“Two hundred sixty-seven billion tons of ice is really hard to put into context, but you could start by imagining a herd of elephants charging into the ocean from Greenland,” Osterberg said. “If you imagine that, we’re talking about 2,000 elephants charging into the ocean every second. That’s how much mass is going from Greenland into the ocean.” — Erich Osterberg, Dartmouth College climatologist
Dead seals, marked with bald patches, washing onto shores or floating in rivers. A 900-mile-long bloom of algae stretching off the coast of Greenland, potentially suffocating wildlife. A giant, underground storehouse of carbon trapped in permafrost is leaking millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, heralding a feedback loop that will accelerate climate change in unpredictable ways.
These are all bleak highlights from the 2019 Arctic Report Card, unveiled on Tuesday at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting. Published annually by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 14th iteration of this peer-reviewed report examines the status of the planet’s northern expanse and changes due to global warming, with potential consequences reaching around the globe.
In addition to scientific essays, this year’s report card for the first time delivers firsthand accounts from indigenous communities confronting the Arctic’s dramatic, climate-caused transformation. More than 70 such communities depend on Arctic ecosystems, which are warming twice as fast as any other location on the planet.
“In the northern Bering Sea, sea ice used to be present with us for eight months a year,” write members of the Chevak, Golovin, Nome, Savoonga, St. Paul Island, Teller, Unalakleet and Wales communities. “Today, we may only see three or four months with ice.”
The 2019 report documented sea ice at its second-lowest level ever recorded during a summer period, out of the last 41 years of satellite observations. This disappearing sea ice not only serves as a natural bridge for Native people hunting for food, but is central to creating the food in the first place. Its loss appears to be tied to dramatic shifts in marine life, as the sea ice helps create cold patches of water where Arctic fish thrive.
Sea ice cover in the Bering Sea on March 20, 2012 (left), and February 24, 2019 (right). Extremely low winter ice extents also occurred in the Bering Sea in 2018 and 2019. NOAA Climate.gov image based on NASA satellite images from Worldview
Without those cooler pools, economically important marine species from the south — walleye pollock and Pacific cod, for example — are migrating northward, complicating business for the billion-dollar U.S. fisheries operating near Alaska in the Bering Sea.
“Major changes are occurring. For example, we closed the cod fishery early — first time in a long time — because of the decline in stocks there,” Retired Navy Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, deputy NOAA administrator, said Tuesday at a press conference in San Francisco. “Our fishery science really is important to ensure we better manage what’s occurring.”
The Bering Sea and the Barents Sea appear to be the major centers of tumult. Fish leaving southern waters are challenging underwater species — like Arctic cod — for the northernmost territory, and may also consume the marine food typically eaten by seabirds, leaving other species hungry.
Over the last year, the Bering Sea has witnessed mass die-offs of short-tailed shearwaters near Bristol Bay, while the same has happened for ivory gulls in Canada, Greenland, Svalbard and Russia. Populations of Canadian ivory gulls have declined 70 percent since the 1980s, according to the report card.
“We as indigenous people have always adapted to our environment — whether something was imposed upon us or not,” Mellisa Johnson, executive director of the Bering Sea Elders, said Tuesday at a press conference in San Francisco. “The Mother Earth is doing what she needs to do because we are not taking care of our land and sea as given. We’re going to continue to adapt and move forward with the change.”
A fledgling short-tailed shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris) on Heron Island, Australia. Shearwaters migrate north of the Bering Strait in the northern summer. Photo by Auscape/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Ivory gull in Svalbard. Photo by Mats Brynolf via Getty Images
Those die-offs may also be due to the rise of algal blooms across the Arctic waterways. Red tides and other harmful algal blooms — typically a phenomena of warmer, southerly waters — are becoming more common in the north, as also detailed in last year’s report.
“Not only are we seeing these blooms in this particular region happening earlier, but they’re also substantially larger than what you would expect even later on in the year,” Karen Frey, a geographer and biogeochemist at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and co-author of the 2019 Arctic Report Card, told the PBS NewsHour.
