Cascading Effect – Arctic Report Card 2016

Climate cascading effect Arctic Report Car 2016
Arctic view of Earth / NASA

“We’ve seen a year in 2016 in the Arctic like we’ve never seen before,” reported Jeremy Mathis, Director of NOAA’s Arctic Research Program. Mathis presented the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Report Card for 2016, the newest installment of an annual peer-reviewed report summarizing changing conditions in the Arctic. Mathis: “The report card this year clearly shows a stronger and more pronounced signal of persistent warming than in any previous year in our observational record. And those warming effects in the Arctic have had a cascading effect through the environment.”

“What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” Mathis stated. Changes there have implications which reach beyond the Arctic region to the rest of the world.

The Arctic Report Card was released in December at the annual American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco. The AGU Fall meeting is the largest Earth and space science meeting in the world. #AGU16

The Arctic has been called a sentinel system; visible climate change impacts there warn of what’s to come. Scientists hope the information they share about Arctic change can inspire informed decisions and direct Earth’s leaders.

Measuring and tracking Arctic change helps forecast our future. “We need to do these sustained observations to help provide actionable information and intelligence,” Mathis urged. “The issues that we’re facing today in the Arctic include food security, cultural survival, environmental and community health, as well as extensive development opportunities. And these opportunities are related to commerce, and trade, as well as national security,” Mathis said. “We just need to make sure that we are providing the information to the residents and to the stakeholders so that our responses are effective and as good as they can be.”

Warm temperatures

The 2016 report recorded spring snow cover area  in North American Arctic as the lowest recorded in the satellite record (beginning 1967). When we lose snow and ice cover (which have high albedo, or reflectiveness), less solar heat is reflected away from Earth. Dark land and ocean surfaces absorb the sun’s heat much like dark leather in a car.

Frontier Scientists video: Snow is White

“A persistent warming trend in air temperature over the Arctic is driving the changes that we are observing,” stated Donald Perovich, Adjunct Professor of Engineering, Thayer School of Engineering, Dartmouth College. He elaborated: ”Arctic air temperature continues to increase at double the rate of the average global temperature. Since the beginning of the 20th century Arctic-wide annual average air temperature overland has increased by 3.5 degrees Celsius—that’s 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Between October 2015 and September 2016 this air temperature was 2 degrees Centigrade or 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1981–2010 baseline. This marks the highest value in the observational record, a record that began in 1900.”

Arctic Report Card 2016 / NOAA
Arctic Report Card 2016 / NOAA

Thawing permafrost

As temperatures rise, long-frozen soils called permafrost become vulnerable to climate change. Marco Tedesco, Research Professor, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, explained “Warming air temperatures in the Arctic are causing normal[ly] frozen ground called permafrost to thaw. The permafrost is carbon-rich, and when it thaws, it gives off greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane.” Those greenhouse gasses add to climate warming. Though it’s not positive for humanity’s future, this self-reinforcing cycle is called a positive feedback loop: warming temperatures make permafrost thaw, releasing greenhouse gasses which encourage warming temperatures. While permafrost soils contain roughly twice as much carbon as that currently contained in the atmosphere, it is difficult to pinpoint exact measurements about how much carbon permafrost thaw will release and how quickly it will do so, making this an ominous component of future climate conditions. Where permafrost underlies infrastructure in i.e. Alaska, a more unstable ground also creates challenges for roads, pipelines, homes and industry.

Frontier Scientists video: Thawing Permafrost at Wolverine Lake

Sea ice

Perovich, lead editor for the sea ice segment of the report, recalled “Back in the first [2006] report card I gave the sea ice cover a B-. And this year I’d say it’s a D+.” He added “I’m an easy grader.”

Arctic Report Card 2016 / NOAA
Arctic Report Card 2016 / NOAA

At summer’s close, the area Arctic sea ice covered was dramatically small. The report notes “Minimum sea ice extent at the end of summer 2016 tied with 2007 for the second lowest in the satellite record, which started in 1979.” At the same time sea ice extent (area) is transforming, more of the ice has transitioned from old, thick multi-year ice capable of surviving over the summer to more vulnerable first year ice. “What we’re seeing right now is the first act of a three-act play,” Perovich described the state of Arctic sea ice. “We’re seeing the fall freeze-up has been very slow and we have a record minimum ice extent. Act two will come in March when we see what the maximum is, and act three of course will be next September.” How will sea ice fare then?

Frontier Scientists video: First Year or Multi-Year Ice

Perovich: “We’ve been doing the report card for 11 years, and when it started you kind of had to listen closely, because the Arctic was whispering change, and now it’s not whispering anymore. It’s speaking change. It’s shouting change.”

Access further details from the 2016 report, and past reports, at

Frontier Scientists 2016

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