Arctic Temperatures Continue Rapid Rise as 2011 Breaks Record Set in 2010

Record Ice Loss and Tundra Melt Amplify Warming Feedbacks

by Nick Sundt, reposted from the World Wildlife Fund

NASA just (19 January 2012) released data showing that last year temperatures in the Arctic rose beyond the record established in 2010 — setting a new record for 2011. News of the record Arctic temperatures follows a series of alarming developments related to the Arctic in recent months.

The surface temperature anomaly for the region extending from 64N to 90N, from 1880 through 2011, in degrees Centigrade above or below the temperature during the 1951-1980 base period.  Temperatures have risen substantially since 1880 and the rate of increase has been especially rapid since the late 1970s. Source: WWF, using data from NASA.

According to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), the annual mean surface temperature (land and air) for the region north of 64oN (the Arctic Circle is at 66° 33’N) in 2011 was 2.28oC above that which characterized the 1951-1980 period.  Temperatures in the region have been rising rapidly since the late 1970s and have not dropped below the long term mean since 1992 — nearly 20 years. This year’s annual mean temperature broke the record that was just set in 2010, when the temperature was 2.11oC above 1951-1980 levels.

Global temperature data released by NASA indicates that global surface temperatures in 2011 were the 9th highest on record, and that the warming was especially concentrated in the Arctic. “We know the planet is absorbing more energy than it is emitting,” said GISS director James E. Hansen in a NASA press release (NASA Finds 2011 Ninth Warmest Year on Record, 19 Jan 2012).  “So we are continuing to see a trend toward higher temperatures. Even with the cooling effects of a strong La Niña influence and low solar activity for the past several years, 2011 was one of the 10 warmest years on record.”

Annual global surface temperature anomalies, 2011.  The largest and most extensive warming (indicated in shades of red) was concentrated in the Arctic.  Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

News of the record Arctic temperatures follows a series of alarming developments related to the Arctic in recent months.

Declining Arctic Sea Ice Affecting Wildlife, Weather Patterns

According to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice extent reached the second lowest level in the satellite record on September 9 2011 — just short of the record set in 2007.  At the same time, the volume of Arctic sea ice volume dropped to a record low in 2011. NOAA this week listed the low Arctic sea ice extent as one of the top 10 global weather/climate events for 2011. The  extent and volume of Arctic sea ice are declining rapidly and scientists reported in November that the decline is unprecedented for the past 1,450 years (Reconstructed changes in Arctic sea ice over the past 1,450 years, Nature, 479: 509-512, 24 November 2011).

We have reported extensively on the negative impacts the sea ice decline has had on wildlife, including polar bears and walruses.  Most recently, on 20 December 2011, NOAA declared that the recent deaths of ringed-seals in the region are an “unusual mortality event,” noting that one of the factors behind the deaths might be “stressors related to sea ice change.” According to NOAA (Deaths of ringed seals in Alaska declared an unusual mortality event; walrus pending, press release, 20 December 2011):

Since mid-July, more than 60 dead and 75 diseased seals, most of them ringed seals, have been reported in Alaska, with reports continuing to come in. During their fall survey, scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also identified diseased and dead walruses at the annual mass haul-out at Point Lay.

We also have covered some of the larger implications the sea ice decline has for weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere.  Among these is an increase in coastal storms affecting Alaska.  In Global Climate Change Impacts on the United States (2009), the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) said:

“Alaska’s coastlines, many of which are low in elevation, are increasingly threatened by a combination of the loss of their protective sea ice buffer, increasing storm activity, and thawing coastal permafrost….Over this century, an increase of sea surface temperatures and a reduction of ice cover are likely to lead to northward shifts in the Pacific storm track and increased impacts on coastal Alaska.  Climate models project the Bering Sea to experience the largest decreases in atmospheric pressure in the Northern Hemisphere, suggesting an increase in storm activity in the region.”

The threat was illustrated in November by a Bering Sea super storm that the National Weather Service (8 November 2011) described as an “extremely dangerous and life-threatening storm of an epic magnitude rarely experienced.” The storm helped prompt the low-lying coastal community of Kivalina to relocate its school away from the coast and to higher ground.  “This is just the beginning,” said Kivalina’s administrator Janet Mitchell (see Alaska village votes yes on school relocation, Associated Press, 4 January 2012)

The Threat of Accelerated Emissions of Carbon as the Arctic Thaws

Another ominous development came in the 1 December 2011 issue of the journal Nature.  In Climate change: High risk of permafrost thaw, Edward A. G. Schuur (University of Florida, Gainesville), Benjamin Abbott (University of Alaska, Fairbanks) and other experts from the Permafrost Carbon Network warned that carbon from thawing permafrost in the Arctic “will be released more quickly than models suggest, and at levels that are cause for serious concern.”

In addition to calling for better data, observations and research, they said that their research “underscores the urgent need to reduce atmospheric emissions from fossil-fuel use and deforestation. This will help to keep permafrost carbon frozen in the ground.”

Concerned about mounting evidence that Arctic thawing is accelerating carbon emissions to the atmosphere, the Ranking Member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Henry Waxman (Democrat, California), has called for a hearing on the issue.  See the 18 January letter to Fred Upton (Republican, Michigan), the Chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee and to Ed Whitfield (Republican, Kentucky), Chairman of the Energy and Power Subcommittee, from Congressman Waxman and Congressman Bobby L. Rush (Democrat, Illinois) the Energy and Power Subcommittee Ranking Member.

— Nick Sundt is the communications director for climate change at the World Wildlife Fund. This piece was originally published at the WWF blog.

Online Resources:

NASA Finds 2011 Ninth Warmest Year on Record.  Press release (19 Jan 2012) from NASA.