Frey described the sea ice as a dark cap on the ocean, reflecting sunlight back into the atmosphere, keeping the algae contained and in check. When sea ice declines, large algal blooms are expected to increase.
Marine algae are essentially waterbound plants — they need sunlight and nutrients to multiply. During the winter, they’re mostly inactive because the Arctic is dark, at times for 24 hours a day. This inactivity allows nutrient to build up during the winter months. Then, as sea ice disappears in spring and summer months, sunlight can penetrate into the water, allowing algae to flourish to levels never before seen.
Without that cap, Arctic seas experiencing some of the highest algal production rates in the world, Frey said. She pointed to a 930-mile-long algal bloom — longer than California — recorded off the eastern coast of Greenland in May 2019. Based on observations from NASA’s Aqua satellite, the biomass in this bloom was 18 times higher than any event on record and occurred one month earlier than the typical peak for algal blooms. Earlier blooms suggest larger sea-choking events lasting for longer portions of the year.
Total mass change (in gigatonnes or billions of metric tons) of the Greenland ice sheet between April 2002 and April 2019. Infographic by Megan McGrew
Another issue highlighted in the report is the age of the sea ice, which is becoming younger and younger as the years pass. In 1985, old ice — chunks that have been frozen continuously for more than four years — accounted for 33 percent of sea ice in the Arctic ocean.
“Now, it’s just 1 percent. There’s just this little sliver of this old ice remaining,” said Erich Osterberg, a climatologist at Dartmouth College. That decline is noteworthy because older sea ice is much thicker and harder to melt. “Right now, the vast majority of the sea ice is first-year ice. It’s new ice, about 70 percent of it.”
As sea ice vanishes, it allows ocean water to warm, which in turn increases air temperatures and imperils other forms of frozen water.
Greenland, where Osterberg conducts much of his research, is home to the second-largest ice sheet on the planet — and it is disappearing. The Arctic Report Card shows that roughly 95 percent of the Greenland ice sheet melted at some point in 2019, and the magnitude of ice loss rivaled 2012 as the worst year on record. From 2002 to 2019, Greenland’s ice sheet lost 267 billion metric tons per year, on average.
“Two hundred sixty-seven billion tons of ice is really hard to put into context, but you could start by imagining a herd of elephants charging into the ocean from Greenland,” Osterberg said. “If you imagine that, we’re talking about 2,000 elephants charging into the ocean every second. That’s how much mass is going from Greenland into the ocean.”
These melts appear to be happening faster along the edges of the ice sheet, which speak to other disparities occurring across the Arctic region. Some parts of the Arctic are simply warming faster and faring worse than others from year to year. For example, snow cover over the North American Arctic was significantly lower than that of Eurasian portions, which remained normal last year.
A frozen beach on the Bering Sea coast is seen near the last stretch mushers must pass before the finish line of the Iditarod dog sled race in Nome, Alaska, March 11, 2014. The Bering Sea is experiencing some of the most dramatic changes in the Arctic. Photo by REUTERS/Nathaniel Wilder
The way that permafrost — perennially frozen ground — appears to be thawing may spell ill tidings for atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases. Permafrost holds the corpses of plants, animals and microbes that died in Arctic and boreal habitats over hundreds of thousands of years.
That’s a huge cache of carbon, namely along the southern borders of the Arctic and ranging from 1,460 to 1,600 billion metric tons, currently locked in the ground. If fully released, this permafrost carbon may accelerate climate change faster than currently predicted. And this year’s Arctic Report card spotlights how those gases are already leaking — to the tune of about half a billion metric tons (or 1.1 trillion pounds)–into the atmosphere.
“We’re not really accounting for this extra carbon coming out of the Arctic,” said Ted Schuur, an ecosystem scientist at Northern Arizona University who wrote the report card’s essay on permafrost. For comparison, humans burn enough fossil fuels each year to release about 10 billion metric tons of carbon.
While Arctic communities may be suffering the most now, elsewhere is starting to feel the effects, too — as the warming air disrupts weather patterns, throws off the polar jet stream and causes summer heat waves and winter cold snaps across much of North America and Europe.
