Science Policy & Funding News

Arctic Report Card Emphasizes Continued Dramatic Change to the Region

The Arctic region continues to face significant environmental changes, according to a new report issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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With the United States assuming the rotating chairmanship of the intergovernmental Arctic Council in April 2015, a newly released Arctic Report Card points to continued concerns about dramatic environmental changes in the region.

The key points in the report card include the following findings: air temperatures continued to increase at a warming rate more than twice that of lower latitudes, snow cover extent across the Arctic during spring 2014 was below the long-term average of 1981–2010, and sea surface temperature and upper ocean temperatures in the seas on the margins of the Arctic Ocean are increasing as sea ice retreats in summer and previously ice-covered water is exposed to solar radiation.

The report card, which has been issued annually since 2006, was released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at a 17 December news briefing at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Calif.

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Polar bear on ice flow in Wager Bay (Ukkusiksalik National Park, Nunavut, Canada). Photo by Ansgar Walk, CC BY-SA 3.0

Other findings include the following: Declining summer sea ice extent is leading to increasing primary production in the ocean, and in regions with good data, growing evidence shows that polar bears are being adversely affected by changing sea ice. In addition, ice on land in Greenland experienced extensive melting again in 2014; however, total ice mass did not change significantly between 2013 and 2014, and the age and thickness of sea ice modestly increased between 2013 and 2014.

According to the report, “change continues to occur in both the physical and biological components of the Arctic environmental system. However, it is a complex system and there are spatial and temporal variations in the magnitude and direction of change, and there are some apparent mixed signals.”

Continued Trends of Change

“The impacts of the persistent warming trend of over 30 years remain clearly evident in the land and ocean environments, and these impacts are influencing the Arctic marine and terrestrial ecosystems,” said report card principle editor Martin Jeffries, science advisor and program officer for Arctic and global prediction at the Office of Naval Research. “Given consistent projections of continued warming temperatures, we can expect to see continued widespread and sustained change throughout the Arctic environmental system,” he said.

“We won’t see those changes if we don’t at least maintain and sustain our current long-term observing system,” Jeffries added.

Arctic Council Chairmanship

At the briefing, Craig McLean, acting assistant administrator of NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, said that when the United States assumes the Arctic Council chairmanship for a two-year term, some of the priorities that will be proposed to the council are key topics for geoscientists, including science research on climate change.

In an interview with Eos, McLean said the U.S. chairmanship will seek to balance potentially competing interests—such as environmental protection and development—by working cooperatively with other countries. This balancing effort will be driven by principles outlined in the White House’s national ocean policy. He said the policy includes “having a balanced perspective and letting all needs be identified, letting science drive the decision making, [and] letting ecosystem principles be guiding us.”

Simon Stephenson, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) assistant director for polar science, said at the briefing that “the State Department is creating the package of proposals to discuss with the other countries. What we are actually going to do under our chairmanship is not yet settled. That said, one of our priorities is to understand the Arctic’s role in climate and perhaps begin a set of mitigation activities with those Arctic countries.”

Stephenson told Eos that it is U.S. policy to work to balance different concerns, including those related to development and the environment. “We strongly support economic growth. We also strongly support rights to indigenous people. And I think as we move forward, to have the correct dialogs going on under the council or nationally is important. And so, if the U.S. can involve other countries and learn from them and share best practices, for example, that would be a very positive outcome,” he said. That conversation “will transcend our chairmanship. It’s not a two-year deal. It’s a deal that will go on for decades probably.”

Stephenson also commented that the report’s finding of no mass loss of ice in Greenland despite extensive melting was governed by the report’s cutoff date. “There is new data that is not in this report that is indicating that the mass loss has resumed,” he said. “But you still have to look at the year of no mass loss.”

Perspectives on the Report Card

Several scientists provided perspective to Eos about the report and the need for maintaining Arctic observation capabilities.

Brendan Kelly, former OSTP assistant director for polar sciences, told Eos that the report is “very important” and that it mirrors a bigger conversation “about what are the really critical variables that we should be monitoring and observing in the Arctic in the long term.” Kelly, who is director of conservation research and chief scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said, “Frankly, we have not done very well in answering that question. There is a very long laundry list of things that could and should be useful to measure, and we’re not going to measure them all. We are resource-limited.” Nonetheless, Kelly stressed the importance of understanding what is happening to ice volume as well as ice extent and also of having more consistency in sustaining spatial observations.

John Farrell, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, told Eos that it is important not to focus too much on the dramatic linear changes in a lot of the metrics about Arctic conditions in the report. “What I find particularly important or interesting from some of the biological and ecosystem changes is that as the climate continues to warm and the Arctic changes, there are winners and losers in the Arctic. Certain species in certain regions actually are thriving compared to previous states and conditions, whereas others are suffering to a greater extent.”

He added, “The whole concept of winners and losers is something to keep our eyes on as the Arctic continues to evolve.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2014), Arctic report card emphasizes continued dramatic change to the region, Eos, 95, doi:10.1029/2014EO021033.

© 2014. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0