Warming Arctic is 'new normal', will affect us all

A man walks in the water after a surf session in Unstad's bay in the arctic circle, on Sept 21, 2017.
A man walks in the water after a surf session in Unstad's bay in the arctic circle, on Sept 21, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

MIAMI • A rapidly warming Arctic, where temperatures are rising twice as fast as the rest of the planet, is the "new normal", and the melting ice is triggering environmental changes that will affect the whole world, warned a global scientific report.

The Arctic is going through "an unprecedented transition in human history" that will accelerate sea level rise and boost the frequency of extreme weather events, said the Arctic Report Card, released annually by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The region around the North Pole "shows no sign of returning to the reliably frozen region it was decades ago", it said.

Last year, winter sea ice fell to the smallest extent on record, and air temperatures reached the second warmest in modern times, said the peer-reviewed report compiled by 85 scientists from 12 nations.

Fewer heat records were shattered this year, compared to 2016. But in context, the trend was clear.

"The magnitude and pace of the 21st-century sea ice and surface ocean warming decline is unprecedented in at least the last 1,500 years and likely much longer," said the report. "There are many strong signals that continue to indicate the Arctic environmental system has reached a 'new normal'."

The consequences of this continued warming are dire, according to co-author Jeremy Mathis, director of NOAA's Arctic Research Programme.

GLOBAL IMPACT

The changes that are happening in the Arctic will not stay in the Arctic... These changes will... mean living with more extreme weather events, paying higher food prices and dealing with the impacts of climate refugees.

DR JEREMY MATHIS, director of NOAA's Arctic Research Programme.

"The changes that are happening in the Arctic will not stay in the Arctic," he told the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, where the report was released. "These changes will impact all of our lives. They will mean living with more extreme weather events, paying higher food prices and dealing with the impacts of climate refugees."

The warming is already harming valuable fisheries in the eastern Bering Sea, compromising roads, homes and infrastructure due to permafrost thaw and risking increasing wildfires at high altitudes, said the report.

"The Arctic has traditionally been the refrigerator of the planet," explained Dr Mathis. "But the door to that refrigerator has been left open and the cold is spilling out, cascading throughout the northern hemisphere."

Scientists say the two most pressing problems are the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the warming of Arctic air and water.

"Greenland ice sheet melting has the potential to trigger catastrophic sea level rise, while the overall warming that is occurring in the Arctic can disrupt the jet stream, which drives our weather patterns and contributes to extreme weather events," said Dr Mathis.

Unusual cold snaps, drought in the western US, and storms along the Gulf Coast could all be influenced by Arctic sea ice melting, he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2017, with the headline 'Warming Arctic is 'new normal', will affect us all'. Print Edition | Subscribe