A number of unusual events are sweeping across the Arctic as global warming disrupts weather patterns, the landscape, and the way of life in the icy wilderness.
Earth’s average surface temperature has risen by 1°C since the 1880s, driven largely by man-made greenhouse gases. And the world keeps on warming: the past five years have, collectively, been the hottest on record, according to NASA figures.
The Arctic is feeling the effects more than anywhere on Earth. While this is providing scientists with a wealth of information to help in their fight against climate change, it’s also having some strange consequences.
Here are four ways our warming world is affecting the region.
1) Starving polar bears are travelling vast distances to Russian cities
Residents of Norilsk, a small industrial city in northern Russia, were greeted by the sight of an emaciated polar bear stumbling through the streets. According to the Siberian Times, the exhausted animal is thought to have travelled up to 1,500km from the Arctic Ocean, crossing the vast Taymyr Peninsula into Russia to find food.
The last time a polar bear made this epic journey was in 1977, when it was shot by authorities to protect local residents. But the latest visitor will likely be sedated and returned home or housed in a zoo.
As the above chart shows, maximum Arctic sea ice reached 14.78 million square kilometres of the Arctic Ocean surface in March 2019, the seventh lowest on satellite record.
Arctic sea ice provides a natural hunting ground for polar bears and also contains an algae essential to their diet – comprising up to 70% of their total food intake in some cases. Over the past two decades, the sea ice has been shrinking faster each year, leaving the animals hungry. There is little to eat in the summer months, forcing the starving bears to venture further afield to survive.
2) Wildfires are choking Alaska
For the first time in almost 100 years, Alaska is experiencing average July-to-June temperatures above freezing. The unseasonable heat is thawing and drying vast tracts of the far-northern snow forests, leaving the tundra susceptible to wildfires, which ravage the land.
The changing climate is also responsible for a growing number of thunderstorms, with lightning strikes sparking many blazes. So far in 2019, more than 60 large fires have swept across Alaska – more than any other US state.
Satellite monitoring shows blazes starting earlier in the year, spreading further north into the Arctic region and burning with increased intensity, in line with predictions from climate change models. Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann told Inside Climate Change: "When it comes to the Arctic heatwaves, the wildfires, am I surprised? No – this was long predicted. Am I worried? Yes."
3) Permafrost is melting 70 years ahead of schedule
A recent Arctic expedition found alarming rates of decline in Arctic permafrost, which is melting far faster than scientists had predicted.
The growing intensity of summer temperatures across the region is destabilizing giant subterranean ice blocks that have remained frozen for millennia. Rapid thawing could release vast quantities of heat-trapping gases, further exacerbating the rise in the atmosphere’s temperature.
“What we saw was amazing,” Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and one of the expedition’s researchers, told Reuters. “It’s an indication that the climate is now warmer than at any other time in the last 5,000 or more years.”
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4) A heatwave has hit the most northerly inhabited spot on the planet
Personnel stationed at a military base in Alert, Canada, have experienced the unlikely event of an Arctic heatwave. The settlement, also home to a weather station, has the distinction of being the northernmost permanently inhabited place on Earth.
This year’s summer temperatures have reached a record 21°C, far exceeding the region’s average July temperature highs of 6°C.
Armel Castellan, a meteorologist at the Canadian environment ministry, puts the heatwave down to an unusual high pressure front over Greenland, which feeds southerly winds on the Arctic Ocean.
The Arctic is heating up three times faster than other parts of the planet, he told AFP, emphasising the urgent need for drastic action to reduce carbon emissions.