An outbreak of extreme heat across Europe this month is finally subsiding—and it may be headed for the Arctic next. According to meteorologists, the weather system is moving north toward Scandinavia and Greenland.
It’s a welcome relief for cities like Paris, which reached an all-time high of 108.7 degrees Fahrenheit last week, or Cambridge, England, which logged a record-breaking 101.7 degrees. But it’s bad news for the Arctic, where experts warn that the heat may spur intense melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the region’s sea ice.
That’s on top of an already dismal start to the season for the Arctic climate. From unusually high rates of ice melt to a spate of raging wildfires, the fingerprint of climate change is present in full force, with two months of summer still to go.
Experts will be watching to see how this week’s added heat may compound the ongoing effects of global warming. Here are three ways the Arctic could be affected:
Low sea ice
Arctic sea ice levels have been far below average so far this season. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), the ice extent this month has been nearly on par with the levels seen in July 2012, a summer marked by high rates of ice melt.
Sea ice typically falls to its lowest point of the year in September, at the end of the summer. September 2012 saw the lowest sea ice extent since the satellite record began. This year’s similarities raise the question of whether the season is heading for a new record.
As of July 16, the NSIDC noted that a new September low would likely occur only if melt rates continue to track the patterns observed in 2012, a year in which persistent warm weather and the added influence of a major cyclone helped to speed the ice’s decline. Still, the weather conditions expected in the Arctic this week could make the possibility a little stronger.
Low sea ice levels are a symptom of climate change, but climate scientists suggest that they might also contribute to Arctic warming themselves. The less sea ice covers the Arctic Ocean, the more liquid water is exposed to the sun’s heat. As the water absorbs solar radiation, it may warm the surrounding area even further and contribute to additional warming—a kind of vicious climate feedback cycle.
Melting of the Greenland ice sheet
Melting in Greenland was also unusually strong last month. Between June 11 and June 20, scientists observed a widespread melting event covering about 270,000 square miles of the ice sheet, likely liquefying about 80 billion metric tons of ice. It’s a record-breaking amount of ice melt to have occurred so early in the season, according to the NSIDC.
The June event was associated with above-average temperatures over Greenland. Now, the possibility of another Arctic heat wave is raising concerns about a second major melt event.
As with the sea ice, 2012 was a significant year for the Greenland ice sheet. That summer’s warm conditions spurred an intense melting event, on a scale that hadn’t been seen for decades. Some experts have expressed concern that this summer could rival those conditions.
Outbreak of wildfires
It’s not just the ice that’s been feeling the heat this summer. The Arctic is currently experiencing one of its worst fire seasons on record. According to the Copernicus Programme, a project of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, scientists have documented more than 100 fires in the Arctic Circle over the last two months alone.
Like the declining sea ice, Arctic wildfires may have a kind of feedback effect on the changing climate. Wildfires release large amounts of climate-warming carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere as they burn. This is a particular concern in the Arctic, which houses vast stores of carbon-rich peat. As peatlands burn, they can release enormous levels of greenhouse gas emissions into the air.
Last month, the Arctic wildfires are estimated to have emitted as much as 50 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.