Melting ice and fire at the Arctic Circle

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It was the hottest June since measurements began in 1880. The Arctic is particularly affected by global warming – researchers are worried.

Last month was the warmest June since records began in 1880, according to measurements by the U.S. Climate Change Administration (NOAA). The Arctic was particularly affected by heat waves – not only is the ice melting. In the bordering regions, forests are burning.

In June, the average temperature over land and ocean surfaces was 0.95 degrees Celsius above the 20th century average of 15.5 degrees. Thus June 2019 exceeded the same month of 2016, which was the previous record holder, by 0.02 degrees Celsius. Among the regions particularly affected were northern Russia and northeastern Canada, while Central and Eastern Europe and the southern parts of South America – i.e. closer to Antarctic regions – were also unusually warm.

An alarming news came also for July, from Alert, the Canadian military base at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic. At this military base, often referred to as the world’s northernmost permanent settlement, 21 degrees Celsius were measured this week.

“This is really spectacular,” says David Phillips, chief climatologist at the Canadian Ministry of the Environment. “We’ve never had that before. The average high for Alert in July is therefore 7 degrees Celsius. The heat wave in the Arctic would correspond to a temperature of 42 degrees in Toronto, Phillips calculated.

Sea ice melting as fast as last in 2012

The sea ice surface also melts in alarming rates in the first half of July. The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado in Boulder has measured that the ice loss in the first half of July corresponds to that in summer 2012. In that year, the sea ice surface at the end of the Arctic summer in September reached 3.4 million square kilometers, the smallest area ever measured.

Just 30 years ago, the average sea ice area in September was seven million square kilometres. Now the current ice surface is only 7.8 million square kilometres. Almost 100,000 square kilometres are lost every day, reports NSIDC. Whether the year 2019 will bring a new minus record, however, cannot yet be estimated. Too much depends on ocean currents and current weather developments in the Arctic.

Besides the melting of the sea ice surface, which itself has no direct influence on the sea level because it is already frozen and then thawing sea water, the researchers are concerned about the melting of the glaciers. This adds fresh water to the sea, which not only raises the water level but could also change ocean currents.

Researchers have now found that even with a general rise in sea level, the rise can vary considerably from region to region. North of Greenland, Canada and Alaska, within the so-called Beaufort vortex, the sea has risen by more than ten centimetres in 22 years, twice as much as in the Arctic as a whole. Along the Greenland coast, on the other hand, it has fallen by more than five millimetres per year.

A series of unusual measurement results in the polar regions – in the Arctic and Antarctica – underscores the climate researchers’ findings that the polar ice caps are exceptionally hard hit by climate change. Above the Arctic, temperatures are warming up twice as much as in other regions.

Permafrost soils thaw – also due to fire

This means that even if global warming were to be limited to 1.5 to 2 degrees, as currently agreed in climate protection agreements, in many places in the Arctic there would still be temperature rises of three to four degrees, with drastic effects on permafrost soils and sea ice.

Permafrost soils are currently being damaged not only by melting ice, but also by fires in the subarctic regions bordering the Arctic. This year it can be observed that forests burn very early at the edge of the polar region and tundra areas and bush regions are on fire directly at the Arctic Circle.

This is part of the natural cycle, but will be particularly pronounced in 2019. The long-term consequences are considerable. If the soil burns, which in many places is peat soil, then the permafrost soil underneath is also affected. It can thaw more quickly and then releases greenhouse gases, which accelerate climate change. Siberia and Alaska will be severely affected by the fires this year.

The Arctic is largely the area north of the Arctic Circle, 66 degrees north latitude. The tree line is often used to distinguish it from the southern subarctic regions. According to this definition, the Arctic is the region in which there are no tidal flats.

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Mette Frederiksen is a The Washington Newsday correspondent. With her coverage of general science, NASA and the interface between technology and society, Frederiksen has been in the Science Desk's Technology Beat since joining Washington Newsday in 2018.

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