average annual near-surface air temperatures over much of the Arctic Ocean were approximately 2.5°F greater than they were in the period from 1981-2010.

  • Starting on June 30, Barrow, Alaska had a record 86 consecutive days above freezing. The previous record was set in 2009, with 68 days.
  • For the sixth straight year, Fairbanks in central Alaska had its first freeze more than two weeks later than the long-term average.

  • The mass loss from Greenland's ice sheet  in 2011 was 70 percent larger than the 2003 to 2009 average of 250 gigatons per year. (Melting of the Greenland ice sheet contributes to sea level rise, whereas melting of sea ice, which is already floating, does not.)

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8. Celsius1939
1:06 PM GMT on December 10, 2011
Calling yourselves scientists is really funny. You have no experiments to show why the earth is warming. To be a legitimate area of science, you need to test hypotheses. You are guessers and explain what has occurred, just like the economists. When you have actually tested something and replicated it, you can call yourself a scientist.
Member Since: December 10, 2011 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
7. Patrap
5:45 PM GMT on December 07, 2011
Kenya stepped up its push for a new deal on climate change as its head of delegation John Michuki arrived in Durban. Michuki joins what is one of the largest delegations ever sent by Kenya to a climate meeting. The delegation of about 100 people is only second to South Africa's on the continent. NTV's Pamela Asigi takes a closer look at that Kenyan contingent.

Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 415 Comments: 125681
5. SPLbeater
4:11 AM GMT on December 07, 2011
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Member Since: August 4, 2011 Posts: 46 Comments: 4481
3. qwerqerwtsdgshsgfh
2:38 AM GMT on December 06, 2011
What about Antarctica? 30% more ice than 20 years ago? What about Greenland 1000 AD when it had farms? Must have been all those SUV's driving around in Europe in 1000 AD
Member Since: November 3, 2011 Posts: 0 Comments: 5
2. Neapolitan
10:22 PM GMT on December 04, 2011
I wonder whether Santa has his elves hurriedly building a floating compound complete with room for elfin workshops and a reindeer landing strip. If not, he'll have to relocate to the South Pole soon, no?

Alarming stuff, Angela (and Andrew, if you read this). How anyone can simply shrug off this and all the outher mounting pieces if evidence as merely coincidence or part of a natural cycle is beyond me...
Member Since: November 8, 2009 Posts: 4 Comments: 13292
1. petewxwatcher
6:17 AM GMT on December 04, 2011
Very bad trend.
Member Since: March 24, 2011 Posts: 3 Comments: 392

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About angelafritz

Atmospheric Scientist here at Weather Underground, with serious nerd love for tropical cyclones and climate change. Twitter: @WunderAngela

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