Ice on the edge of survival: Warming is changing the Arctic

Nov 6, 2021, 12:21 AM | Updated: 12:26 am
FILE - Broken blocks of sea ice emerge from under the hull of the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica as...

FILE - Broken blocks of sea ice emerge from under the hull of the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica as it sails through the Victoria Strait while traversing the Arctic's Northwest Passage, Friday, July 21, 2017. The Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet and is on such a knife’s edge of survival that the 2021 U.N. climate negotiations in Scotland could make the difference between ice and water at the top of the world in the same way that a couple of tenths of a degree matter around the freezing mark, scientists say. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

(AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

While conducting research in Greenland, ice scientist Twila Moon was struck this summer by what climate change has doomed Earth to lose and what could still be saved.

The Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet and is on such a knife’s edge of survival that the U.N. climate negotiations underway in Scotland this week could make the difference between ice and water at the top of the world in the same way that a couple of tenths of a degree matter around the freezing mark, scientists say.

Arctic ice sheets and glaciers are shrinking, with some glaciers already gone. Permafrost, the icy soil that traps the potent greenhouse gas methane, is thawing. Wildfires have broken out in the Arctic. Siberia even hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius). Even a region called the Last Ice Area showed unexpected melting this year.

In the next couple of decades, the Arctic is likely to see summers with no sea ice.

As she returns regularly to Greenland, Moon, a researcher with the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, said she finds herself “mourning and grieving for the things we have lost already” because of past carbon dioxide emissions that trap heat.

But the decisions we make now about how much more carbon pollution Earth emits will mean “an incredibly large difference between how much ice we keep and how much we lose and how quickly,” she said.

The fate of the Arctic looms large during the climate talks in Glasgow — the farthest north the negotiations have taken place — because what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. Scientists believe the warming there is already contributing to weather calamities elsewhere around the world.

“If we end up in a seasonally sea ice-free Arctic in the summertime, that’s something human civilization has never known,” said former NASA chief scientist Waleed Abdalati, who runs the University of Colorado’s environment program. “That’s like taking a sledgehammer to the climate system.”

What’s happening in the Arctic is a runaway effect.

“Once you start melting, that kind of enhances more melt,” said University of Manitoba ice scientist Julienne Stroeve.

When covered with snow and ice, the Arctic reflects sunlight and heat. But that blanket is dwindling. And as more sea ice melts in the summer, “you’re revealing really dark ocean surfaces, just like a black T-shirt,” Moon said. Like dark clothing, the open patches of sea soak up heat from the sun more readily.

Between 1971 and 2019, the surface of the Arctic warmed three times faster than the rest of the world, according to the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program.

The result?

“The Arctic isn’t just changing in temperature,” Abdalati said. “It’s changing in state. It’s becoming a different place.”

The 2015 Paris climate agreement set a goal of limiting the warming of the Earth to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial temperatures, or, failing that, keeping it under 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). The world has already gotten 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer since the late 1800s.

The difference between what happens at 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees can hit the Arctic harder than the rest of the world, University of Alaska Fairbanks climate scientist John Walsh, a member of the Arctic monitoring team. “We can save the Arctic, or at least preserve it in many ways, but we’re going to lose that if we go above 1.5.”

The Arctic itself has blown past 2 degrees Celsius of warming, Stroeve said. It’s approaching 9 degrees Celsius (16 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming in November, she said.

For John Waghiyi Jr., the Arctic is not a number or an abstraction. It’s been home for 67 years, and he and other native Bering Sea elders have watched the Arctic change because of warming. The sea ice, which allows humans and polar bears to hunt, is shrinking in the summer.

“The ice is very dangerous nowadays. It’s very unpredictable,” said Waghiyi of Savoonga, Alaska. “The ice pack affects us all, spiritually, culturally and physically, as we need to have it in order to keep harvesting.”

The ice is “at the core of our identity,” said Dalee Sambo Dorough, international chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, representing 165,000 people in several nations.

