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As Sea Ice Declines, Winter Shifts in Northern Alaska

The consequences of the record loss of Arctic sea ice this past summer are becoming clear to the 4,000 or so residents of Barrow, Alaska, who have seen a much milder and snowier-than-average start to their typically long and bitterly cold winter season.

Temperature departures from average during the past month in Barrow, AK.
Click to enlarge the image. 
Credit: NWS Alaska Region.

As is typical for this time of year, much of Alaska has already been plunged into winter conditions, with temperatures below 0°F in some locations. Yet Barrow, which from its perch on Alaska’s North Slope is the country’s northernmost town, has had a downright balmy start to the Alaskan winter. (Well, balmy for Barrow, at least.) 

According to the National Weather Service, Barrow has seen “almost continuous above-normal temperatures” since September “due to a lack of sea ice” formation until last week. Along with the above-average temperatures has come above-average snowfall. Snowfall since July 1 has been more than a foot above average, the Weather Service said, with 31.4 inches of snow having fallen through Nov. 17.

The record melt of Arctic sea ice this summer resulted in a broader expanse of open water in the Arctic Ocean. The darker ocean waters absorbed more incoming solar radiation, warming the sea and the lower atmosphere, thereby helping to warm lands that border the Arctic Ocean, such as Barrow. Open water also provides a ready moisture source for precipitation, be it in the form of rain or snow, and this accounts for much of Barrow’s recent snowy spell.

Temperature outlook for December 2012, showing a likelihood for continued above average temperatures along Alaska's North Slope (blue arrow).
Credit: NWS/CPC.

As the Arctic climate has warmed in recent years, fall sea ice cover has often formed later in certain areas, and when it does form, it has tended to be thinner than average. After setting a record low in September, sea ice extent doubled during October but still only managed to recover to the second-lowest extent on record for October, ranking just above 2007.

Studies show that sea ice loss can speed warming of parts of the Far North, thereby helping to melt permafrost and unlock the greenhouse gases currently locked in such frozen lands.

The National Weather Service had predicted the early winter warmth in far northern Alaska. Back in October, when the National Weather Service released its initial winter weather outlook for the winter of 2012-13, forecasters assigned this region the highest odds of any part of the country to have warmer-than-average conditions, due to the lack of sea ice.

In October, Mike Halpert, the deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said, “Right now there is no ice at all there. We would certainly expect the early winter to be above average [temperature-wise]." More recently, sea ice has rapidly increased around Barrow, which should cut off some of the available moisture for the above average snows that have struck the region, and cut temperatures to more typical levels.

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By Arthur C. Smith III (Kaktovik, Alaska, 99747)
on November 20th, 2012

I’m glad to see in print, the report of what we have experienced up here and how significantly these details relate to a changing climate. 

I live in Kaktovik, Alaska, which is on a small island in the Beaufort Sea, approximately 350 miles to the east of Barrow.

I believe for the first time in human history, the entire north coast of Alaska was ice free on November 1st;  the Arctic Ocean was open and had reached a new record minimum for that date.

The world cannot underestimate the impact upon climate presented by such a large, newly opened body of water.  Personally, I believe that the 2012 record Arctic sea ice minimum has crossed a threshold: the “tipping point” has been reached.  The change in weather speaks to it, the change in animal behavior speaks to it, life in the arctic screams it…  but will we listen?

Here in the Arctic, there is no choice but to listen, to see that daily life is changing in real time.  I have lived here only nine years but in that short period of time, the change that I’ve witnessed is profound, to put it mildly.

Speaking of mildly, just to clarify the relative nature of the reader’s interpretation of the word “mild” being used to describe the start of the Alaskan Arctic winter.  It is true that we’ve had a record warm September, warmer than normal temperatures in October and November, but the mitigation of temperature by open water has paled in the face of raging blizzards, one after another, week upon week, winds blowing in the 50’s mph for days upon days, gusts in the 70’s, record snowfall, aviation grounded, life at a standstill.  Only here, can this scenario pass as quasi normal and equally pass unnoticed by the outside world.  Anywhere in the lower 48, these conditions would merit national news coverage and likely some emergency relief. 

But… the water is warmer, it is open.  The air temperatures are warmer and the resultant increase in atmospheric energy has defined a fall, here in this part of the world, that no man living has ever seen; that no recorded history has ever documented.  If not already on notice due the course of world climate events, be assured that the current exception of the Arctic experiencing “what no man has ever seen” will soon be shared by all man.

Arthur C. Smith III

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By Neven (Austria)
on November 20th, 2012

Andrew, thanks a lot for this short, but informative piece. I’ve re-posted it on the ASI blog (with your permission, of course).

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By Gail Zawacki (Oldwick, NJ 08858)
on November 21st, 2012

Another tipping point has been crossed, equally unnoticed.  The trees, long in decline, began dying off at an accelerating rate several years ago.  I live in New Jersey, and it looks like the ecopocalypse has arrived.  Over 100,000 trees fell in Sandy, and it wasn’t even especially windy or rainy.  Other than the shoreline at the coast where the devastating surge occurred, most of the injuries, deaths, and damage from lost power, was due to falling trees, which WERE ALREADY ROTTED ON THE INSIDE.  I took photos of many myself, and found many more posted on the web.

Air pollution debilitates trees, and makes them more vulnerable to pathogens.  Insects, disease and fungus are typically blamed, but they are simply opportunistic attacks.  When foliage is damaged from absorbing ozone - and it all is now, by the end of the growing season - plants must allocate energy to repair leaves and needles, stunting root growth, leaving them more susceptible to wind and drought.  The constant, persistent background level is inexorably increasing as precursors (NOx and volatile organic compounds) travel around the world.

It simply astonishes me that people can go about their daily business without noticing that suddenly, every tree is sick and dying.  I suppose it’s similar to tourists who snorkel and don’t realize the coral reefs are bleached, and the foundation of the ecosystem is in collapse.

Climate scientists and activists should take note - not a single model prediction incudes the sudden, catastrophic loss of trees all over the globe - a major CO2 sink which is occurring right now in real time.  It’s going to get much, much hotter, much, much faster than anything projected.

Photos of trees with links to research about ozone and plants here:

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By Susan Anderson (Boston, MA)
on November 21st, 2012

Thanks for an excellent article.

Arthur Smith’s comment above sounds the drumbeat echoing around the globe as extraordinary event piles on extraordinary event:

“The change in weather speaks to it, the change in animal behavior speaks to it, life in the arctic screams it…  but will we listen? .... experiencing “what no man has ever seen” will soon be shared by all man.”

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