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Global temperature rise

This article describes how global temperature rise and rapid Arctic warming are accelerating permafrost thaw.
Looking down at chunks of moss-covered soil eroding due to permafrost thaw.
© Woodwell Climate Research Center

Depending where you live, the Arctic region may seem distant or isolated. In reality, the Arctic is home to millions of people and is connected to the rest of the world in many ways.

Due to human carbon emissions, the world is already 1.1°C warmer on average than it was at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and the unprecedented fluctuations this warming is causing in Arctic systems threaten to have global consequences for generations to come.[1]

Rapid Arctic warming

The latest scientific research shows that the Arctic is now warming four times faster than the rest of the planet—a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification—and is now 3 degrees Celsius warmer than it was in 1980.[2]

Woodwell’s Chief Communications Officer, Dr. Heather Goldstone, describes this disproportionate warming, as shown in the visualization below.

Three perspectives of the globe showing heat as elevation. The Arctic region rises up off the map like a mountain.

A major factor amplifying Arctic warming is the loss of sea ice. Sea ice plays a critical role in cooling the planet because its brighter surface can reflect 50-70% of the sun’s energy. Snow-covered sea ice is even more reflective, bouncing as much as 90% of solar radiation back into space.[3]

As global temperatures increase and sea ice melts, the ocean, which is among the darkest natural surfaces on the planet, absorbs more heat from the sun. This lowers Earth’s albedo—its ability to reflect the sun’s energy—causing temperatures to rise and exacerbating warming.[4]

As a result of Arctic amplification, roughly 7%, or 1.6 million km2, of near-surface permafrost has been lost since 1970.[5] If the world continues emitting greenhouse gasses unchecked, it is quite possible that most (around 70%) of the Arctic’s permafrost could disappear completely by 2100.[6]

Showing warming as elevation demonstrates the disproportionate effect of climate change on the Arctic. This figure includes labels for projected warming. Values represent projected 2040-2060 temperatures (RCP 8.5) minus 1880–1920. Data from KNMI Climate Explorer | Map by: Greg Fiske

References

1AR6 Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis — IPCC. (2022). Retrieved 26 August 2022, from https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sixth-assessment-report-working-group-i/

2Chylek, P., Folland, C., Klett, J. D., Wang, M., Hengartner, N., Lesins, G., and Dubey, M. K.: Annual Mean Arctic Amplification 1970-2020: Observed and Simulated by CMIP6 Climate Models, Geophys. Res. Lett., 49, e2022GL099371, https://doi.org/10.1029/2022GL099371, 2022.

3Quick Facts About Sea Ice. Retrieved 26 August 2022, from https://nsidc.org/learn/parts-cryosphere/sea-ice/quick-facts-about-sea-ice

4My NASA Data [Internet]. Mynasadata.larc.nasa.gov. [cited 28 August 2022]. Available from: https://mynasadata.larc.nasa.gov/mini-lessonactivity/what-albedo

5Li, G., Zhang, M., Pei, W., Melnikov, A., Khristoforov, I., Li, R., & Yu, F. (2022). Changes in permafrost extent and active layer thickness in the Northern Hemisphere from 1969 to 2018. Science Of The Total Environment, 804, 150182. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.150182

6National Snow and Ice Data Center. n.d. Why Frozen Ground Matters. [online] Available at: https://nsidc.org/learn/parts-cryosphere/frozen-ground-permafrost/why-frozen-ground-matters [Accessed 28 August 2022].

© Woodwell Climate Research Center
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Thawing Permafrost: Science, Policy, and Environmental Justice in the Arctic

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