Apr 12, 2019 - Energy & Environment

Alaska is feeling the effects of the Arctic's changing climate

Adapted from a study published in IOPScience; Note: LOESS regression used to smooth the data; Chart: Axios Visuals
Adapted from a study published in IOPScience; Note: LOESS regression used to smooth the data; Chart: Axios Visuals

The Arctic region has been pushed into an entirely new climate, one that's outside the experience of longtime residents and native wildlife, shows a new report in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Why it matters: The far north is undergoing profound changes that are affecting the rest of the world — from the melting of permafrost, which releases greenhouse gases, to the disappearance of sea ice.

The big picture: To understand how unusual and consequential Arctic warming is, one need only to look at recent events in Alaska, which this year experienced its warmest March on record, and warmest October through March. The state has had its warmest 6 years on record, too.

Details: People across the state are coping with an unusually early start to spring, according to Dave Snider, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Alaska.

  • This means ice breakups on rivers, life-threatening hunts for food in native communities and many other impacts.
  • The likelihood that Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow) would reach this year's March average temperatures had just a 1-in-250,000 chance of occurring in a given year, Snider tells Axios.

Between the lines: In Talkeetna, north of Anchorage, workers who produce birch syrup had to be called in on an emergency basis, several weeks earlier than normal, because temperatures were rising so quickly, Snider says.

  • Snider thinks the Nanana ice tripod — a webcam of a big stick in the middle of a frozen river — will melt out early this year.
  • The earliest date on record is April 20, Snider says.

The bottom line: March is no fluke. "It doesn’t appear to be a one-off if you do the stats," Snider says. A new Arctic has emerged during the past 40 years, and Alaska is experiencing that firsthand.

  • Due to higher air and sea temperatures, land-based ice in Alaska is being lost at the rate of about 14,000 tonnes per second, William Colgan, a co-author of the study, tells Axios.
  • "This report is part of an emerging genre of climate reports sounding the klaxon that the future is now in terms of virtually all observable Arctic climate indicators."

Go deeper: The Arctic is unraveling as climate change intensifies

Go deeper