Arctic Report Card: A warmer, wetter Arctic is ‘upending’ Indigenous ways of life
By Megan Gannon
For those living in the Bering Sea region, the trends explained in the latest Arctic Report Card won’t come as a surprise. There’s more rain, higher temperatures and less sea ice. There are more seabird die-offs, more wildfires, more ship traffic and more powerful storms. And as all these changing physical conditions converge, they affect the overall wellbeing of Arctic communities.
Since 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA for short, has released its yearly report, tracking changing conditions in the Arctic which is warming more than twice as fast as the global average. Last year was the Arctic’s sixth warmest since 1900, according to the report, which also found that collectively, the last seven years were the warmest seven years on record.
The 2022 findings were presented on Tuesday, Dec. 13, in Chicago at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union, one of the biggest annual gatherings for Earth and space scientists.
“A key takeaway of our efforts today is that people experience the consequences of these extremes not as individual events but as multiple events,” said Jackie Qataliña Schaeffer. Born and raised in Kotzebue, Schaeffer is director of climate initiatives for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, and she co-authored a chapter in the report on the human consequences of Arctic change.
“What we’re going through on Indigenous lands—if it rains in the winter, it turns into ice, it disrupts the reindeer, caribou and moose from traveling to areas that we could hunt, it disrupts our berry season,” Schaeffer said. “The Arctic is the cooler for our planet, and the impacts to the Arctic are so rapid and so unpredictable that the planet needs to pay attention.”
The report at least put a national spotlight on the complex array of climate issues in Alaska, the only U.S. state with Arctic lands. NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad told a press conference Tuesday that this past summer he visited communities in the state, including Nome.
“My biggest takeaway from that trip is that the wolf is in the house,” Spinrad said, meaning that the impacts are already very present in Alaska.
He described seeing roads warped by permafrost thaw and Indigenous communities facing relocation due to rising sea levels. He said that fire seasons are growing, and warming waters are changing fish habitats, which has ripple effects on the state’s economy.
“That’s just a snapshot of what parts of the Lower 48 might expect in the very near future,” Spinrad said. “We need to look to polar regions to understand what’s happening there through data, observations, modeling, predictions, to get a better sense of how we can build a climate-ready nation that encompasses all 50 states.”
The report also highlighted the example of ex-typhoon Merbok, which showed how increasingly severe storms in the Arctic impact human safety, food security and health. Fueled by unusually warm water in the subtropical north Pacific Ocean, the storm struck more than 1,000 miles of coastline in the Bering Sea region in September. It not only destroyed homes and public infrastructure, but also subsistence camps and equipment.
“I cannot overstate this, but rapid warming in the Arctic is profoundly affecting the more than 400,000 people who live there, and in many instances is upending their entire way of life,” Spinrad said.
Notably, this year’s Arctic Report Card is the first to include a section on precipitation, confirming that the region is indeed experiencing wetter conditions.
“We haven’t ever previously addressed it, because we didn’t feel like there was the data to support it,” said Rick Thoman, an Alaska climate specialist at the International Arctic Research Center at UAF and a co-editor of the report. “But climate analysis has advanced to the point now where we feel like we can confidently and reliably report on that.”
John Walsh, chief scientist of UAF’s International Arctic Research Center and lead author of the new chapter on precipitation, said that the researchers used two data sets. One was a synthesis of weather station observations from northern latitudes. Because there is a dearth of ground weather stations and rain gauges across the Arctic, the researchers also turned to a type of climate model known as an atmospheric reanalysis. Walsh explained this is essentially a model that takes observations of temperature, wind and other variables from around the world and predicts precipitation levels.
The on-the-ground data and model produced results that were “surprisingly consistent,” Walsh said. Both showed an increase in precipitation of about 10 to 15 percent since 1950. “And the ups and downs from year to year coincided in both, so that gives us some confidence that the reanalysis model is able to capture what’s being recorded on the ground.”
Even though some northern regions, like Alaska’s Interior, experienced severe drought this past summer, the period between October 2021 and September 2022 was still the third wettest year of the past 72 years, according to the new analysis. The only wetter years on record were 2018 and 2020. Last year, new records were set for December precipitation in Fairbanks and Nome.
