A group of polar scientists recently met in New Orleans to share information and provide an update on the status of the Arctic.
Their prognosis was dire. The Arctic is often seen as the world’s archetypal freezer, but that is now a thing of the past. The entire region is now on a trajectory toward an ice-free state.
In releasing its annual report on the Arctic, Arctic Report Card 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) made several very clear assessments.
The headline statement of the report states that the Arctic environmental system has reached a “‘new normal,’ characterized by long-term losses in the extent and thickness of sea ice cover, the extent and duration of the winter snow cover and the mass of ice in the Greenland Ice Sheet and Arctic glaciers, and warming sea surface and permafrost temperatures.”
In its report, NOAA coined the term “New Arctic” to describe the region, as it is being changed so dramatically by anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD).
The report also states unequivocally in a headline that, “Arctic shows no sign of returning to reliably frozen region of recent past decades.”
Highlights of the report include the fact that the average surface temperature for the year ending in September 2017 was the second warmest since 1900. Sea ice cover continues to be younger and thinner, with older, thicker sea ice comprising only 21 percent of the ice cover in 2017 as compared to 45 percent in 1985.
Also noted is the fact that during this past August, the sea surface temperatures in the Barents and Chukchi seas were up to 4°C warmer than average, which caused a delay in the autumn freeze-up across those regions. Meanwhile, Arctic permafrost is experiencing record-breaking warming.
“The unprecedented rate and global reach of Arctic change disproportionally affect the people of northern communities,” the report states, “further pressing the need to prepare for and adapt to the new Arctic.”
Several graphics are included in the report, and tell the story: For example, the last graphic shows Air Temperature Rank By Month, and each year, starting roughly in 2005, shows the vast majority of those months to be some of the warmest ever recorded.
In an interview with NPR, Jeremy Mathis, who directs NOAA’s Arctic Program, said “there is no normal” anymore. “The environment is changing so quickly in such a short amount of time that we can’t quite get a handle on what this new state is going to look like,” he said. “The rate of change is unprecedented in at least the last 1,500 years and probably going back even further than that. Not only are we seeing big changes, we’re seeing the pace of that change begin to increase.”
Given the NOAA report shows that in 2017 the Arctic experienced its second-warmest year on record, along with the smallest winter sea ice coverage on record, some Inuit people are using the word “uggianaqtuq” to describe what they are seeing. The word means “to behave strangely.”
And what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.
Research published in early December 2017 showed that the loss of Arctic sea ice causes climate shifts that have increased the severity of droughts in California, as well as shifting storm patterns across the Northern Pacific. The reduction in sea ice coverage has also disrupted the flow of energy toward the Arctic from the tropics, which has led to warmer-than-normal waters just north of the equator.
It is clear that planetary climate patterns are deeply disrupted, and NOAA’s report shows that this will only intensify as the Arctic region continues its meltdown.
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The changing climate has created a new frontier in the Arctic, but as the world’s major powers scramble to take advantage, the U.S. is at risk of falling dangerously behind.
Melting ice has made vast amounts of mineral and energy reserves available for the first time in modern history. As many as 90 billion barrels of oil, the equivalent of 5.9 percent of the world’s known reserves, are up for grabs. That’s more than twice what Russia currently owns, and more than three times what the U.S. has available. The future opportunities could be crucial to the national interest, but the U.S. presence in the region is sorely outnumbered by Russia, according to Coast Guard commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft.
“So the numbers are roughly 40 to 2,” Zukunft told me in an interview regarding U.S. versus Russian icebreaker ship presence. “So if I was playing basketball, those are not good numbers … you are far outnumbered when it comes to having any presence in the Arctic.”
Icebreakers are tailor-made to smash through the tough Arctic ice that cuts off most ships. More icebreakers means more access, and the Russians have a lot more than the U.S. does. To make matters worse, Russia is also staking claim to much of the region.
“Russia has claimed most of the Arctic Ocean up to the North Pole,” explained Zukunft. “Which to me looks like they want to deny access by others.”
Russia is also in the midst of developing new Corvette-class icebreakers that can carry deadly cruise missiles.
“We have no surface presence really to counter a threat like that,” said Zukunft. “But if we have sovereign interests at stake, we might need to look at an icebreaker of the 21st century that we can retrofit with a modular weapons system so we can at least stand our own ground.”
Even if the U.S. were to increase its icebreaker presence, it could still run into some issues with international law. Russia, along with most countries, is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a 1982 agreement which outlined guidelines for how nations can use the world’s oceans. The U.S. participated in the convention, but has yet to sign the agreement.
A treaty requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate for ratification, and conservatives have historically been apprehensive on acquiescing to the convention due to concerns that it may restrict U.S. sovereignty. But James Kraska, an international law expert with the U.S. Naval War College, has argued that joining could empower the U.S. position by giving it a solid legal framework from which to gather ocean resources.
Zukunft believes that signing onto the convention would be a positive step when it comes to staking a U.S. claim in the Arctic, but even with the legal backing, the Coast Guard could use some financial help from Congress.
It’s a modest request for a force that is responsible for a litany of jobs along the nation’s massive coast line and beyond. With the increase, Zukunft can build the new icebreakers, ships and unmanned aerial vehicles the services needs. He can also expand his workforce and hire back 1,100 reservists that were cut due to budget constraints.
“Not a big ask for a service that is only funded at $10.5 billion to begin with,” said Zukunft. “That would put the Coast Guard where it needs to be in the 21st century.”
Sealers have killed 15,748 harp seal pups in just 3 days.
Sealers have killed 15,748 harp seal pups in just 3 days. These seal pups are just a few weeks old, and many are just learning how to swim. Sealers on a killing spree of this magnitude will almost certainly neglect to carefully check whether all the seals they have shot and/or beatened are really dead before dragging them onto their boats and/or skinning them.
The Canadian government continues to stand by this ‘industry’, claming that it is important to Atlantic Canada and the fishermen who participate in this massacre. In reality, it represents a tiny fraction of the provincial economies of Newfoundland and Quebec, where most of the sealers come from, and just a small percentage of each sealer’s income.
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2. Organize or participate in a protest. Let us know if you are interested in either organizing or participating. We will help bring activists together – firstname.lastname@example.org .
3. Send emails and/or write letters to Canadian government officials and tourism industry officials and also to the Chinese government, to urge the country to ban seal product imports – Find that information at http://www.harpseals.org/help/letters_and_emails/index.php
4. Boycott Canadian seafood and tourism.