2012: The End of the Arctic Era

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Times have changed: Over a century ago Robert Peary explored a very different Arctic. Credit: NOAA's People Collection

This year's record ice melts in

Greenland and the Arctic ocean aren't flukes, but confirmation that

the Arctic is racing ahead into a new and unknown climate state, said

top US climate scientists today.

VIDEO: Monitoring Climate Change

The announcement came with the release

today of the 2012 Arctic Report Card, which calls on the expertise of

140 scientists from 15 countries to summarize the state of the

Arctic.

PHOTOS:

Svalbard: Norway's 'Galapagos' in the North

“If we are not already there, we're

clearly on the verge of seeing a new Arctic,” said Martin Jeffries

of the Office of Naval Research. Jeffries and other scientists spoke

at a press conference today at the meeting of the American

Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Highlights from the 2012 report include

record

low snow coverage in June and record

low sea ice extent in September, a longer

growing season with greener tundra, record

high permafrost temperatures in northernmost Alaska,

longest

melt season ever seen on the Greenland ice sheet and a

rare,

nearly ice sheet-wide melt event in July.

ANALYSIS: July Scorcher Turns Greenland Into Giant Slushy

What's more, the thinner sea ice is

letting more light through to the water, which is leading to masssive

phytoplankton blooms in the summer that could mean the

productivity at the bottom of the food chain of those waters is ten

times what was previously thought. On land the arctic

fox is close to extinction in Fennoscandia — the region that includes the Scandinavian Peninsula, Finland, Karelia, and the Kola Peninsula — and falling

prey to the larger Red foxes moving north with warmer temperatures.

The Arctic fox is also suffering as a result of changes in the

lemming cycle, which is an important food source for the small

predator.

There were even severe

weather events including extreme cold and snowfall in

Eurasia and two major storms off western and northern Alaska.

“2012 has been an astounding year,”

said Jason Box, who studies Greenland at the Byrd Polar Research

Center at Ohio State University. It was the warmest summer in 170

years, he said, and the vast extent of melting ice seems to indicate

something has fundamentally changed. “This year Greenland crossed a

threshold. We can expect Greenland to be melting across its entire

surface from now on.”

ANALYSIS: Arctic Summer Sea Ice Gone By 2015?

The loss of all this ice in the Arctic

is not simply a consequence of global warming, however, it also adds

to the problem. Ice and snow are terrific reflectors that keep a lot

of solar energy from being trapped in Earth's atmosphere. When ice

melts, darker ground and waters are exposed and absorb that sunlight.

“The Arctic is one of the Earth's

mirrors and that mirror is breaking,” said researcher Donald

Perovich of Dartmouth College.