The Arctic Gets a New Ecosystem

As the Rolling Stones song goes, “You can’t always get want you want.” Fair enough. But sometimes, unfortunately, you get exactly the opposite of what you need. That’s certainly true of the Arctic this past winter. The last thing it needed was to break another warm weather record, yet that’s exactly what happened.

The extent of the warming has even caught scientists off guard. The record jump in temperatures “is probably the all-time surprise we’ve seen in the Arctic,” according to Jim Overland, a research oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.]

Needless to say, when you manage to surprise the folks who’ve spent their careers studying you, you’ve accomplished something. Not necessarily something good, but something. What does this mean for the Arctic?

Alaska Glacier2

What it means is that the Arctic gets a complete makeover. Yes, that’s right. A new ecosystem is emerging in the Arctic and it’s wreaking havoc with life in the region: thinner ice, shorter winters, new animals, new vegetation. In short, everything is changing. Everything.

“For the elders in the community, they’ve seen the entire ecosystem change,” said Fort Yukon local Ed Alexander in a Washington Post report last month. “A lot of it is a dramatic change. We have a whole other ecosystem here.”

Oops. We did that. The salmon are smaller, the caribou have changed their migration routes, new plant life is overgrowing usually clear dog sled trails, more forest fires are occurring, and even cardinals are showing up in Fort Yukon.

Think about that last news flash. It’s the rough equivalent of pink flamingos making an appearance on the shores of Cayuga Lake. Imagine the shock if that happened while you were walking along the Waterfront Trail. In the words of Mr. Alexander, “When you see a red bird for the first time in your life, you take note.”

And in case you think it’s only Alaska that has caught climate scientists by surprise, think again. Here’s what Mike MacFerrin, a University of Colorado climate scientist, had to say earlier this month about another well-known region in the Arctic: “melt in Greenland, over this wide an area, this early in the season, is not supposed to happen.”

In fact, the melt was taking place so early and so fast in Greenland that scientists thought something must be wrong with their data so they went back and checked. Get this: thermometers on and around the ice showed temperatures as high as 64 degrees Fahrenheit on April 11. That’s more than 35 degrees warmer than normal for this time of year, which for that part of the world is more like a warm day in the summer.

Oops. We did that, too. To paraphrase the Pottery Barn rule, “we broke it, we own it.” But now that we own it will we ever own up to it? That’s the really big question, isn’t it?

The Planet Is Not the Same

We’ve all noticed the increase in extreme weather over the last few months. Almost two-thirds of the lower 48 states are now suffering from drought conditions, the Washington Post pointed out last week. Nearly all of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois are in extreme or exceptional drought, making this the worst dry spell since the 1950s.

It’s not only been dry; the New York Times reported that the first six months of 2012 were the hottest since record keeping began in 1895. In early July, another Times article noted, the surface of Greenland’s ice sheet melted to a greater extent than ever observed in 30 years of satellite monitoring. About half of the surface of the ice sheet usually melts, but from July 8 to July 12, the ice melt reached 97 percent.

More and more people are making the connections between the extreme weather and climate change. The percentage of Americans who now believe that climate change is occurring rose to 70 percent in July, according to a University of Texas poll, and those insisting that it was not fell to 15 percent. A 2010 survey showed, in contrast, that only 52 percent of the American public thought that the climate was changing.

The following video from July 2012 shows Earth’s land surface temperature data from 1800 to 2009, tracking deviation from the mean temperature and overall global warming since the Industrial Revolution. For more information about this study visit http://berkeleyearth.org.

The story told in this video, even though it’s statistical, couldn’t be more dramatic. All one has to do is watch the spread of yellow, orange, and red across the map to understand that the planet is not the same place it was in 1800. The real question is, what are we going to do about it? In Bill McKibben’s words, “Climate change operates on a geological scale and time frame, but it’s not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully you do the math, the more thoroughly you realize that this is, at bottom, a moral issue.”