It’s hard to remember a time when the Arctic wasn’t making headlines. It shatters records each year: lowest sea ice, largest fires, or biggest plankton blooms.
But just 15 years ago, the scientific outlook was rosier. There was even some hope that the drastic, catastrophic effects of climate change in the Arctic might be a century away.
That optimism faded quickly as feedback loops accelerated warming at the poles. Feedback loops amplify the causes of climate change and contribute to many worrisome shifts across the Arctic ecosystem, like record-low sea ice every year for the past 14 years. Not even the most doomsday climate models predicted that.
Jackie Richter-Menge, a research affiliate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has studied the Arctic’s shrinking sea ice for nearly 4 decades. She is a founding author of the Arctic Report Card, NOAA’s annual review of Arctic science. The release of that report card has emerged as an event: Each year at AGU’s Fall Meeting, journalists huddle in a conference room to hear the report card’s latest findings, which pull from hundreds of scientists’ work.
Eos’s Jenessa Duncombe spoke with Richter-Menge, who retired from a long career at the Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in 2017, about witnessing the region’s staggering transformation and what it could mean for the future.
Eos: You have had a front-row seat to the Arctic’s dramatic evolution over the past 15 years. What’s one word that describes Arctic climate change?
Rapid is the one adjective I would use to describe it, and shockingly so. I think that’s what really surprises me and what’s apparent if you look across the content of the report cards. Something all of us that work in the region are shocked by is the fact that I can say “I have seen the change with my own eyes.” Earth timescales are so long, it’s not often that you can say “I’ve actually seen a change.”
I have a couple of pictures where I show what the sea ice conditions were like going to Prudhoe Bay, [Alaska], where I was working when I first started in 1981, compared to what it is now. And it’s not just a little change. It’s a completely mind-blowing change.
Eos: In a retrospective article of the report card looking back at the past 15 years, you wrote that you couldn’t predict how quickly this would happen. In the first report card in 2006, there was even a passage of text that says that some parts of the Arctic may recover and return to normal. It doesn’t sound like that happened.
No, not at all. The globe was warming, and the Arctic was warming, but we thought it would be more of a flickering than a light switch. And I think what’s really interesting is looking back, which we didn’t realize at the time, but the report card basically got its start roughly at the same time [that] you began to see this accelerated rate of warming in the Arctic. And that happened because you kind of reach this precipice on this albedo feedback.
[The albedo feedback] is the idea that you’ve got all this white surface [in the Arctic]. You’ve got snow, you’ve got sea ice, you’ve got land ice. And you’re warming temperatures, so those are all melting. When they melt back, they leave these dark surfaces, and those dark surfaces get warmer and cause more melting. That’s why you get this acceleration in the Arctic region that you don’t see around the rest of the globe. And that kind of coincided at the beginning of the Arctic report, but we didn’t know that. We weren’t thinking about that happening.
Eos: Why was it important, other than the serendipitous reason that you mentioned, for scientists to take a close look at the Arctic at that time?
The reason that the Arctic Report Card actually got started was because of an understanding that we needed to get the word out about the change in this region that people don’t think about a lot. We needed to get more people to understand what was going on in that particular part of the globe.
…Oftentimes, reports put out by the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] or other groups are multiyear documents. It takes a long time to put those together, so what we wanted to do was to be able to have an annual update about what was happening in the Arctic. With the changing Arctic, you take a region where people didn’t go and it’s [now] becoming more accessible [to industry and tourism]. Consequently, that means that more decisions have to be made about how increased access is going to be handled in a way that doesn’t tear up the environment or negatively affect the people that are living there.
Eos: How are these shifts in the Arctic affecting the people who live there now?
When we were putting together the 15-year retrospective and I was working with my coeditors, one pointed out, “We’re so far behind in really appreciating the change compared to the Indigenous People that live there.”
There was a book that came out years ago called The Earth is Faster Now about Indigenous Peoples’ personal observations about how the region was changing. And sadly, I don’t think we listened to that voice as much as we should have. I am really pleased to see, as I close out my career, that I think Western science’s embrace of Indigenous Knowledges is changing for the better, but you basically have people who live on the land there and that land is changing, and they are needing to adapt to it.
…In addition to the infrastructure impacts, when you’re living on ground that’s melting where it didn’t before, one of the big shifts has to do with the changes in the ecosystem. There are certain things that are hunted and certain foods that are gathered by Indigenous communities, but when the environment changes, where those things go and their quality changes. Knowing where and when to find traditional foods is a really significant part of adapting when you have a subsistence lifestyle.
Eos: It’s one of my dreams to travel to the Arctic, but it feels very far away. Until I see it with my own eyes, melting there doesn’t feel like it affects me in Washington, D.C. Why does Arctic climate change matter to people in lower latitudes?
Basically, it matters to you how much your oil and gas costs. It matters to you whether you can get the fish you like to eat in the grocery store. It matters to all of us about what the weather is like around the country. Those things are definitely linked to what’s going on in the Arctic because the Arctic and the polar regions are a part of the planet that makes it livable.
That’s one of the things we look for when we look at other planets: Do they have an ice cap or not? [The Arctic] is basically a thermostat [for Earth.] When that thermostat changes, it’s just like when your house thermostat changes. It affects how you’re living there.
Eos: We’ve learned a lot about the Arctic in these past 15 years, but what are the wild cards that we still are watching for and need more information about?
We don’t quite know what the rate of loss of the Greenland ice sheet is going to be. [Freshwater melt from Greenland] has an effect on sea level rise and the ocean circulation system….Right now, Greenland is actually adding more water to the oceans than Antarctica. That’s not expected to continue because more ice is locked up in Antarctica, but right now, Greenland is the heavyweight.
How are companies going to decide whether or not they’re going to take advantage of the increased access to the Arctic?…If you’re somebody who’s sending a mass of cargo ships up into the Arctic, year to year variations [in sea ice] matter to you. We’re on a cusp of where I could have a year where I can get a lot of ships through, or I could have a year where I can’t get any ships. How much risk are these companies willing to take [to access] resources that weren’t available to them? I think that’s a big question.
Eos: What could the Arctic look like on the report card’s 30th anniversary?
I will absolutely put a strong bet down on less and less ice. I would be interested to see—and I don’t have a prediction about this—what happens with [year to year] variability. I don’t know whether it will be as wild as it is now or whether it will kind of settle down a little bit. I would paint a picture of a lot more going on up in the Arctic…from industry, tourism, and the resources from fisheries to oil and gas.
Eos: Can we ever get the old Arctic back?
If we can actually get legislation out there on a global level and put some brakes on the amount of carbon dioxide we’re pouring in, then what happens is a really interesting question.
I’m fascinated by the graphs that show [decreasing amounts of] atmospheric carbon [emissions] during the pandemic because to me it shows, if people will get on board with some legislation, we can actually change things faster than we think.
Eos: It can be frightening to think of how quickly the Arctic has evolved, but you find hope in visiting classrooms and speaking with students. Why does that make you optimistic?
The neat thing about working with kids is the fact that the data help them form their opinions. You really can help them understand the science.…It’s always hopeful when somebody tells them that they can make a change. You’ll hear on the news the different types of energy that we could be using to change the direction of this and [how that gets] them excited about thinking that they’re the next generation of problem solvers. That’s particularly true when you get up to high school age, when people are starting to think about jobs and college.…I find going into classrooms to be very invigorating.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
19 Februaru 2021: This article has been corrected to clarify the decreasing amounts of carbon emissions in the atmosphere, not the gross amount of carbon.