NOAA: Arctic sea-ice melt linked to extreme summer weather

McClatchy Washington BureauDecember 12, 2013 

— A growing body of evidence demonstrates a link between the melting of Arctic sea ice and worsening summer heat waves and other extreme weather in the United States and elsewhere in the world, leading scientists said Thursday.

“The Arctic is not like Vegas. What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic,” said Howard Epstein, a University of Virginia environmental scientist who’s part of a team that produced the Arctic Report Card for the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The report card, released Thursday, said that while this year’s melting of Arctic sea ice didn’t reach the record levels of 2012, the ice was thin and was at the sixth-lowest minimum since observations began in 1979.

“We cannot expect to be smashing records every year; there are going to be ups and downs. But those up and downs are going to be superimposed on the trend of a warming Arctic,” said Martin Jeffries, a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor who’s the adviser to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

The decades-long decline in Arctic sea ice is among the most visible signs of global warming. NOAA’s Arctic Report Card came days after a study in the journal Nature Climate Change linked the sea-ice melt to extreme summer weather in North America and Europe.

Experts from China and the U.S. wrote in the journal that rising temperatures over the melting Arctic were changing the character of the Northern Hemisphere jet stream, the fast-flowing air current that circles the globe.

“More frequent extreme summer heat events over mid-latitude continents are linked with reduced sea ice and snow through these circulation changes,” they wrote.

Scientists are strongly debating those conclusions. But Jeffries, who edited the NOAA Arctic Report Card, said Thursday that they reflected a growing body of evidence.

“We can say the statistical relationships are there,” Jeffries said.

He said more research was needed to understand the process and to get a better sense of the underlying physics.

Jeffries and the other scientists who worked on the NOAA report said there’d be variations from year to year but that the Arctic was in a “new normal” of melting.

Alaska experienced record-breaking heat this summer, though it followed a cold spring in which the first green buds didn’t appear in the Alaskan Interior until May 26. That’s the latest since observations began in 1972, according to the NOAA report.

The report also found a dramatic increase in the number and severity of Arctic wildfires. More than half the wildfires reported since 1950 on the North Slope of Alaska happened during the past decade, according to the report.

The Arctic growing season has lengthened by nearly a month since 1982, the report card indicates.

The report comes as the Arctic is increasingly targeted as a source for the fossil fuel energy that scientists have linked to warming of the planet.

“As climate change renders the Arctic increasingly accessible, there has been a substantial uptick in industry interest in the region,” according to a report that Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars released this week.

The report forecasts $100 billion in investments in the region over the next decade as oil companies explore in offshore Alaska, Canada, Russia and Norway. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic could contain 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves and 13 percent of such reserves for oil.

Email: scockerham@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @seancockerham

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