“Things that we see happen in the Arctic are kind of foreshadowing what we expect elsewhere,” Schuur said.
By — Nsikan Akpan, digital science producer for PBS NewsHour and co-creator of the award-winning, NewsHour digital series ScienceScope.
By way of explanation – and with apologies to those of you following my blog – a family emergency has claimed my full time attention since Saturday, September 21. I am chief cook, bottle-washer, nurse, homemaker and gopher (among other things) for the next 6 weeks or so. I’ll post here occasionally, but nothing like the usual. Sad, given the urgent nature of global news, the impeachment, and other regional and local news. Alas, I’ll be back. Stay tuned.
At the risk of detracting from important election issues, I will take just a moment to point out a few facts:
The Benicia Independent is a personal blog with my own take on local, national and international concerns of my choosing.
The Benicia Independent is not and does not present itself as a mainstream news media with “balanced” coverage and a staff of reporters who interview and investigate. In my blog postings I hold to ethical standards, citing my sources and maintaining truthfulness and courtesy.
Unlike many personal blogs, the Benicia Independent does post legitimate breaking news stories. This function is increasingly important given the cutbacks in staffing and coverage at our two local newspapers.
The Benicia Independent is not a social media forum like Facebook, Nextdoor or Benicia Happenings. The care and feeding of commenters is beyond my reserves of time and energy.
The Benicia Independent was criticized recently by one of the candidates for City Council at a public forum. That candidate is no doubt miffed by the relative lack of attention he has received on the Benicia Independent. That lack of coverage is intentional. His last-minute, eccentric, unfunded and poorly supported campaign will only draw votes away from more qualified and widely supported candidates.
…following this grand conclusion to our 3½ year volunteer-led effort to defeat Valero’s plan … I was exhausted.
The Benicia Independent – a one-person operation – will be entering an entirely new phase, starting today. I will be on a “sabattical leave” from oil train news for at least the next 3 months, maybe a year.
The Benicia Independent was born in 2007, an act of necessity when many felt that our local print newspaper was not representing candidates for Mayor impartially and fired its editor. The Independent came to life again in 2008-9 to oppose the Seeno development proposal and promote a Green Gateway alternative for Benicia’s last large privately-owned open space. After a period of dormancy, the Independent wakened again for the 2011 elections in Benicia, and again after a period of hibernation, re-invented itself in January, 2014 as “Crude by Rail in the News.”
So … the Benicia Independent has evolved as a single-issue blog on a series of emerging issues of local significance.
Right now, the most important local news to cover is our elections for Mayor and City Council.
There is a CLEAR CONNECTION between our last 3 years of David and Goliath struggle to stop oil trains and the 2016 elections. It is critical that we elect two city officials who gave great leadership in stopping Valero’s proposal: Mayor Elizabeth Patterson and Planning Commissioner Steve Young. The Benicia Independent endorses them both, and will post articles to support their candidacy for the remaining weeks of this election.
>> Mayor Elizabeth Patterson is a long-time environmental scientist and Democrat, with progressive views and a strong record of local and statewide accomplishments. She is being challenged by sitting Councilmember Mark Hughes, a retired PG&E executive and Republican, who is business and development friendly, does not wholeheartedly embrace the science behind climate change, and has voted in support of the Seeno proposal. Hughes’ candidacy is supported by outside PACs, and Mayor Patterson’s election is not at all guaranteed. This is a MUST WIN! More at ElizabethForMayor.org.
>> Planning Commissioner Steve Young was incredibly insightful and persistent when, after 3 years of study and hearings and thousands of pages of environmental review, City staff finally allowed Commissioners to raise questions. Steve was not bullied by 3 years of staff, paid consultants and Valero executives favoring the project. He asked hard and penetrating questions for over 3 hours that night, and helped the Planning Commission come to a unanimous vote to deny oil trains in Benicia – a victory for Benicians, communities uprail from here, and for the planet. Steve is running against 4 other candidates for a seat on City Council. It is important that we defeat Republican media consultant Lionel Largaespada. Steve Young deserves our vote, and he’s definitely got mine. More at SteveYoungForCityCouncil.org.