NASA Reports Third Warmest June-August on Record Globally as Dramatic Videos are Released Showing Consequences for Walruses

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NASA has just released global temperature data for June-August 2011, showing that it was the third warmest June-August on record, with the largest temperature departures from normal concentrated at the poles.  In the Arctic, where sea surface temperatures in some areas reached record levels in August, sea ice declined to record or near-record levels. The U.S. Geological Survey and videographer Dan Zatz released today (13 September 2011) dramatic videos of walruses hauled-out along the Alaska shoreline of the Chukchi Sea -- leaving little doubt of the epic proportions of the disruption being felt in the region as it rapidly warms.

NASA: 3rd Warmest Summer on Record Globally

According to newly released data from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), June-August 2011 (summer in the Northern Hemisphere; winter in the Southern Hemisphere) was tied with 2005 as the third warmest on record globally.  With temperatures 0.57oC above the 1951-1980 base period, only 1998 (0.67oC above the base period) and 2009 (0.61oC above the base period) were warmer.  All ten of the warmest years on record (since 1880) were since 1998.

As the figures below indicate, the warming was greatest in the polar regions, in the Arctic and Antarctica. As colors shift from yellow to deep red, the magnitude of the positive temperature anomaly increases to 6.5oC at the high end of the scale.


 

Sea Ice Impacts

The decade of above normal summer temperatures has taken its toll on Arctic Sea ice.  From the sea ice maximum (usually in March) to the minimum (in September), the volume and extent of ice declines; and as the Arctic has warmed from rising atmospheric pollution (greenhouse gases and soot), the amount of sea ice has declined. In 2007, the warmer temperatures combined with other factors (winds, currents) to drive Arctic sea ice to a record low minimum both in extent and volume.

But as the figure below from the Polar Science Center of the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington indicates, the 2007 record was broken in 2010.  Now, the 2010 record is broken as the decline in volume continues.

As the same time the extent of sea ice over the water's surface dropped close to 2007 levels.  Two of the  leading entities that track Arctic sea ice are the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) and the IARC-JAXA Information System (IJIS) of the International Arctic Research Center and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).  Data from both indicate that by 12 September, sea ice extent in 2011 had dropped to the second lowest level on record -- but still slightly above 2007 levels. See the NSIDC figure below showing the sea ice extent during the 2011 melt season through 12 September.  It is compared to 2007, 2008, 2010 and the 1979-2000 average.

Data from another group of researchers at the University of Bremen shows that the extent this year had by 8 September dropped below the 2007 minimum extent (see press release from the University of Bremen).   " While the University of Bremen and other data may show slightly different numbers, all of the data agree that Arctic sea ice is continuing its long-term decline," said the NSIDC today.

Walruses: Harbingers of Climate Disruption

The summer sea ice is home to walruses, particularly females and their young.  As the ice melts, it recedes from shore and less and less is found over the shallower waters where walruses feed.  Eventually, with no suitable ice to be found near their feeding areas, the walruses are forced to head for land and haul-out along the coast.  See how radio-tagged walruses head for shore as sea ice retreats in this USGS animation covering the period from 17 July to 12 September 2011.

As we recently reported, by 17 August, approximately 8,000 walruses were observed during a survey flight of the Chukchi Offshore Monitoring in Drilling Area (COMIDA) marine mammal aerial survey project.  Another COMIDA flight two days later (19 August) reported [PDF] their numbers had grown to about 10,000 walruses (see photos below).

Above and below: During COMIDA flight 235 [PDF] on 19 August 2011, observers reported " Approximately 10,000 walruses were observed hauled out on land slightly north of Point Lay" (click on image for larger high resolution image).  Source: Rebecca Shea (National Marine Mammal Laboratory, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

Less than a week later, COMIDA observers on 24 August estimated that the number of walruses had doubled to roughly 20,000. 

Videographer Dan Zatz produced dramatic aerial footage of the haul-out that he has posted on his Web site (HD video also available) and that we provide below. 

Also, on 25 August, Daniel H. Monson, Ph.D  of U.S. Geological Survey filmed additional footage of the walruses at Point Lay, taken from a closer vantage point on land.  Monson's video is embedded below.

Above: Walruses hauled out at Point Lay, Alaska, August 25 2011.  Video Producer/Videographer: Daniel H. Monson, Ph.D , U.S. Geological Survey.

According to a press release issued on Tuesday (13 Sep 2011) by USGS, "[f]emale walruses and their young have come ashore during late summer and fall in four of the last five years on Alaska's northwest coast."  Last year an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 walruses ultimately hauled-out near Point Lay.

“Climate change has forced Arctic sea ice into a downward spiral with disastrous results: polar bear litter sizes are dwindling, walruses are crowding ashore and Alaskan communities are relocating due to extreme erosion and storm surges," says Lou Leonard, WWF's Climate Change Managing Director.  "Studies show that this sharp drop in Arctic ice disrupts global weather patterns as well, contributing to heavier winter snows here in the US and continuing the onslaught of extreme weather we’ve faced in recent years.

“Gridlock in Washington has left us dangerously unprepared for these changes. This latest planetary distress signal should hit our local leaders like a splash of cold water in the face: it is time for cities and towns across the country to makes plans to protect Americans from these present and future climate disruptions.”

Online Resources:

Arctic sea ice nears minimum extent.  Press release (13 Sep 2011) from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. 

The Science Behind the 2011 Walrus Haulout FAQ.  By USGS, 16 August 2011.

WWF Feature Story: Arctic Sea Ice Levels Plummet to Record Lows.

Arctic section of WWF-US Web site

Arctic section of WWF International Web site

Arctic section of WWF Canada Web site

WWF Climate Change Blog:

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