Failing fast, failing again

Foreground | The Arctic receives its annual report card this week. Passing is not a possibility

Permafrost today. Thawed tomorrow? (Photo: Kobsev)

Kevin McGwin

Regardless of what they tell you, students are rarely surprised by a failing grade. In the same way, those who keep an eye on the Arctic, and its environment in particular, should have a pretty good idea of what NOAA, a US science agency, is going to say when it publishes its annual Arctic Report Card on Tuesday.

Presented each year since 2006, the Arctic Report Card offers a top-to-bottom check of the state of the region’s environment, providing detailed information about how things like sea ice, snow cover, air temperature, ocean temperature, the Greenland ice sheet, vegetation and other aspects of the ecosystem have fared over the past year.

By all accounts, the Arctic is in need of remedial help. While early report cards offered glimpses of promise, of late Noaa has had to come up with different ways of delivering the same message: warming temperatures are causing widespread changes. While the rate of decline has never been consistent, the trend, repeated report cards underscored, is clearly down.

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By 2016, the changes, that year labelled “extensive”, took a turn for the worse. Once only truly pronounced during summer months, the changes in the region had by then become so great that they were now continuing on into winter, robbing the Arctic of its ability to “reset” itself, according to Jeremy Mathis, the head of Noaa’s Arctic research program. In effect, the region was degrading year-round – something seen, for example, in winter temperatures that have risen above freezing multiple times in recent years.

The cumulative consequence of these changes led Noaa, in last year’s report card, to proclaim that a warmer, wetter, more biologically productive Arctic had become the “new normal”. The Arctic will still be colder than most places on earth, and ice will still form in the winter, but previously rarely seen events are now, scientists lament, less extraordinary. One of the effects of this, they point out, is that we become desensitized to the situation, a process they call a “shifting baseline”.

By this point, any changes that have taken place are probably irreversible. Were that only a problem for Northerners, it would probably get overlooked by a general public concerned with their own local issues. Noaa, though, has sought to make the changes relevant beyond the region by warning that the “new Arctic” has a global reach in the form of rising sea levels, more powerful storms in the Northern Hemisphere, and, ironically, deeper cold winter snaps. Noaa has not set a price on the effect of these changes, but multiple studies have calculated the cost to be in the tens of trillions of dollars over the course of several decades.

If the previous report cards are a guide, Noaa will earn an ‘A’ for effort this year. Unfortunately, the region’s grade can be expected to again leave plenty of improvement.

Foreground articles offer a preview of events related to the Arctic that will be taking place in coming week.

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