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Arctic temperatures are soaring, and scientists are freaking out

The planet keeps heating up and melting ice at a "frightening" pace.

Credit: Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images via Getty Images
Credit: Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images via Getty Images

It was the warmest December on record in the Arctic, and 2018 has already set a string of records for lowest Arctic sea ice.

Unfortunately for America and the rest of the planet, the best science makes clear that what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. “We long ago anticipated that warming would be greatest in the Arctic owing to the vicious cycle of melting ice and warming oceans,” climate scientist Mike Mann told ThinkProgress via email.

“But what we didn’t anticipate is the way that changing wind patterns could accelerate that process — and along with it, a host of nasty associated surprises.” 

Annual average  temperature (compared to 1981 to 2010 baseline)  in the Arctic (67°North latitude) for various data sets.
Annual average temperature (compared to 1981 to 2010 baseline) in the Arctic (67°North latitude) for various data sets.

Mann, who won the 2018 AAAS Public Engagement with Science Award last week from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, explained that those surprises include “including slowing down of ocean currents, and whacky weather patterns in North America associated with weather extremes like droughts, wildfires, floods, and superstorms.”

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And those are in addition to the “nasty” associated impacts that scientists have long predicted would result from Arctic warming, such as faster melting of the land-based Greenland ice sheet, which in turn drives the speed up in sea level rise that scientists reported last week.

“We are seeing what scientists have predicted for years,” professor of thermal sciences John Abraham told ThinkProgress via email. “The temperatures in the Arctic are off the chart. This matters for the rest of us because this is the time of year when the Arctic ice should be growing. But it isn’t growing like it should. So, this summer, there will be less ice and more open waters that will lead to more warming.”

In light of the lack of aggressive action to address climate change, Abraham warns that “We’ve started a feedback loop that we cannot stop.” And indeed, Arctic sea ice levels have been at record lows most of 2018, according to Japan’s National Institute of polar research.

Arctic sea ice has been at record low levels for much of 2018 (red line). CREDIT: Japan's National Institute of Polar Research.
Arctic sea ice has been at record low levels for much of 2018 (red line). CREDIT: Japan's National Institute of Polar Research.

“What is particularly frightening is that this is happening in a La Nina year, when if anything, the Earth should be a little bit cooler than normal,” Abraham added. “If this isn’t a clarion call to take action, I don’t know what is.”

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And indeed, last month was the warmest January on record for a year in which there is a La Nina cooling phase, as both NOAA and NASA reported.