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The Arctic is unraveling as climate change intensifies

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.

This story first appeared in Axios Science

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