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Expand chart
Reproduced from Zachary Labe using PIOMAS data; Chart: Axios Visuals

Rapid climate change is transforming the Arctic, from the bottom of the sea floor to the top of windswept glaciers. Sea ice is disappearing, land-based ice is melting and a domino effect of ecosystem changes have been set into motion, with unknown results.

Why it matters: New research published this week shows the peril that awaits companies that choose to operate in the harsh, unstable region, which is increasingly the focus of oil and gas drilling activity. In addition, sea ice loss may be rewriting global weather patterns, contributing to extreme weather events as far away as the Lower 48 states.

The big picture: The Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the world, owing largely to feedbacks known as “Arctic amplification.” Melting sea ice and snow yields ground to darker ocean waters and land cover, which absorb more of the sun’s incoming energy.

“The Arctic is shifting over time from white to blue,” Karen Frey, a geographer at Clark University, who helped write a federal report on the changing Arctic that was released Tuesday, told Axios in an interview.

  • The changes are making life in the far north less predictable and in some cases, sustainable.
  • For example, during much of last winter, the Bering Sea set a record low for sea ice cover, which altered ocean composition and may have led to mass deaths of seals and seabirds, AP reported.
  • Frey said some places accustomed to sea ice cover 140 days per year saw just 20 days with sea ice last year, causing her to question how resilient ecosystems will be in the face of such massive changes.

Details: Tuesday’s report, known as the Arctic Report Card, found:

  • The annual average air temperature across the Arctic from October 2017 through September 2018 was the second warmest such period on record, just behind the same period in 2015–2016.
  • All 5 of the warmest years on record in the Arctic have come since 2014.
  • The Arctic sea ice cover is becoming thinner, younger and more prone to melting each summer.

Increasing temperatures are causing the once-deep layer of permanently frozen soil, known as permafrost, to melt from within and there's a dramatic new example of how bad it has gotten.

  • Vladimir Romanovsky, a scientist at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, has been monitoring permafrost conditions at sites across the state for more than 3 decades. In 2017, for the first time on record, 25 permafrost stations in central Alaska never froze.
  • “Thaw in summer is now stronger than cooling in winter,” Romanovsky said.

The consequences of these changes include:

  • Cracked home foundations.
  • Gas leaks.
  • Sinkholes.
  • Roads that buckle and require repairs every 2 years.
  • "Drunken forests," with trees leaning sharply after losing their rooting.
  • The release of more greenhouse gases as organisms decompose in newly active soil layers.

The bottom line: Those are just the consequences we know about so far.

Go deeper

Cuomo asks New York AG and chief judge to choose "independent" investigator into sexual harassment claims

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at a press conference on Feb. 24. Photo: Seth Wenig/pool/AFP via Getty Images

A special counselor to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a statement on Sunday asking the state's attorney general and chief judge to jointly pick an "independent and qualified lawyer in private practice without political affiliation" to investigate claims of sexual harassment against the governor.

The state of play: The statement is an about-face from Cuomo, who had previously selected a former judge close to a top aide to lead the investigation, the New York Times reported, a move that was widely criticized.

Republican Sen. Sasse slams Nebraska GOP for "weird worship" of Trump after state party rebuke

Sen. Ben Sasse, (R-Neb.) Photo: Andrew Harnik - Pool/Getty Images

The Nebraska Republican Party on Saturday formally "rebuked" Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) for his vote to impeach former President Trump earlier this year, though it stopped short of a formal censure, CNN reports.

Why it matters: Sasse is the latest among a slate of Republicans who have faced some sort of punishment from their state party apparatus after voting to impeach the former president. The senator responded statement Saturday, per the Omaha World-Herald, saying "most Nebraskans don't think politics should be about the weird worship of one dude."

Cuomo barraged by fellow Dems after second harassment accusation

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo faced a barrage of criticism from fellow Democrats after The New York Times reported that the second former aide in four days had accused him of sexual harassment.

Why it matters: Cuomo had faced a revolt from legislators for his handling of nursing-home deaths from COVID. Now, the scandal is acutely personal, with obviously grave political risk.