2017 Arctic Report Card: Warmer Air, Shrinking Ice

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By Adam Allington

The Arctic region continues to be one of the fastest-warming places on the planet, according to a yearly report from a group of international scientists released Dec. 12.

The average annual air temperature over land was the second highest in the observational record in 2017, with a temperature 2.9 degrees Fahrenheit above the average for the period from 1981 to 2010, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-sponsored report.

The Arctic Report Card is a peer-reviewed report based on the research of 85 scientists from 12 nations. The findings are often quite similar from year to year, in terms of rising temperatures and declining sea-ice cover. But that may be precisely why the trend is so alarming to scientists.

“The rapid and dramatic changes we continue to see in the Arctic present major challenges and opportunities,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, acting administrator for NOAA. “This year’s Arctic Report Card is a powerful argument for why we need long-term sustained Arctic observations to support the decisions that we will need to make to improve the economic well-being for Arctic communities, national security, environmental health, and food security.”

Shipping Opportunities Beckon

Michael Sfraga, director of the Wilson Center’s Polar Initiative, notes that impacts on Arctic ecosystems also could lead to more traffic from shipping, tourism and oil exploration in the region, as well as to impacts outside of the Arctic.

Chinese vessels now regularly traverse the Northern Sea Route, the Northeast Passage that stretches across northern Russia.

If sea ice melting continues as it is, those same vessels might soon start slipping across Northern Canada and over to Europe as well. An open and viable Northwest passage is about 5,000 nautical miles shorter than going through the Suez Canal.

“We’re looking at the potential a whole new marine highway,” said Bruce Harland, vice president of Crowley Maritime, a logistics and transportation company headquartered in Florida.

Speaking at the Sustainable Ocean Summit in Nova Scotia on Dec. 1, Harland pointed out that the benefits of Arctic shipping could go beyond the shorter distance by bringing development to large parts of northern Alaska and Canada.

“Dutch Harbor is the only deep-water port in the American Arctic,” said Harland. “There is a crying need in the Arctic for infrastructure development and port development [to service those industries].”

Cumulative Impacts Adding Up

While 2017 saw fewer records shattered than in 2016, NOAA data shows the region also is unlikely to return to the reliably frozen region it was decades ago.

“What I see in this report is that we are really starting to see all of the cumulative effects start to add up,” said Sfraga.

The year 2017 set a record low for sea-ice extent, or how much of the Arctic ocean freezes in winter.
Courtesy: National Snow and Ice Data Center

Sfraga points to the Alaskan village of Newtok, near the central coast, which is attempting to relocate. As frozen permafrost underneath Newtok continues thawing, the village is sliding bit by bit into the Ninglick River.

“Its rapid, really palpable,” Sfraga told Bloomberg Environment. “If the trend lines continue as they are, we’re potentially looking at a whole new Arctic.”

Likewise, an October study published in the journal Nature Communications said the impacts of Arctic warming might be spreading beyond the region itself. This could potentially result in a further drying out of California.

Researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory found that as the Arctic continues to melt it also contributes to a high pressure system known as “an atmospheric ridge” in the Northern Pacific which could be steering storms north toward Alaska and Canada.

Researchers say there is no question that the trend is moving toward an ever-shrinking amount of Arctic sea ice.

But even within that trend, year-to year variation is actually going to get higher, said Brendan Kelly, executive director of the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH), a multidisciplinary study of change in the Arctic. “So what happened last year, not a good predictor of this year. But people will make economic decisions based on these short variations.”

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