This isn’t just a problem for people living in the Arctic. It spells trouble for regions much farther south.

An increasingly large number of studies link Arctic changes to alterations of the jet stream — the river of air that moves weather from west to east — and other weather systems. And those changes, scientists say, can contribute to more extreme weather events, such as floods, drought, the February Texas freeze, or more severe wildfires.

Also, the melting of ice sheets and glaciers can add considerably to rising sea levels.

“The fate of places like Miami are tied very closely to the fate of the Greenland,” said David Balton, director of the U.S. Arctic Executive Steering Committee, which coordinates U.S. domestic regulations involving the Arctic and deals with other northern nations. “If you live in Topeka, Kansas, or if you live in California. If you live in Nigeria, your life is going to be affected. … The Arctic matters on all sorts of levels.”


Read stories on climate issues by The Associated Press at


Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Associated Press

Closing prices for crude oil, gold and other commodities

Benchmark U.S. crude oil for September delivery fell 26 cents to $90.50 a barrel Tuesday. Brent crude for October delivery fell 34 cents to $96.31 a barrel. Wholesale gasoline for September delivery rose 7 cents to $2.96 a gallon. September heating oil rose 15 cents to $3.33 a gallon. September natural gas rose 24 cents […]
13 hours ago
Former President Donald Trump tosses caps to the audience as he arrives at a rally Friday, Aug. 5, ...
Associated Press

Congress can get Trump tax records, appeals court rules

WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal appeals court sided Tuesday with a House committee seeking access to former President Donald Trump’s tax returns, rejecting Trump’s contention that Congress was overstepping. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed with a lower court judge’s decision in favor of Congress. […]
13 hours ago
President Joe Biden signs the Instruments of Ratification for the Accession Protocols to the North ...
Associated Press

Biden formalizes US support for Finland, Sweden joining NATO

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden formally welcomed Finland and Sweden joining the NATO alliance Tuesday as he signed the instruments of ratification that delivered the U.S.’s formal backing of the Nordic nations entering the mutual defense pact, part of a reshaping of the European security posture after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “In seeking to […]
13 hours ago
FILE - This undated photo courtesy of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife shows a wolf of th...
Associated Press

US sued in bid to force decision on Rockies wolf protections

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Wildlife advocates sued federal officials Tuesday after the government missed a deadline to decide if protections for gray wolves should be restored across the northern U.S. Rocky Mountains, where Republican-led states have made it easier to kill the predators. The Biden administration said in a preliminary finding last September that protections […]
13 hours ago
FILE- In this 1955 file photo, Carolyn Bryant poses for a photo. A grand jury in Mississippi has de...
Associated Press

Grand jury declines to indict woman in Emmett Till killing

A grand jury in Mississippi has declined to indict the white woman whose accusation set off the lynching of Black teenager Emmett Till nearly 70 years ago, despite revelations about an unserved arrest warrant and an unpublished memoir by the woman, a prosecutor said Tuesday. After hearing more than seven hours of testimony from investigators […]
13 hours ago
Associated Press

Chicago top prosecutor: Vacate convictions tied to ex-cop

CHICAGO (AP) — The Cook County state’s attorney’s office on Tuesday asked judges to vacate eight murder convictions connected to a retired Chicago police detective accused of framing others who were sent to prison. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx told reporters that her office no longer will oppose post-conviction litigation in eight cases following a 2019 […]
13 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Mayo Clinic Orthopedics and Sports Medicine

Why your student-athlete’s physical should be conducted by a sports medicine specialist

Dr. Anastasi from Mayo Clinic Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Tempe answers some of the most common questions.
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Most plumbing problems can be fixed with regular maintenance

Instead of waiting for a problem to happen, experts suggest getting a head start on your plumbing maintenance.
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Tips to lower your energy bill in the Arizona heat

Does your summer electric bill make you groan? Are you looking for effective ways to reduce your bill?
Ice on the edge of survival: Warming is changing the Arctic