Monday, June 24

NOAA’s Arctic Report Card for 2023

This summer was the Arctic’s warmest on record, as it was at lower latitudes. But above the Arctic Circle, temperatures are rising four times as fast as they are elsewhere.

The past year overall was the sixth-warmest year the Arctic had experienced since reliable records began in 1900, according to the 18th annual assessment of the region, published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday.

“What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic,” said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and an editor of the new report, called the Arctic Report Card.

The assessment defines the Arctic as all areas between 60 and 90 degrees north latitude. Greenland’s melting ice sheet is one of the biggest contributors to global sea level rise, and scientists are investigating links between weather in the Arctic and extreme weather farther south.

The hottest spots on the Arctic map varied throughout the year. At the beginning of the year, temperatures over the Barents Sea north of Norway and Russia were as much as 5 degrees Celsius, or 9 degrees Fahrenheit, above the 1991-2020 average. In the spring, temperatures were also about 5 degrees Celsius hotter than average in northwest Canada.

Hotter air temperatures dry out vegetation and soil, priming the pump for wildfires to burn more easily. This year, during Canada’s worst wildfire season on record, fires burned more than 10 million acres in the Northwest Territories. More than two-thirds of the territories’ population of 46,000 people had to be evacuated at various points and smoke from the fires reached millions more people, reducing air quality as far as the southern United States.

“The fires were unreal,” said Tero Mustonen, an environmental researcher in Finland and a contributor to the report. “This year is the year when things are really turning,” he added. “The north is now in a place where things will rapidly shift.”

High temperatures also melt snow and ice, important parts of the Arctic landscape for both wildlife and people. Greenland’s ice sheet lost even more mass than it gained through precipitation, prolonging a trend that started in 1998. In the Arctic Ocean, the extent of floating sea ice was the sixth-lowest it had been in the satellite record, which began in 1979.

This year, for the first time, the Arctic Report Card includes weather and climate observations from the Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub, a network of Iñupiat observers living on Alaska’s coast. The observers reported that multiple powerful storms hit their communities last year. A lack of sea ice exposed the coast — including roads, buildings, community ice cellars and historic landmarks — to more damage from flooding and erosion.

“I think we lost more earth to the ocean than ever before,” Bobby Schaeffer, an observer, wrote in a message to the network in September 2022, after three powerful storms hit near his village, Kotzebue, in three months.

In October, after one such storm, Billy Adams, an observer in Utqiagvik, wrote that it was a reminder of “the true power of nature” in a message to the network. “We hope to be much more prepared as we should take notes and learn from this,” he wrote.

The inclusion of the knowledge hub in the report represents growing collaboration between Western scientists and Indigenous people with firsthand knowledge of the changing conditions in the Arctic.

“We are seeing, we are experiencing, living with the changes every day,” said Roberta Glenn-Borade, the project coordinator and community liaison for the knowledge hub, which is based at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “But we’re still here.”

The NOAA report highlighted the fact that around the Arctic, as rising temperatures put pressure on traditional ways of life, local people are trying to take their fates into their own hands.

In Finland, Dr. Mustonen founded an organization called the Snowchange Cooperative, through which rural Finnish and Sámi communities have restored more than 86,000 acres of peatland.

Dr. Mustonen views restoring natural ecosystems as a way to not only undo past environmental damage, but also mitigate and adapt to climate change. Peatlands absorb and store large amounts of carbon dioxide, and if restored areas are big enough, they can host hundreds of bird species. The restoration work itself, he said, helps give northern communities hope.

“Now that the Arctic and the boreal is undergoing this massive shift, what can we do? And in a short window of time, where should we put our meager resources?” Dr. Mustonen asked, before answering his own questions. “Peatlands are one of the best things that you can do in a short time, because we need to keep that carbon on the ground in ways that are also empowering the villages.”

One topic of discussion at this year’s United Nations climate summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, has been international funding for the developing countries that are most harmed by climate change. There is a risk that the Arctic could be left out of the conversation, said Susan Natali, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center who also leads the Permafrost Pathways initiative. Indigenous Arctic communities are generally based in wealthier countries, but they aren’t necessarily receiving the climate-related funding they need from those federal governments, she said.

“These changes that are happening, they’re more than the graphs and the figures that we see,” said Dr. Natali, who was not involved in the Arctic Report Card. “They’re having a very severe impact on people’s health and ability to travel and ability to access subsistence resources and Indigenous ways of living.”

“There are millions of people who live in the Arctic,” she added. “They’ve been impacted by these changes for decades.”