Arctic Temperatures Continue Rapid Rise as 2011 Breaks Record Set in 2010

NASA yesterday (19 January 2012) released data showing that last year temperatures in the Arctic rose beyond the record established in 2010 -- setting a new record for 2011. News of the record Arctic temperatures follows a series of alarming developments related to the Arctic in recent months.

Above: The surface temperature anomaly for the region extending from 64oN to 90oN, from 1880 through 2011, in degrees Centigrade above or below the temperature during the 1951-1980 base period.  The figures shows that temperatures have risen substantially since 1880 and that the rate of increase has been especially rapid since the late 1970s. Source: WWF, using data from NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Combined Land-Surface Air and Sea-Surface Water Temperature Anomalies, Zonal annual means.

According to NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), the annual mean surface temperature (land and air) for the region north of 64oN (the Arctic Circle is at 66° 33'N) in 2011 was 2.28oC above that which characterized the 1951-1980 period.  Temperatures in the region have been rising rapidly since the late 1970s and have not dropped below the long term mean since 1992 -- nearly 20 years. This year's annual mean temperature broke the record that was just set in 2010, when the temperature was 2.11oC above 1951-1980 levels.

Global temperature data released by NASA indicates that global surface temperatures in 2011 were the 9th highest on record, and that the warming was especially concentrated in the Arctic. "We know the planet is absorbing more energy than it is emitting," said GISS director James E. Hansen in a NASA press release (NASA Finds 2011 Ninth Warmest Year on Record, 19 Jan 2012).  "So we are continuing to see a trend toward higher temperatures. Even with the cooling effects of a strong La Niña influence and low solar activity for the past several years, 2011 was one of the 10 warmest years on record."

Above: Annual global surface temperature anomalies, 2011.  The largest and most extensive warming (indicated in shades of red) was concentrated in the Arctic.  Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

News of the record Arctic temperatures follows a series of alarming developments related to the Arctic in recent months.

Declining Arctic Sea Ice Affecting Wildlife, Weather Patterns

According to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice extent reached the second lowest level in the satellite record on September 9 2011 -- just short of the record set in 2007.  At the same time, the volume of Arctic sea ice volume dropped to a record low in 2011. NOAA this week listed the low Arctic sea ice extent as one of the top 10 global weather/climate events for 2011. The  extent and volume of Arctic sea ice are declining rapidly and scientists reported in November that the decline is unprecedented for the past 1,450 years (Reconstructed changes in Arctic sea ice over the past 1,450 years, Nature, 479: 509-512, 24 November 2011).

We have reported extensively on the negative impacts the sea ice decline has had on wildlife, including polar bears and walruses.  Most recently, on 20 December 2011, NOAA declared that the recent deaths of ringed-seals in the region are an "unusual mortality event," noting that one of the factors behind the deaths might be "stressors related to sea ice change."    According to NOAA (Deaths of ringed seals in Alaska declared an unusual mortality event; walrus pending, press release, 20 December 2011):

Since mid-July, more than 60 dead and 75 diseased seals, most of them ringed seals, have been reported in Alaska, with reports continuing to come in. During their fall survey, scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also identified diseased and dead walruses at the annual mass haul-out at Point Lay.

We also have covered some of the larger implications the sea ice decline has for weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere.  Among these is an increase in coastal storms affecting Alaska.  In Global Climate Change Impacts on the United States (2009), the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) said:

"Alaska’s coastlines, many of which are low in elevation, are increasingly threatened by a combination of the loss of their protective sea ice buffer, increasing storm activity, and thawing coastal permafrost....Over this century, an increase of sea surface temperatures and a reduction of ice cover are likely to lead to northward shifts in the Pacific storm track and increased impacts on coastal Alaska.  Climate models project the Bering Sea to experience the largest decreases in atmospheric pressure in the Northern Hemisphere, suggesting an increase in storm activity in the region."

The threat was illustrated in November by a Bering Sea super storm that the National Weather Service (8 November 2011) described as an “extremely dangerous and life-threatening storm of an epic magnitude rarely experienced.” The storm helped prompt the low-lying coastal community of Kivalina to relocate its school away from the coast and to higher ground.  "This is just the beginning," said Kivalina's administrator Janet Mitchell (see Alaska village votes yes on school relocation, Associated Press, 4 January 2012)

The Threat of Accelerated Emissions of Carbon as the Arctic Thaws

Another ominous development came in the 1 December 2011 issue of the journal Nature.  In Climate change: High risk of permafrost thaw, Edward A. G. Schuur (University of Florida, Gainesville), Benjamin Abbott (University of Alaska, Fairbanks) and other experts from the Permafrost Carbon Network warned that carbon from thawing permafrost in the Arctic “will be released more quickly than models suggest, and at levels that are cause for serious concern.”

In addition to calling for better data, observations and research, they said that their research "underscores the urgent need to reduce atmospheric emissions from fossil-fuel use and deforestation. This will help to keep permafrost carbon frozen in the ground."

Concerned about mounting evidence that Arctic thawing is accelerating carbon emissions to the atmosphere, the Ranking Member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Henry Waxman (Democrat, California), has called for a hearing on the issue.  See the 18 January letter to Fred Upton (Republican, Michigan), the Chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee and to Ed Whitfield (Republican, Kentucky), Chairman of the Energy and Power Subcommittee, from Congressman Waxman and Congressman Bobby L. Rush (Democrat, Illinois) the Energy and Power Subcommittee Ranking Member.

Online Resources:

NASA Finds 2011 Ninth Warmest Year on Record.  Press release (19 Jan 2012) from NASA.

2011 Global Temperatures.  NASA Earth Observatory, 20 January 2012.

GISS Surface Temperature Analysis (GISTEMP)

GISTEMP 2011 Analysis: Global Temperature, Trends, and Prospects

Arctic Sea Ice Decline and its Impacts: Online Resources.  WWF Climate Blog.

Arctic section of WWF-US Web site

Arctic section of WWF International Web site

Arctic section of WWF Canada Web site

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