Typhoon Merbok flooded Western and northern Alaska communities in September, damaging homes, roads, subsistence resources and cultural sites. A typhoon, as well as increasing wildfires and rain, are not what most associate with the Arctic — at least not yet.
According to the Arctic Report Card 2022, however, these climate-driven events show how the north is growing warmer and wetter.
The latest Arctic Report Card — an annual assessment of the overall trajectory of Arctic Change produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — was released Tuesday. The report shows that the snow season in the Arctic is getting shorter, the ice coverage thinner and the temperature warmer. The scientists also detected that Arctic precipitation – the newest element added to the report — is significantly increasing since the middle of the 20th century.
This warming leads to shifting seasons and increasing climate-driven disturbances such as wildfires, extreme weather, and unusual wildlife mortality events, affecting the food security and safety of Arctic Indigenous populations, said Matthew Druckenmiller, lead editor of the Arctic Report Card.
Jackie Qataliña Schaeffer from Kotzebue said that her hometown has been experiencing these changes and resiliently adapting to them.
“My community is one of many across the Arctic that is bearing the brunt of climate change impacts,” said Schaeffer, director of Climate Initiatives for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and co-author of the 2022 Arctic Report Card. “Our homes, livelihoods and physical safety are threatened by the rapid melting ice, thawing permafrost, increasing heat, wildfires.”
Arctic annual air temperatures from October 2021 to September 2022 were the sixth warmest on record, according to the Arctic Report Card. The data continues a decades-long trend in which Arctic air temperatures have warmed faster than the global average.
The August 2022 sea surface temperatures continued to show a warming trend as well, and the snow melted earlier in the season, contributing to the overall low snow cover, the report stated.
“The human-caused warming of our planet is amplified in the Arctic,” Druckenmiller said.
Strongly driven by this warming, Arctic sea ice continues to decline in thickness and extent. While this year’s Arctic sea ice extent was similar to 2021, it was still lower than the long-term average.
“With thin ice coverage and shifting seasons, fatal falls through sea, lake and river ice in Alaska are increasing,” the report stated.
Low ice concentration and more parts of the ocean staying open also increases marine access in the far North, Druckenmiller said.
“The opening of the Arctic Ocean is driving more ships into its remote and ecologically sensitive waters,” Druckenmiller said.
When sea ice melts due to warming, more solar heat is absorbed by the exposed ocean surface and, in turn, the warmer ocean melts more sea ice. Thus, the warming cycle intensifies.
Wetter Arctic drives storms and wildfires
This year was also the second wettest year since 1950, the Arctic Report Card showed.
“The Arctic is getting wetter,” said John Walsh, the section’s lead author and UAF International Arctic Research Center chief scientist. “Extreme events can include snow, rain and, in a warming Arctic, freezing rain.”
The precipitation increases has been particularly felt in Southeast Alaska and North Slope: Over the past year, Utqiaġvik saw its wettest day on July 26, and Cook Inlet — its wettest July-August, the report said. In northern Alaska, the change is enhanced by sea ice loss and a longer open water period that makes more moisture available to fall out as rain or snow.
These Arctic changes are building upon each other for a wetter, stormier, warmer Arctic with unprecedented events -- such as Typhoon Merbok, which was fueled by unusually warm water in the north Pacific. In mid-September, the far-reaching storm surge caused damage to houses, infrastructure, hunting camps and boats, disrupting the communities’ fall hunting and harvesting.
Increasing wildfires is another consequence of changes in climate patterns in the Arctic, the researchers said. While heavy rains could put out wildfires, more precipitation also goes hand in hand with temperature increase and with higher evaporation, said Walsh. In this way, more rain does not guarantee a wetter landscape, and in fact, “Alaska is more likely to become drier for periods in the summer,” he said.
Adapting to changing Arctic
Increasing temperatures, diminishing ice, thawing permafrost and increasing and more severe storms disrupt safety and food security for Arctic Indigenous people, the report acknowledged.
“People experience the consequences of these extremes not as individual events but as a composite of multiple events,” Schaeffer said.
One example of how a warming climate affects the Arctic ecosystem as a whole is the relationship between the less ice-covered ocean and the stress it carries on birds like auklets and shearwater, according to the report. This year, communities from Point Hope to Izembek Lagoon reported seabird die-offs along the coast for the sixth consecutive year.
“Seabirds and their eggs are important food for rural Alaska,” said one of the report’s authors, Karen Frey with Clark University. “Residents are concerned about the loss of these subsistence foods.”
Diminishing sea ice has been also driving up the danger and costs of whaling.
The number of days spent hunting bowhead whales in open water during fall at Utqiaġvik, Nuiqsut and Kaktovik has doubled over the past 40 years, according to the report. At the same time, the waves are getting taller in an ocean that stays ice-free for longer — and this increases risks to hunters.
To adapt, villages purchase larger — though more expensive and fuel-demanding — boats for whaling, the report said. Hunters are also adjusting the time they go whaling, fishing or hunting, responding to the changes in the migration of caribou, walrus, whales and fish. For example, bowhead whales now migrate earlier in spring and later in fall, prompting whale hunting crews to adapt.
“Arctic Indigenous people interact intimately with our environment, and our safety depends on knowing how to operate on land and sea,” Schaeffer said. “The distribution quality, thickness and timing of ice on the ocean, lakes and rivers drive nearly every aspect of life in the Arctic, from boating to whaling to seal hunting to the safety of fishing and foraging.”
Through the work on the Arctic Report Card, as well as through projects like the Study of Environmental Arctic Change, Indigenous experts, observers and scientists collaborate with researchers to combine and share their understanding of the changes in the Arctic.
“Addressing unprecedented Arctic environmental changes,” Schaeffer said, “requires hearing one another, aligning our values and collaborating across knowledge systems, disciplines and sectors of society.”