Arctic Report Card 2019 is Grim

December 11, 2019

Normally NOAA’s Arctic Report card is an official report that tends to flatten out some of the more dire implications of the statistical updates.
Not so much this year.
The press conference audience was struck by the grim tone of the newest results from across the arctic. Fisheries impacted, populations suffering, ice disappearing, permafrost melting. Not much attempt to soft pedal the message.

NOAA video summary above, – PBS Newshour and Washington Post reporting below.

Washington Post:

The Arctic is undergoing a profound, rapid and unmitigated shift into a new climate state, one that is greener, features far less ice and emits greenhouse gas emissions from melting permafrost, according to a major new federal assessment of the region released Tuesday.

The consequences of these climate shifts will be felt far outside the Arctic in the form of altered weather patterns, increased greenhouse gas emissions and rising sea levels from the melting Greenland ice sheet and mountain glaciers.

The findings are contained in the 2019 Arctic Report Card, a major federal assessment of climate change trends and impacts throughout the region. The study paints an ominous picture of a region lurching to an entirely new and unfamiliar environment.

Especially noteworthy is the report’s conclusion that the Arctic already may have become a net emitter of planet-warming carbon emissions due to thawing permafrost, which would only accelerate global warming. Permafrost is the carbon-rich frozen soil that covers 24 percent of the Northern Hemisphere’s land mass, encompassing vast stretches of territory across Alaska, Canada, Siberia and Greenland.

There has been concern throughout the scientific community that the approximately 1,460 billion to 1,600 billion metric tons of organic carbon stored in frozen Arctic soils, almost twice the amount of greenhouse gases as what is contained in the atmosphere, could be released as the permafrost melts.

Warming temperatures allow microbes within the soil to convert permafrost carbon into the greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide and methane — which can be released into the air and accelerate warming. Ted Schuur, a researcher at Northern Arizona University and author of the permafrost chapter, said the report “takes on a new stand on the issue” based on other published work, including a study in Nature Climate Change in November.

Taking advantage of the new studies — one on regional carbon emissions from permafrost in Alaska during the warm season, and another on winter season emissions in the Arctic compared to how much carbon is absorbed by vegetation during the growing season — the report concludes permafrost ecosystems could be releasing as much as 1.1 billion to 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. This is almost as much as the annual emissions of Japan and Russia in 2018, respectively.

“These observations signify that the feedback to accelerating climate change may already be underway,” the report concludes.

“Each of the studies has some parts of the story. Together they really paint the picture of — we’ve turned this corner for Arctic carbon,” Schuur said. “Together they complement each other nicely and really in my mind are a smoking gun for this change already taking place.”

The report notes there is still considerable uncertainty about carbon emissions estimates given the relatively limited observational measurements. But it also warns that the Arctic region — which is warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the world — may already have become the global warming accelerator many have feared.

The findings come just as U.N. climate negotiators meet in Madrid to address the need for more ambitious cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, and would mean the world faces an even steeper challenge in meeting the targets outlined in the 2015 Paris accord.

Gizmodo Earther:

The clearest sign of Arctic change are rising temperatures. The average temperature over the past 12 months ranked as the second-highest value since 1900 coming in at 1.9 degrees Celsius (3.4 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal. That’s helping melt Arctic sea ice cover, which has seen rapid declines in thickness and extent. The fragile state of ice leaves it vulnerable to random weather happenings, such as when the jetstream sends warm southerly winds north. That’s exactly what happened this past year, particularly in Alaska when unusual southwestern warm winds in fall 2018 kept sea ice from freezing in along the coastal Bering Sea. This happened again in winter 2019 and continued into the spring.

“In the past when that happened, it hasn’t had a big impact because the ice is already there and very thick,” James Overland, an oceanographer at NOAA who worked on this report, told Earther. “This year, you started with thin ice, so when winds shifted around to coming from the south and bringing more warm temperatures, the ice could never form, and that was a huge change that we never expected would happen this soon


As a result of all this warm air—which was related to the wild ass heatwaves Europe saw this year—the Greenland ice sheet a massive meltdown over the summer. The only year worse was 2012. This presents a long-term concern for sea level rise worldwide, but the loss of sea ice throughout the Arctic threatens the culture and livelihoods of the people who live there. And, for the first time ever, the Arctic Report Card pays special attention to the impacts indigenous people face. It even includes a whole section featuring voices from the frontlines. Overland said that was intentional.

“Most of us are looking at the Arctic from satellite pictures from way above and the big picture,” he said. “Particularly with emphasis on the Bering Sea, loss of ice and these changes in the ecosystem are erratically impacting these coastal communities from the timing from when they hunt for whales and seals and so forth.

Sea ice loss really damages the way of life for these communities because they depend on the ice’s stability to travel and reach the waters they depend on to hunt. But the shifts in the Arctic aren’t just a concern for the people who live there. They could have a profound impact on the climate.


4 Responses to “Arctic Report Card 2019 is Grim”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Waiting for terry2x4 or whatever to tell us that the ice isn’t melting, as proven by some magically refuting NOAA/NASA/Met report that somehow none of the climatology community doesn’t know about.

  2. Robert L. Schmidt Says:

    All these grim results unaided by a strong El Nino. Should be due a strong El Nino soon, what then?

  3. Richard Yates Says:

    I have long wondered about the feedback loops in permafrost melting: melting allows plant material to begin/resume decomposition. The decomposition produces CO2 and NH4, both greenhouse gases that add to global warming.

    But, in addition, decomposition is itself an exothermic process. it gives off heat. So, melting permafrost yields rotting vegetation that produces heat that melts more adjacent permafrost that yields more decomposition. Just as fire (rapid oxidation) spreads to adjacent fuel, decomposition (slow oxidation) must also spread to adjacent permafrost.

    But, I can find no quantitative information about this whole loop:
    How much heat is released?
    How does the amount of heat released compare to the heating from the release of the CO2 and NH4?
    What conditions are necessary for this loop to be self-sustaining?

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