Arctic Unravelling: Scientists Report on a Decade of Unprecedented Change in the Arctic

The results of a major assessment of the impacts of climate change on the Arctic's cryosphere (snow, water, ice and permafrost) were released today (4 May 2011).  "The observed changes in sea ice on the Arctic Ocean and in the mass of the Greenland Ice Sheet and Arctic ice caps and glaciers over the past ten years are dramatic and represent an obvious departure from the long-term patterns," the report concludes.


Arctic surface temperature anomalies, March 2011 (relative to 1951-1980)

Above: Arctic surface temperatures anomalies, March 2011.  Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. 

The results of the assessment, Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA) (April 2011), produced by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP), were presented today at the international scientific conference on “The Arctic as a Messenger for Global Processes ‐ Climate Change and Pollution” (4‐6 May 2011, Copenhagen, Denmark).  The report will be formally submitted to the 7th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Nuuk, Greenland on 12 May 2011. 

This is why we are calling on the Arctic Council to adopt a new stewardship approach to the Arctic,” says WWF Arctic climate specialist, Martin Sommerkorn who is taking part in the Copenhagen conference. “Comprehensive and consistent rules that govern entire ecosystems rather than single resources or sectors and that work across national borders are the only effective response to the rapid and sweeping change described in this report. These new rules should be coupled with locally driven adaptation initiatives.”

Lou Leonard, Managing Director, Climate Change Program, World Wildlife Fund in the U.S. added:

"I'm not sure what is more alarming, the glacial pace of Congress to reduce carbon pollution or the astounding rate of melting Arctic ice. Our country needs to act much more swiftly if we're to avoid the worst flooding, storm surges and coastal erosion that Americans have ever experienced. Congress passed the buck on climate legislation, so it’s time for the Obama administration to use all of the relevant laws on the books to address the climate crisis.  The cost of inaction is too high."

We provide below the key findings of the assessment.  See the Executive Summary for a discussion of the findings.

Key finding 1:  "The past six years (2005–2010) have been the warmest period ever recorded in the Arctic. Higher surface air temperatures are driving changes in the cryosphere."

Surface Temperature Anomaly, 64oN-90oN, 1880-2010 (oC)

Above: Surface temperature anomalies in northern latitudes (64oN-90oN) from 1880-2010 (oC).  Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Zonal annual means, 1880-present.

Key finding 2: "There is evidence that two components of the Arctic cryosphere – snow and sea ice – are interacting with the climate system to accelerate warming. "

Key finding 3:  "The extent and duration of snow cover and sea ice have decreased across the Arctic. Temperatures in the permafrost have risen by up to 2 °C. The southern limit of permafrost has moved northward in Russia and Canada."

Key finding 4:  "The largest and most permanent bodies of ice in the Arctic – multiyear sea ice, mountain glaciers, ice caps and the Greenland Ice Sheet – have all been declining faster since 2000 than they did in the previous decade."

Key finding 5: "Model projections reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 underestimated the rates of change now observed in sea ice."



Above:  Arctic Sea Ice Maximum 2011.  NASA animation showing Arctic sea ice extent from 17 September 2010 (two days before -annual minimum) to 16 March 2011 (a week after the annual maximum on 7 March 2011).

Key finding 6:  "Maximum snow depth is expected to increase over many areas by 2050, with greatest increases over Siberia. Despite this, average snow cover duration is projected to decline by up to 20% by 2050."

Key finding 7: "The Arctic Ocean is projected to become nearly ice-free in summer within this century, likely within the next thirty to forty years."

Average monthly Arctic Sea Ice Extent, March 1979 to 2011.

Above: Average monthly Arctic Sea Ice Extent, March 1979 to 2011.  Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Key finding 8: "Changes in the cryosphere cause fundamental changes to the characteristics of Arctic ecosystems and in some cases loss of entire habitats. This has consequences for people who receive benefits from Arctic ecosystems."

Key finding 9:  "The observed and expected future changes to the Arctic cryosphere impact Arctic society on many levels. There are challenges, particularly for local communities and traditional ways of life. There are also new opportunities."

Key finding 10:  "Transport options and access to resources are radically changed by differences in the distribution and seasonal occurrence of snow, water, ice and permafrost in the Arctic. This affects both daily living and commercial activities."

Key finding 11:  "Arctic infrastructure faces increased risks of damage due to changes in the cryosphere, particularly the loss of permafrost and land-fast sea ice."

Key finding 12:  "Loss of ice and snow in the Arctic enhances climate warming by increasing absorption of the sun’s energy at the surface of the planet. It could also dramatically increase emissions of carbon dioxide and methane and change large-scale ocean currents. The combined outcome of these effects is not yet known."

Canyons and Glaciers Along the Northwest Coast of Greenland. Source: NASA/Michael Studinger

Above: Canyons and Glaciers Along the Northwest Coast of Greenland. Source: NASA/Michael Studinger. Download Image: Full Size1024x768 or 800x600.

Key finding 13:  "Arctic glaciers, ice caps and the Greenland Ice Sheet contributed over 40% of the global sea level rise of around 3 mm per year observed between 2003 and 2008. In the future, global sea level is projected to rise by 0.9–1.6 m by 2100 and Arctic ice loss will make a substantial contribution to this."

Key finding 14:  "Everyone who lives, works or does business in the Arctic will need to adapt to changes in the cryosphere. Adaptation also requires leadership from governments and international bodies, and increased investment in infrastructure."

Key finding 15:  "There remains a great deal of uncertainty about how fast the Arctic cryosphere will change in the future and what the ultimate impacts of the changes will be. Interactions (‘feedbacks’) between elements of the cryosphere and climate system are particularly uncertain.  Concerted monitoring and research is needed to reduce this uncertainty." 


Online Resources:

Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA) by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (April 2011). Web page provides access to: 

Arctic Ice:

Arctic Ozone Loss:

National Security:

Coastal Impacts

Ecosystem Impacts:


National Snow and Ice Data Center Icelights:


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