Once again, Arctic Report Card shows the abnormal is now normal

Sea ice floats in the Bering Strait off Cape Prince of Wales. (UAF photo by Gay Sheffield)

The 2020 Arctic Report Card is out, and the results show the Arctic continues to warm at an accelerated rate. This year was the second warmest on record in the Arctic, with impacts to sea ice, erosion and marine ecosystems.

In 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its first Arctic Report Card, laying out a timely snapshot of what the coldest parts of the world looked like as the climate warmed.

Rick Thoman is a climate specialist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“Things were starting to change rapidly enough that folks were interested in this near-real time update of a variety of the different parts of the Arctic system,” Thoman said.

Fifteen years later, Thoman is the lead editor of the 2020 Arctic Report Card. He says even though Alaska didn’t have very extreme weather patterns, the Arctic as a whole was impacted.

“Some place in the Arctic every year has some extreme. It varies place to place,” Thoman said. “This year, Siberia, especially Western Siberia was the focus of the warmth, the very early snow melt, the wildfires, some of which were overwinter fires, zombie fires. Last year was Alaska. A couple years ago it was Greenland.”

Thoman says even though Alaska was impacted a little less this year by the warming climate, it still follows the recent trend.

“Whatever the trend is, there’s always going to be years above and years below that,” Thoman said. “We’re at the point now though, for instance with erosion, it wasn’t as much as last year, but it’s always going to be more than it was in the 1950s.”

One of the facets of the Arctic most impacted by a warming climate is sea ice. Thoman says this year followed a trend of shrinking sea ice in the Arctic.

“The lowest it got at any point was the second lowest [on record]. Only the 2012 minimum extent was lower,” Thoman said. “And in the winter, the maximum extent it got on any one day was the 12th lowest.”

Low sea ice extent impacts much of the arctic ecosystem, forcing marine mammals like walruses and seals to haul out on tiny patches of land rather than the thick rich sea ice they’d been accustomed to. Thoman says that bowhead whales in Alaska waters are in a slightly better position than other marine mammals, due to their ability to swim much farther to get to the zooplankton that they eat.

“If their food supply is very far north one year because that’s where the ice is, they have the ability to go and get that food, unlike other species which have a much shorter range,” Thoman said.

While that works well for the whales, Thoman says new feeding routes have the potential to upset subsistence whale harvests from Alaska’s northernmost Indigenous populations.

“From a whale perspective, if they have to go 600 miles of the Alaska coast to find food, for a bowhead that’s not a problem,” Thoman said. “At what point it becomes the whales are there but they’re not accessible for Alaskans, that’s a different question.”

Basically, Thoman says what was once abnormal or unusual in terms of Arctic climate is now normal. The Arctic is transforming, and populations will have to adapt.

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