2011 Global Temperatures.  NASA Earth Observatory, 20 January 2012.

GISS Surface Temperature Analysis (GISTEMP)

GISTEMP 2011 Analysis: Global Temperature, Trends, and Prospects

Arctic Sea Ice Decline and its Impacts: Online Resources.  WWF Climate Blog.

Arctic section of WWF-US Web site

Arctic section of WWF International Web site

Arctic section of WWF Canada Web site

16 Responses to Arctic Temperatures Continue Rapid Rise as 2011 Breaks Record Set in 2010

  1. John McCormick says:

    When does the diagnosis (terminal illness) fit the personal feeling of the big green.

    The big green leaders hide behind the message that green jobs will take us into the promised land. We have no promised land. We are heading towards the age of chaos.

    And, as I see it, the big green have no Moses to lead us. We are on our own.

    How long before we abandon the big green and create a new leadership regime that has the whatever it takes to change the narrative and lead us into something more than reports, videos and…what!!!

    Where are they?

    We never hear from the big green about anything except announcements and invitations to yet another event or new paper.

    Jeff H you have a following of people who are as angry as you with the big green status quo…

    Maybe the Occupy Wall Street should be occupying their peer groups…(maybe there is no relationship).

    Joe, you might be on the verge of losing your base. You should make it more emphatic that the big green have to lift their end of the board and that time is running against them and we Hawks will blame them as well!!!

    John McCormick

  2. prokaryotes says:

    Another thing is the ozone hole we found out about in 2011. The implications are for concern to some 700 million inhabitants of the northern hemisphere. While the antarctic ozone hole is rather static, the northern ozone hole, wobbles much more, for whatever reason.

    Methane which is up roughly 30% in december (unprecedented for past observations), breaks down at low latitudes, in the stratosphere into hydrogen oxides, which attack ozone. Nitrous oxide 300 times more potent greenhouse gas than Co2, can decompose to form ozone-eating nitrogen oxides.

  3. Leif says:

    I went to the Saturday local Occupy Your Street rally with sign that coped the “Definitely not the Stephen Colbert PAC” add. “If Corporations are people, Mitt Romney is a serial killer.” Interesting public responses. (called by 1- “ass hole”, 3 flipped birds, one guy went livid. That last was remarkable to me.
    On the other hand many smiles, drive by thumbs up, a number of positive honks and even requests to talk and pictures taken. Best positive signs than any of my other signs or rallies. The public reaction was a very obvious change to past demonstrations. When most just looked the other way or straight ahead. Still the majority. IMO, the hard core deniers are becoming threatened and short tempered. I feel that even they begin to realize they are getting backed into a corner. A very dangerous time and when non-violence is doubly important. Keep it up Folks.

  4. prokaryotes says:

    This too contributes to arctic “amplification”

    Breaking NASA Arctic Ocean Currents Changed

  5. Colorado Bob says:

    “If Corporations are people, Mitt Romney is a serial killer.”
    If corporations are people , let’s see Texas execute one of them.

  6. Ian Perrin says:

    #2. Prokaryotes. ‘Methane which is up roughly 30% in december’. Could you expand on this, please, and provide a link. Many thanks.

  7. Peter SM says:

    As emissions rise, we may be heading for an ice-free planet

    Last December’s meeting of the American Geophysical Union featured three of the world’s leading climate scientists: James Hansen (NASA’s chief climate scientist), Elco Rohling (National Oceanography Centre, Southampton) and Ken Caldeira (Stanford School of Earth Science). But it was Hansen who attracted the most attention when he stated:

    If you doubled CO₂, which practically all governments assume we’re going to do, that would eventually get us to the ice-free state

    From climate code red

  8. Raul M. says:

    Is that being kind to not show the plume of heat near Alaska?

  9. John McCormick says:

    Presented by the Stockholm University:

    an interesting video of actual on-board activities of a research team measuring carbon fluxes in the East Siberian Sea


  10. Raul M. says: northern lights- beautiful photos.

  11. Ross Carr says:

    I work on the North Slope Kuparuk oil field and we are experiencing minus temperatures that haven’t been seen here in 25 years. Today we are sitting at -56 with a wind chill at -107 degrees. This is the coldest day so far during this cold snap which started last week end and is supposed to last for the rest of this week.
    I know there is some debate on the cause of the warming trend of the Arctic region, but with the extremes being more extreme recently I’m not sold on a “catastrophic climate event”.
    We may have some influence, but as I recall a balance in extremes is acceptable for our climate.Also I recall not too long ago, the late 70’s, the cry was we were descending into a cooling period.
    The discussion needs to be had and changes do need to be made regardless of whether or not it is our “influence” on the environment, in my opinion, simply because as a species we are overwhelming our natural resources as a whole.

  12. Tom says:

    Are we missing the picture from the above graph. I don;t know how many times that a 2 deg. change was the sign of a tipping point. If I’m not mistaken that that graph clearly shows a 2+ degree change.

  13. BillLaurelMD says:

    Ross … you’re making a common mistake here of making a global attribution for weather in a relatively small area. While it has been VERY cold in AK, it also has been very warm in the area north of Europe and Siberia. See this graphic from the National Snow and Ice Data Center for December 2011 for example, or this graphic for the last 90 days’ temperatures and departure from normal for Bjornova, in the Norwegian Sea north of Norway.

  14. Bill, looking at the Alaska temperature data, it appears that Alaska has not been all that cold this winter. According to NCDC, “Alaska had its 3rd warmest December on record, with a temperature 8.7°F (4.8°C) above the 1971–2000 average.”

    I don’t know how January is shaping up, but Alaska was colder than normal in November according to NCDC, “Alaska had its 6th coolest November on record, with a temperature 8.2 °F (4.55°C) below the 1971–2000 average.”

    Looking at the November graph, Alaska’s coldest November was in 2006.