Big Ideas of 2016: Climate Change Is Warming the Arctic to Record Highs

It’s the kind of thing that keeps climate scientists up at night.

Today, the North Pole is forecast to be up to 40–50˚ F warmer than normal and nearing the melting point for ice. Today’s extreme weather builds on an already balmy December for the Arctic—some 23˚ F above normal—and toasty November, where temps soared 36˚ F above average in parts.

“We’ve seen a year in 2016 in the Arctic like we’ve never seen before,” said Jeremy Mathis, director of NOAA’s Arctic research program, at a recent press conference.

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Crew from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy retrieve a canister of supplies while on a mission to study the changing Arctic.

While some portion of the unusual temperatures can be attributed to El Niño, this year’s Arctic warming is beyond anything scientists and meteorologists have observed before. A recent addendum to a peer-reviewed study—released early because of the unprecedented warming—found that climate change has increased the likelihood of these extreme events from 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 50.

Sea ice has been waning to record lows as a result. November’s Arctic ice cover is lower than it ever has been since satellites started recording its extent in 1979. More of the ice now forms in a single year, which is thinner and less likely to survive warm spells than thicker, multi-year ice. Lower ice coverage also reflects less sunlight, which in turn tends to warm the region even more.

The destabilized Arctic has upended weather pattens around the world, in part by throwing the jet stream into a loopier path, causing it to dip both lower and higher than normal. This brings cold temperatures down from the Arctic—the so-called polar vortex—while also allowing warmer air creep northward.

Climate scientists and meteorologists will be watching the Arctic closely over the next year. What happens then could give us a hint as to when ice may disappear from the Arctic altogether.

The challenges of studying the Arctic are myriad.