“In the Arctic, these freezing rain events can be devastating,” Walsh said. “Because the ice layer can persist for months until the spring thaw. The ice remains on roads, and it can prevent foraging by wildlife.”
Walsh said there are several factors that may explain the increase in precipitation.
“One is the greater moisture availability as the open water season lengthens and sea ice retreats in the Arctic,” he said. “A second factor is the atmosphere’s increasing capacity for moisture as the Arctic warms. Finally, Arctic storminess may be increasing, at least in some parts of the Arctic.”
Precipitation has a major influence on other Arctic conditions—streamflow, river flow, the snowpack during winter and the droughts during summer that lead to wildfire. Increases in precipitation will lead to uneven effects across the Arctic. At the fringes of the Arctic and in subarctic regions, the transition to a rain-dominated climate instead of a snow-dominated one “is essentially occurring already,” Walsh said.
“In the next few decades, we’re going to see a transition from snow to rain, and rain will become the major part of the precipitation yearly over most of the fringes,” Walsh said. “When you get to the colder regions—in northern Canada and Siberia, Eastern Siberia, especially—it’s cold enough that this increase in precipitation will be actually increasing the total snowfall during the winter.”
One of the implications of this transition is the “blending of seasons,” said lead author of the report card Matthew Druckenmiller, who is a research scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“Even with large snowfall tied to increases in precipitation, we still are very quickly transitioning into summer, with rapid snow melt in the month of June,” Druckenmiller said. “The interconnectedness of all these pieces is really where the partnerships are needed to come together and bring our observations together to create this bigger picture.”
In the last few years, NOAA’s National Weather Service has closed its offices in Nome and other cities in Alaska, now relying on volunteers or automated systems for direct measurements of metrics like snowfall and precipitation. When asked how NOAA would invest in better on-the-ground observations in the Arctic, especially in areas where people live, Spinrad said the agency was looking into developing local partnerships.
“One of the things I was able to observe in my visit to Nome in August was how we might take better advantage of some of the connections in the academic community, with Nome, with UAF to try to establish a training program at the local community college for building up observers and forecaster capability in Nome to complement the automated observing system that we have there,” Spinrad said. “And I would say it’s not just Nome—it’s an issue that we’re facing throughout Alaska, in terms of building up the workforce, making sure we’ve got humans in the loop and taking best advantage of local workforce capacity.”
Seabirds, ships and sea ice
Such local partnerships helped researchers document another trend: Seabird die-offs, which used to be rare in Alaskan waters, are a new normal for the region.
Communities along the Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea rely on seabirds for subsistence, and 2022 marks the sixth consecutive year they have reported unusually high numbers of dead and starving seabirds on their shores from Izembek Lagoon in the Aleutians to Point Hope.
“The birds are found to be emaciated, which was the most significant factor contributing to their deaths,” Karen Frey, a polar scientist at Clark University in Massachusetts, told the press conference.
The specific cause behind the uptick in die-offs is still unknown but the report pointed to a few likely factors: the decrease in sea ice coverage, a decline in prey, a drop in lipid-rich ice algae and warmer ocean conditions.
“Exposure to biotoxins from harmful algal blooms and avian influenza are also currently being investigated,” Frey said.
Sea ices is thinning so much that this past summer, there was open water near the North Pole, and both the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage were navigable, said Frey.
“Arctic sea ice extents in 2022 was similar to 2021 and well below the long-term average,” she said. “The extent of multi-year ice, or the ice that has survived at least one summer melt season, recovered after near record low levels in 2021. However, it was also still well below multi-year ice extent measured in the 1980s and 1990s. The oldest sea ice—greater than four years old—continued to be extremely scarce across the Arctic region.”
Sea ice decline has led to an increase in ship traffic the Arctic between 2009 and 2018, according to the report’s analysis of satellite data.
Researchers found that the Bering Strait and Beaufort Sea are experiencing the most significant increases in traffic.