The Arctic Is Shifting to a New Climate State, Scientists Find

Scientists explore an area of sea ice and meltwater in the Arctic Ocean in July 2005.

Scientists explore an area of sea ice and meltwater in the Arctic Ocean in July 2005. Jeremy Potter NOAA/OAR/OER

The Arctic is transitioning from a frozen region to an entirely different climate, one dominated not by ice and snow, but by warming temperatures, open water, and rain, scientists warned in a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

“The rate of change is remarkable,” Laura Landrum, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the lead author of the study, said in a statement. “It’s a period of such rapid change that observations of past weather patterns no longer show what you can expect next year. The Arctic is already entering a completely different climate than just a few decades ago… We need to change our definition of what Arctic climate is.”

The study found that sea ice has melted so extensively —shrinking 12 percent per decade since satellite measurements began in the late 1970s — that even an unusually cold year will not produce the same ice extent seen in the middle of the 20th century. Fall and winter air temperatures will warm enough to officially classify the Arctic as a different climate zone within the next few decades, causing more precipitation to fall as rain and not snow. The region may become mostly ice-free for as many as 10 months each year by the end of the century.

The scientists used high-emissions scenarios in their climate modeling, which they say provides a bit of hope that aggressive climate action by nations could help curb some of the worst impacts.

“We still have an opportunity to change how rapidly the Arctic evolves,” Landrum told The New York Times, “if we end up changing our emissions.”

“You can’t just give up. If you work hard and make some changes there’s a possibility you’d have some dramatic effects.”

For more on how the world’s climate zones are shifting in response to warming temperatures, click here.