What is the Arctic’s new normal?

Although Arctic sea ice extent as of June 2013 falls within the normal range, sea ice overall is still declining compared to the average. This photograph was taken in August 2009, when sea ice extent nears its lowest annual extent before refreezing for the winter. (Courtesy Patrick Kelley, United States Coast Guard)

Although Arctic sea ice extent as of June 2013 falls within the normal range, sea ice overall is still declining compared to the average. This photograph was taken in August 2009, when sea ice extent nears its lowest annual extent before refreezing for the winter. (Courtesy Patrick Kelley, United States Coast Guard)

NSIDC recently switched the baseline against which we analyze Arctic sea ice extent. Previously, we relied on a baseline that coincided with the beginning of the satellite period and stretched 20 years, from 1979 to 2000. The new baseline runs from 1981 to 2010, covering 30 years. Why did we make such a change?

Switching to a 30-year baseline allows us to be consistent with other climate monitoring agencies, which commonly use a 30-year time period for conducting analyses. This new baseline also helps account for the wider variations observed in Arctic sea ice extent. Continue reading

A thawing, rotting Arctic?

Permafrost thaw causes the ground to become unstable as the soil collapses. This can damage building and roads built on permafrost. Cracks also expose the carbon stored within to sunlight, which may speed the release of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Photo credit: Dentren (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ac/Storflaket.JPG)

Permafrost thaw causes the ground to become unstable as the soil collapses. This can damage building and roads built on permafrost. Cracks also expose the carbon stored within to sunlight, which may speed the release of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.
Photo credit: Dentren (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ac/Storflaket.JPG)

As greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, researchers are looking at a source of even more carbon emissions: thawing permafrost. A warming Arctic may cause significant amounts of dead, organic material currently frozen in permafrost to thaw out and decay, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. How exactly does permafrost store carbon? And what are the consequences if the permafrost thaws?

Continue reading

A greener Arctic

As higher temperatures create more temperate environments across parts of the Arctic, vegetation is creeping northward. Places like Denali National Park in Alaska may soon see forests encroaching on what are currently tundra biomes. Photo credit: Timothy Wildey (http://www.flickr.com/photos/timothywildey/4964905772/)

If gardening in icy Greenland sounds unbelievable, think again. A chef in Kangerlussuaq has started growing tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and even strawberries for his restaurant, and Greenland’s potato production doubled between 2008 and 2012. These agricultural feats would have been impossible only a hundred years ago. The Arctic has been warming over the past several decades at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the globe. As the region warms, several teams of scientists have been tracking changes in Arctic vegetation, trying to see if higher temperatures mean more green. Continue reading

Are we in a snow drought?

The central and southwestern portions of the United States have experienced drought for the past several years. This photograph was taken in mid-February, 2010. By that point in winter, these rows would normally have been fully covered in snow. Photograph credit: Kristy Johnson (http://www.flickr.com/photos/kayaker1204/4359744393/)

In spite of the massive blizzards that have slammed parts of the northeastern United States, much of the country is experiencing a pronounced lack of snow. And where there is snow, it is less than usual. It follows a very low snow year from the previous season, causing people to worry if low snowfall is the new normal.

A previous Icelights post, Arctic sea ice and U.S. weather, discussed possible causes behind the changes in winter weather, trying to see if there are correlations to larger climate changes. Researchers like Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University are exploring the possibility that declining sea ice in the Arctic is altering atmospheric temperatures and weakening the jet stream. This change may shift the Northern Hemisphere storm track, leaving some places unusually snowy, or leaving normally snowy locations dry. Can a few good blizzards help reverse the snow drought across parts of the United States? Or is this string of dry winters yet another symptom of climate change? Continue reading

Arctic melt versus Antarctic freeze: Is Antarctica warming or not?

Photograph of a large tabular iceberg and sea ice near Antarctica

During the short austral summer, much of the sea ice surrounding Antarctica melts, often leaving only the large, tabular icebergs. Credit: NSIDC courtesy Andi Pfaffling

September 2012 was a record-setting month for both of Earth’s poles, but for different reasons: sea ice in the Arctic fell to a record low minimum extent after a summer of melting, while Antarctic sea ice froze to a record high extent during the South Pole winter. Is record Antarctic sea ice canceling out the losses in Arctic ice? And does the record in the south mean that Antarctica is not warming? Continue reading