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NOAA’s 2018 Arctic Report Card: Climate Change Effects Go Far Beyond Ice and Polar Bears

The Arctic has lost 95% of its oldest ice over the past three decades, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) 2018 Arctic Report Card, the agency’s 13th annual assessment of the current state of global warming, and the global impacts of climate change.

The entire 2018 Arctic Report Card offers a fairly bleak picture of the health of the planet’s ecosystems. The cascading effects of the warming poles are seen across communities and industries, impacting everything from severe weather patterns that hinder human productivity and destroy entire towns to the collapse of fisheries to sea level rise that threatens major coastal cities and their real estate markets.

As it was measured in the past year, Arctic sea ice was younger and thinner, which means most of it won’t survive summer warming. Sea ice also covered less area than previous years, and this is no improvement over the past decade of data collection. Sea ice minimums have been at near-record lows for past 12 years. And, since they started measuring it in the 1970s, there’s been a decline in coastal land-fast sea ice, making it increasingly impossible for Arctic community members to hunt, travel, and protect their coastline.

Arctic sea ice decline is caused by warming air and ocean temperatures, and indeed, arctic air temperatures for the past five years, from 2014 to 2018, have exceeded all previous records since 1900.

Perhaps even more alarming, warming temperatures in the ocean impacts the most basic functionality of the marine ecosystem. The marine ecosystem may feel at great remove from some human life, but the ocean environment is interconnected with many occurrences in the wider world, including extreme weather such as the northern heat waves and continental cold snaps seen across Europe in the past year.

Major shifts in the marine environment also cause significant changes in the health of marine creatures (the same way humans are impacted by, say, worsening air pollution or carcinogenic chemicals in our food system). For example, toxic algae blooms in the ever-warmer oceans, which are now more widespread and larger in size, impact the entire marine ecosystem. The impact of algae toxins is perhaps most notably measured in marine mammals such as seals and sea lions, which exist far enough up the food chain that they often ingest considerable amounts of toxins present in sea plants, fish, crustaceans, and smaller ocean organisms. Ingesting toxins can cause serious and even fatal illnesses in all of the animals along the food chain. And that’s just one example of one effect of the continued threats posed by unabated changes to our planet’s climate.

The presence of microplastics is also on the rise in the Arctic, likely transported there by warmer ocean currents. Plastics pose a continued threat to birds and marine creatures that ingest the synthetic particles that then accumulate in their bodies.

As is perhaps obvious, the report also notes there is no indication of any reversal of the effects of global warming recorded in the previous decade’s worth of these surveys. The report was released at the same time that the COP24 United Nations climate summit concluded in Katowice, Poland, with leaders struggling to reach a consensus on a coordinated global strategy to vigorously decrease carbon emissions in order to curb the impacts of climate change.

The Arctic Report Card has been issued annually since 2006.