Hydrology, Cryosphere & Earth Surface News

Arctic Is Experiencing a Warmer “New Normal,” NOAA Reports

The acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Timothy Gallaudet, says the Trump administration is addressing the findings of the agency’s latest annual update on the Arctic.


Recent observations of declining sea ice, persistent elevated temperatures, and other factors confirm that a new climate era endures in the Arctic, according to the just-released yearly, major assessment of the region by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“This year’s observations confirm that the Arctic shows no signs of returning to the reliably frozen state that it was in just a decade ago,” Jeremy Mathis, director of NOAA’s Arctic Research Program, said yesterday as the agency unveiled its 2017 Arctic Report Card.

“Arctic temperatures continue to increase at double the rate of global averages,” he told reporters at a news briefing yesterday at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in New Orleans, La. The mean Arctic air temperature this year over land exceeded the 1981–2010 average by 1.6°C, making it the second-highest average in the observational record after 2016, according to the NOAA report.

The report also found that the thickness of sea ice cover has continued to decline. Ice more than 1 year old composed just 21% of ice cover in 2017, whereas in 1985 it was 45%. Arctic ocean plankton blooms increased, as did overall land vegetation. Record permafrost warming has also occurred at many sites around the Arctic according to 2016 data, the most recent complete set of permafrost observations.

In March, maximum winter sea ice shrank to its smallest extent ever observed in the Arctic, the report also noted. In August in the Barents and Chukchi seas, surface temperatures reached 4°C above average. Amid all the warming, however, melting of the Greenland ice sheet fell below average when compared with the previous 9 years, NOAA found.

The Arctic Report Card “is a valuable annual reminder of the rapid, ongoing evolution of the Arctic region,” John Farrell, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, an independent federal agency, told Eos. The report card’s results “should alarm us all, but the ‘environmental intelligence’ section also shows us what we can do to respond,” he added.

Paul Berkman, professor and director of the Science Diplomacy Center at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, told Eos that the concept of a “new normal” is constructive to prepare the world for the opportunities as well as the challenges that will accelerate with diminished ice in the Arctic.

Arctic Changes and Administration Priorities

In the briefing, Mathis said that Americans should realize that the impact of climate shifts in the Arctic will not stay in the Arctic. “These changes will impact all of our lives. They will mean living with more extreme weather events, paying higher food prices, and dealing with the impacts of climate refugees,” he said.

Retired Navy Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, acting NOAA administrator, also underscored in his remarks that the Arctic’s transformation, including its opening to ship passage, deeply affects both the region and the rest of the planet. He added that the impacts on national and economic security are White House and NOAA priorities.

Despite the Trump administration’s stance on climate change, including proposed budget cuts and plans to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, Gallaudet insisted that the administration, as well as NOAA, acknowledges the gravity of the report.

“I can tell you that NOAA, speaking as the NOAA deputy, is taking action already in terms of advancing our Earth system prediction and model[ling] and observation capability,” Gallaudet said. “That is going to allow us to better inform the public and the administration on the changing Arctic.”

Gallaudet also said that a few weeks ago the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy convened a meeting on this report and on other actions by the federal Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee. “So the White House is addressing [the report] and acknowledging it and factoring it into their agenda,” he said.

Environmental Intelligence

The NOAA report also calls for expanding and improving sustained information gathering “to provide actionable intelligence and forecasting needed by people of the Arctic and other stakeholders,” among other measures.

“As a society, we ignore the Arctic at our peril, and a failure to act on what we know is inexcusable,” Henry Huntington, an independent Arctic researcher and Arctic science director for the Ocean Conservancy, told Eos, referring to the report’s section on the need for improved Arctic observation.

A series of resiliency and adaptation workshops in Alaska’s coastal communities in the past year have highlighted the need to adopt the environmental intelligence framework described in the report card, Molly McCammon, executive director of the Alaska Ocean Observing System, told Eos.

But Berkman said that something is missing from the environmental intelligence approach of the report. “Environmental intelligence as a concept has particular value to integrate natural science data into evidence, especially with system-level models,” he said. “However, evidence requires the integration of natural sciences and social sciences as well as indigenous knowledge, with the latter two arenas of investigation missing entirely from the 2017 Arctic Report Card.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2017), Arctic is experiencing a warmer “new normal,” NOAA reports, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO088979. Published on 13 December 2017.
Text © 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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