Damages increase as warming Arctic threatens entire ecosystem
December 21, 2022
Disruptions in Alaska over the last year, some of them threatening health and safety of people, are part of the ongoing pattern of rapid warming and transformation of the Arctic, said an annual report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Last December’s record-wet weather in Fairbanks, marked by crushing snow loads and winter rain that left a thick, long-lasting layer of ice on the ground, was one of those disruptions.
So were the August deluge that produced the rainiest day on record in Utqiagvik, the record-setting wildfires on the tundra of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and another year of seabird die-offs in the Bering Strait region are also among the effects in Alaska of dramatic climate change in the northernmost part of the world, according to NOAA’s 2022 Arctic Report Card, released on Dec. 13.
The Arctic Report Card, the 17th in a series that started in 2006, was released at the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union, held this year in Chicago. It summarizes a year’s worth of changes in temperature, sea ice, snow cover, ocean conditions, vegetation and other key parameters.
“Few parts of the world demonstrate such extreme seasonal shifts in temperature, land and ocean cover, ecological processes, and wildlife movement and behavior as the Arctic,” the report says in its executive summary.
Arctic air temperatures for the 12-month period from October 2021 to last September were the sixth warmest on record — with all seven warmest occurring in the past seven years, the report said.
Arctic-wide, a pattern of increased precipitation has emerged since 1950, with increased precipitation evident in the Arctic in all seasons of the year, the report said.
The 12-month period was the third wettest in a record stretching back 72 years, according to the report. Much of the precipitation is in the form of rain —and was consistent with predictions for the future as sea ice continues to retreat, leaving more open water to evaporate, and as warmer air temperatures hold more moisture. One recently published study forecasts that rain rather than snow will become the dominant form of precipitation in all parts of the Arctic by the end of the century.
How quickly that will happen depends on the location in the Arctic, said John Walsh, chief scientist at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the lead author of the chapter on precipitation.
“At the fringes, the transition is essentially occurring already in the next few decades, we’re going to see a transition from snow to rain, and rain will become the major part of precipitation yearly over most of the fringes,” Walsh said at a NOAA-led news conference Dec. 13.
In farther north and colder places like eastern Siberia, “it’s cold enough that this increase in precipitation will be actually increasing the total snowfall during the winter,” he said.
Heavier rains in the Arctic have multiple effects, including an acceleration of permafrost thaw and negative impacts for tundra-grazing animals like caribou.
The pattern over the year-long period summarized by the Arctic Report Card was one of contrasting extremes, with some areas becoming soaked and others parched to the point of drought. That is what happened in Alaska, scientists said, and it is also consistent with predictions for Alaska’s future, as detailed in a recent study co-authored by Walsh.
One of the most impactful — and wettest — climate events in Alaska was the product of unusual warming well to the south and west. Typhoon Merbok, which pummeled western Alaska in September, had its origins in a part of the Pacific Ocean that is usually too cold to produce typhoons. But that area, east of Japan, heated to record-warm levels this year.
Because the site is geographically closer to Alaska than is the area where most fall typhoons form, Merbok did not have the time or space to dissipate before it slammed into western Alaska.
The trend of Arctic greening continued over the past year, with Alaska’s North Slope and Arctic Canada showing the most pronounced expansion of plants, shrubs and trees into tundra landscapes.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is another site with dramatic greening, with wildfires fueled by that transformation. Fires that erupted on the delta’s tundra included the largest and second-largest tundra fires on record for the region; until 2015, wildfires in the treeless tundra of that part of Alaska were small — if they occurred at all.
“I think it’s a nice example — ‘nice’ in quotes there — how cumulative change is impacting some of these extreme events,” Rick Thoman, a scientist with UAF’s Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy and one of the lead editors of the Arctic Report Card, said at the news conference.
“As the elders are telling us, there is much more fuel, there’s much more vegetation on the tundra now than there was 50 years ago. In the transition from the boreal forest and the tundra, the trees are growing farther away from the river, the trees near the rivers are larger.” That combines with more lightning, he said. “In the Y-K Delta, we’ve crossed some threshold. There is now enough fuel. We are getting enough lightning that things are burning in a way that they didn’t used to.”
In the northern Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea, the die-offs of seabirds like shearwaters, auklets and puffins represented the sixth consecutive year in which large numbers of dead birds were found in Alaska. The bird carcasses have been discovered in emaciated condition, pointing to a lack of food in the ecosystem or some kind of inability of the birds to find food.
Those bird die-offs contrast to the condition of geese across the Arctic, where most populations are stable or increasing. That includes Alaska’s North Slope, where lesser snow geese are thriving.
Surveys on the Colville River Delta have found that lesser snow geese and black grant have adjusted to climate change by arriving and nesting earlier with warmer springs and quicker snowmelt, the report card said. Goose populations there might be benefiting from permafrost thaw and erosion, “which have allowed nitrogen-rich salt-tolerant vegetation to replace less digestible freshwater meadows,” the report said.
For the Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic, the rapid change presents some dire challenges — but also an opportunity to use the traditional skills that have helped people adapt to past changes, according to the Arctic Report Card’s final chapter, which is co-authored by Native scientists from around Alaska.
More reliance on Indigenous knowledge can help people respond to the challenges posed by climate change, one of the chapter authors of the chapter said.
For a long time, the science establishment overlooked or ignored Arctic people, but that has now changed, said Jackie Qatalina Schaeffer, director of climate initiatives for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.
The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com.