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Why a ‘feverish’ Arctic will affect everyone on the globe

A historic heat wave is occurring in the Arctic, already the fastest-warming place on Earth due to the increasing accumulation of greenhouse gases. Dr. Merritt Turetsky, director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado Boulder, has studied the Arctic for decades. She joins William Brangham to discuss causes and consequences of the Arctic's rising temperatures.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There's a heat wave of historic proportions occurring in the Arctic right now, a region that is already the fastest warming place on Earth, due to the increasing buildup of greenhouse gases.

    William Brangham talks with a scientist who's worked in the region for decades.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    It is summer in the Arctic right now, so somewhat milder temperatures would be expected. But this heat wave, which has triggered huge wildfires in Siberia and increased melting of the permafrost, are likely the warmest temperatures ever recorded, and now are only going to make climate change worse.

    Dr. Merritt Turetsky is the director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado-Boulder. And she joins me from a cabin in Canada.

    Dr. Turetsky, thank you very much for being here.

  • Merritt Turetsky:

    Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    Can you just help us understand, what is going on in the Arctic right now? What is driving this intense heat wave?

  • Merritt Turetsky:

    Let me start with an analogy.

    So, when we come down with a fever, when our bodies spike a temperature, we stop, we realize that there's a problem, and we provide care. And that's exactly what's happening today.

    The Arctic is feverish, with temperatures spiking above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in multiple locations. So, these extreme temperatures are very unusual. They are record-breaking. But this is part of a longer-term trend.

    In fact, last year, last summer was a very warm period in the Arctic, and Siberia and parts of Russia experienced the warmest winter on record. And it's part of a trend that we anticipate will become more frequent in the Arctic because of climate change.

  • William Brangham:

    And so I understand there's also — there's a high-pressure system, I guess, over the Arctic, which is making this particular issue.

    But you're saying that the longer-term trend of a warming atmosphere is really being felt in the Arctic very sharply.

  • Merritt Turetsky:

    That's exactly right.

    So, this is part of a persistent warming trend. But, at the same time, the best tools that we have at our disposal in the scientific community, our climate models, predict more extreme conditions.

    And this is true all around the world. We're seeing more extreme conditions in storms, more extreme conditions in precipitation. And that's the same in the arctic. We're seeing more extreme temperature changes. And this is consistent with our predictions into the future.

  • William Brangham:

    So, what are some of the impacts of that? I mean, for people who might look at this and think, I don't live in the Arctic, the Arctic is very far away from me, what are some of the consequences of this warming trend in the Arctic?

  • Merritt Turetsky:

    These Arctic changes will affect everyone on the globe, for a number of reasons.

    The first is that, when the Arctic is warm, it changes weather patterns all around the world. The heat wave is triggering very rapid wildfires. And the Arctic is literally and figuratively on fire.

    And this is likely to get worse as this heat wave continues through the summer. The emissions from those wildfires, of course, release greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. So, that affects climate of the entire planet through the greenhouse gas effect.

    But the emissions from wildfires also affect air quality. These smoke plumes don't stay in the Arctic. They drift globally with atmospheric circulation. Last summer, when the Arctic was set on fire because of warm conditions, smoke plumes reached the Western United States and affected air quality for millions of people.

    So, these impacts in the Arctic are very strong locally. There are many people who live in the Arctic who depend on stable frozen ground. They, of course, are impacted.

  • William Brangham:

    I mentioned also that there is the warming and melting of the permafrost.

    For people who may not be familiar with what permafrost is and why it's melting could impact climate change as well, can you explain that?

  • Merritt Turetsky:

    Permafrost is the glue of Arctic ecosystems. It is literally the backbone upon which all of the soils and the vegetation and the animals in the Arctic depend upon. Permafrost is frozen ground. So, it can be frozen rock, frozen soil, frozen sediment. It's defined by its temperature.

    And the Arctic today is shaped by permafrost. But we are seeing widespread evidence on multiple continents in the Arctic that permafrost is thawing as a result of climate change. And, in many places, this can cause catastrophic impacts on the landscape.

    Lakes can literally disappear in the period of a few weeks. These are lakes that have been used as fishing grounds for generations. And they simply disappear because the permafrost thaws, and it's like pulling the plug out of a bathtub. All the water is allowed to drain away.

    Permafrost is very important not only to supporting life in the Arctic, but it's important for storing carbon. It's been keeping carbon out of the atmosphere and benefiting climate for thousands and thousands of years.

    But, once permafrost thaws, that carbon is now vulnerable to microbial decomposition, and it can be re-released into the atmosphere. Its fate is unknown. And scientists are trying to figure out just how much of that carbon will wind up in the atmosphere and what impacts it will have on our climate.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, such an important topic.

    Dr. Merritt Turetsky, thank you very, very much for your insight.

  • Merritt Turetsky:

    Thank you.

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