Surface air temperatures in the Arctic are warming at twice the rate relative to the rest of the globe. Continued warming of the Arctic atmosphere and ocean are driving broad change in the environmental system in predicted and, also, unexpected ways. New emerging threats are taking form and highlighting the level of uncertainty in the breadth of environmental change that is to come.

Source: NOAA Arctic Report Card 2018



A 35-year trend in arctic sea ice melt season length, in days per decade, from passive microwave satellite observations, illustrating that the sea ice season has shortened  by more than 60 days in coastal Alaska over the last 30 years {Parkinson, C., L., 2014}.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the planet as a whole. It is therefore important to understand these Arctic changes, not only because they are likely to be most readily observed in this temperature-sensitive region, but also because they provide insight into the general nature of resilience and vulnerability that may occur on the rest of the planet if climate continues to warm. The Arctic is projected to continue warming much faster than the rest of the planet if greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere.

Managing the responses of ecosystems and society to recent and projected warming requires that we understand not only the changes in climate, but also the changes in ecosystems and their cumulative effects on society. In particular, it is important to know how these processes interact and when these interactions lead to either non-linear (either magnifying or stabilizing) responses or threshold changes in the behavior of the system. Loss of sea ice, glaciers, or permafrost (permanently frozen ground), for example, might dramatically alter the Arctic for both ecosystems and society (Source: U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit).

Since the early 1980s, annual average arctic sea ice extent has decreased between 3.5% and 4.1% per decade, and September sea ice extent, which is the annual minimum extent, has decreased between 10.7% and 15.9% per decade.  As the climate continues to warm, it is likely that there will be a sea ice-free Arctic during the summer within this century. Sea ice provides an important surface for algal production and growth in marine ecosystems during spring. This production beneath the sea ice is an important source of carbon for pelagic (mid- to upper-water column) grazers, such as copepods and krill, and for benthic (lower-water) detritivores, such as clams and worms that feed on dead, organic material. In turn, the abundance of these animals provides food for higher trophic-level organisms such as fish, birds, and mammals in regional marine ecosystems. The presence or absence of sea ice affects the transfer of heat, water temperature, and nutrient transport, as well as other processes (such as the breakdown or transformation of organic matter into its simplest inorganic forms) that affect ecosystem productivity.  In the Arctic, higher-level organisms such as Arctic cod, polar bears, and walruses are dependent upon sea ice for foraging, reproduction, and resting and are directly affected by sea ice loss and thinning (Source: Chapter 26 of the Fourth National Climate Assessment).

Guiding Concepts

  1. Understand changes in Arctic ocean chemistry, as well as historical and projected changes in sea-ice extent and the impacts of these changes on coastal communities.

  3. Understand the changing trends of melting glaciers, snow, and ice, and resulting impacts on hydrologic systems.

  5. Identify changing patterns of Arctic weather and extreme events.

  7. Identify the impacts of thawing permafrost on Arctic vegetation, hydrology, and wildfire extent and frequency.

  9. Understand and plan for the impacts of a changing Arctic on resource development, transportation, and infrastructure.

  11. Help resource managers become more resilient to the impacts of climate change on Arctic ecosystems, communities, and cultures.

  13. Understand how current and changing conditions, (e.g., sea-ice retreat, methane emissions, polar vortex, etc.), in the Arctic affect the rest of the world, as well as how the rest of the world impacts the Arctic (e.g., changing transportation patterns, changing weather patterns, air pollution, etc.).

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Updated on November 5, 2019