Unprecedented Arctic weather has scientists on edge
As station chief at NOAA’s Point Barrow, Alaska, observatory, Bryan Thomas works close to the edge of the Arctic Ocean. What he saw from his office in early February, looking north toward the horizon, was troubling.
“I could see what’s known as water-skyoffsite link — the reflection of dark water on clouds on the horizon,” Thomas said. “From land, you can maybe see 10 miles, and the clouds were telling us that somewhere in that distance there was open water.”
Normally, there would be unbroken sea ice for hundreds of miles.
“Here we are in February, when we expect maximum sea ice extentoffsite link,” Thomas added. “This might be all we’re going to get.”
The Arctic’s new abnormal
It’s a time of tumult in the Arctic, with record temperatures and extraordinary sea-ice conditions now becoming the norm. For starters:
Sea ice observed in January in the Arctic was the lowest in the 38 years of satellite recordoffsite links and 100,000 square miles less than 2016. That’s equivalent to the size of Colorado.
The average temperature of 4.4 degrees F in Barrow, Alaska, from November 2016 through January 2017 shattered the old record of 0 degrees set between 1929 and 1930. From 1921 to 2015, the average November-to-January temperature in Barrow was -7.9 degrees F.
Temperatures in the Arctic for the calendar year 2016 were by far the highest since 1900. Each of the past four years was among the top 10 warmest on record.
The late and faltering formation of sea ice this winter is one of many signs of extraordinary change in the Arctic, said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. He added that repeated surges of extremely warm air have stunted the growth of sea ice during fall and winter.
Melt season is dead ahead, and it’s not looking good
Will 2017 set a record for the least amount of sea ice ever recorded at winter’s end? Serreze said it’s probably a given: “We’re starting melt season on very, very bad footing.offsite link”
What’s happening in the Arctic isn’t staying in the Arctic, added Richard Thoman, a meteorologist for NOAA's National Weather Service Alaska Region. Profound changes are coming to the state’s interior as well.
“This winter was cold by today’s climate standards,” Thoman said. “By historic standards, it was completely uninteresting. I’m ready to say beyond any doubt that interior Alaska simply does not experience the temperatures it did in the past. “
The rapid changes are bewildering, even to scientists who’ve studied it for decades.
“We knew the Arctic would be the place we’d see the effects of climate change first, but what’s happened over the last couple of years has rattled the science community to its core,” Serreze said. “Things are happening so fast, we’re having trouble keeping up with it. We’ve never seen anything like this before.”
See how decreasing Arctic sea ice is affecting animal life: Watch "Animals of the Ice" from NOAA Ocean Today.