The Arctic Report Card – Pass or Fail?

Laura Guertin

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Hello, Arctic region. It’s that time of year again – the time for your annual report card to come out. Each December since 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) releases a summary of your recent environmental changes relative to historical records. And as NOAA has done every year, your report card is not private; the evaluation of your performance is being shared with scientists, teachers, students, decision-makers, and the general public. In other words, the world will soon know how you did in the physical environment— subjects that include the atmosphere, snow, sea ice, the Greenland Ice Sheet, carbon stored and released by thawing permafrost, and the impacts on people, plants, and animals that live in the Arctic.

You need to come to my office hours – we need to talk about your performance.

Before we get to your 2020 report card, let’s review your transcript from 2019. There were 81 scientists from 12 nations that tracked a number of your environmental indicators used to inform decisions by local, state and federal leaders. [1] And I regret to share with you that in 2019 and still in 2020, your Arctic ecosystems and communities are increasingly at risk due to continued warming and declining sea ice. [2]

Let’s take a moment to review some specifics of the impact of your changing performance over time.

With the Arctic becoming increasingly ice-free, everything from cargo ships to cruise ships are passing through your waters at greater numbers. [3] This now classifies oil spills as the most significant threat to the Arctic marine environment. [4] The warmer waters of the Atlantic Ocean mixing into your cold Arctic waters are altering the Arctic marine ecosystem, causing species of Atlantic fish to now become a new food source for polar gulls. [5] Killer whales are now expanding their range into new areas of the Arctic and are getting trapped by areas of thick sea ice. [6] Overall, some species are gaining habitat in the Arctic, while others are being squeezed out by new arrivals and habitat loss. [7]

And don’t think for one minute that your performance in the Arctic stays in the Arctic. Your melting glaciers and sea ice can contribute significantly to sea-level rise, which affects people in coastal areas around the world. Weather patterns outside of the Arctic region are impacted by the changing interactions between the ocean and the atmosphere in the Arctic. [8] We need to continue our research on the connections between your physical systems and the ocean-based Blue Economy. In the United States in 2018, the American marine economy contributed ~$373 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product and grew faster than the nation’s economy as a whole. [9]

Frankly, your future progress is not looking good. With September 2020 the warmest September since global record-keeping began in 1880, and your Arctic sea ice extent in September 2020 the second-lowest in a 42-year satellite record, and the year 2020 projected to be one of the warmest years on record, we know your physical environments will continue to change. [10]

Before you completely give up on yourself, Arctic region, think back to the words of former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco: “A key role of science is to inform our understanding of what’s happening to the world around us and what the consequences of different choices we make might be.” [8] One strong area of your 2019 report card was including some of the Indigenous Elders from the over 70 Indigenous communities in the Bering Sea region, so they could offer their experiences of living at the forefront of climate change and the adaptations they are making. [11]

Don’t listen to those who say they know exactly when the Arctic will become ice-free – this can’t be predicted. [12] We still have lots of science to do and lots to learn about you to inform advocacy, action, and policy.

So let’s take the science presented in your report card and address what can be done. You are well aware that your Arctic marine ecosystem and the communities that depend upon it continue to experience unprecedented changes as a result of warming air temperatures, declining sea ice, and warming waters. [2] Although your report card is accessible to anyone across the globe, I don’t think enough people are aware of its availability and what this information means.

Since the challenges you are facing in the Arctic shouldn’t be addressed just by those living in the Arctic, we need to provide support and work together to improve your grades - which absolutely can be done! I’m going to assign homework to our entire global community (starting with everyone reading this story) to share the Arctic Report Card. Pass along this story to others. Share the information from our conversation today, and discuss with others what is happening in the Arctic. It may seem geographically far away, but before the Arctic fails in all of its subjects, we need to share the science and take action so your report card is one you want to hang on your kitchen refrigerator.

NOAA’s Arctic Report Card can be accessed at: https://arctic.noaa.gov/Report-Card

Sources

[1] Stein, T. (2019, December 10). Arctic Report Card: Record territory for warm temperatures, loss of snow and ice. NOAA News & Features. Available at: https://www.noaa.gov/media-release/arctic-report-card-record-territory-for-warm-temperatures-loss-of-snow-and-ice

[2] Richter-Menge, J., M.L. Druckenmiller, & M. Jeffries (Eds.). (2019). Arctic Report Card 2019. Available at: https://www.arctic.noaa.gov/Report-Card

[3] Holland, E. (2017, February 13). Arctic Shipping Traffic Has Been Rising for Decades. Hakai Magazine. Available at: https://www.hakaimagazine.com/news/arctic-shipping-traffic-has-been-rising-decades/

[4] O’Grady, C. (2020, October 13). The Race Against Catastrophe. Hakai Magazine. Available at: https://www.hakaimagazine.com/features/the-race-against-catastrophe/

[5] Katz, C. (2018, March 12). Arctic Birds Carry Signs of an “Atlantifying” Ocean. Hakai Magazine. Available at: https://www.hakaimagazine.com/news/arctic-birds-carry-signs-of-an-atlantifying-ocean/

[6] Kemeny, R. (2019, February 14). Killer Whales Are Expanding into the Arctic, Then Dying as the Ice Sets In. Hakai Magazine. Available at: https://www.hakaimagazine.com/news/killer-whales-are-expanding-into-the-arctic-then-dying-as-the-ice-sets-in/

[7] Lindsey, R. (2019, December 10). 2019 Arctic Report Card: At gateways to the Arctic, northern fish are retreating. NOAA Climate.gov. Available at: https://climate.gov/news-features/featured-images/2019-arctic-report-card-gateways-arctic-northern-fish-are-retreating

[8] Kahn, B. (2012, December 6). Talking about the Arctic with NOAA Administrator Lubchenco. NOAA Climate.gov. Available at: https://climate.gov/news-features/features/talking-about-arctic-noaa-administrator-lubchenco

[9] Lyons, J. (2020, June 2). Marine economy in 2018 grew faster than U.S. overall. NOAA News & Features. Available at: https://www.noaa.gov/media-release/marine-economy-in-2018-grew-faster-than-us-overall

[10] Masters, J. (2020, October 14). September 2020 was the warmest September on record, NOAA reports. Yale Climate Communications. Available at: https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/10/september-2020-was-warmest-september-on-record-noaa-reports/

[11] Slats, R., C. Oliver, R. Bahnke, H. Bell, A. Miller, D. Pugowiyi, J. Merculief, N. Menadelook Sr., J. Ivanoff, & C. Oxereok. (2019). 2019: Arctic Ocean primary productivity: The response of marine algae to climate warming and sea ice decline. Arctic Report Card 2019 (J. Richter-Menge, M. L. Druckenmiller, and M. Jeffries, Eds.). Available at: http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/Report-Card

[12] Boyle, R. (2016, September 15). For the Melting Arctic, Fuzzy Forecasts Are the Best We Can Do. Hakai Magazine. Available at: https://www.hakaimagazine.com/news/melting-arctic-fuzzy-forecasts-are-best-we-can-do/

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