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Arctic experiences second warmest year since 1900

The Arctic sea ice minimum, as it appeared on Sept. 15, 2020, which was the second smallest minimum on record. Photo by Trent Schindler/NASA Scientific Visualization Studio
The Arctic sea ice minimum, as it appeared on Sept. 15, 2020, which was the second smallest minimum on record. Photo by Trent Schindler/NASA Scientific Visualization Studio

Dec. 8 (UPI) -- Land-surface air temperatures recorded between October 2019 and September 2020 show the Arctic experienced the second warmest year since record-keeping began in 1900.

The near-record, detailed in the latest edition of NOAA's annual Arctic Report Card, fits into a broader pattern of rising temperatures, shrinking ice sheets, melting sea ice and declining snow coverage.

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"Taken as a whole, the story is unambiguous," Rick Thoman, one of the report card's three editors, said in a news release.

"The transformation of the Arctic to a warmer, less frozen and biologically changed region is well underway," said Thoman, a climate scientist with the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

NOAA has been publishing the annual report card for 15 years.

Of the last ten years, nine have featured air temperatures increases of at least 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1981-2010 mean.

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"Arctic temperatures for the past six years have all exceeded previous records," NOAA reported.

According to the 2020 report card, compiled by 133 scientists from 15 countries, the year's near-record warmth was highlighted by a stretch of extreme heat in northern Siberia during the spring.

The heat wave led to record low June snow coverage for the Eurasian Arctic, setting the stage for the region's unprecedented fire season, during which more than 23 million acres were burned.

Though northern latitude fire activity is highly variable, dictated by the timing of weather patterns and carbon cycles, scientists suggest climate change has left the Arctic increasingly fire-prone.

"Increasing trends in air temperature and fuel availability over the 41-year record, 1979 to 2019, suggest that conditions are becoming more favorable for fire growth, with more intense burning, more fire growth episodes, and greater consumption of fuels," researchers wrote.

As air temperatures continue to rise in the Arctic, sea ice coverage has suffered. In 2020, the winter extent, the maximum, was the 11th smallest on record, while the end-of-summer minimum was the second smallest.

Because sea ice reflects the sun's rays, steady sea ice declines over the last two decades have corresponded with rises in sea surface temperatures, fueling massive phytoplankton blooms that have tinged the Arctic's coastal water turquoise.

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Those blooms -- along with an influx of krill brought by warming waters in Bering Staright -- have buoyed the region's population of bowhead whales. Once on the verge of extinction, the Pacific Arctic bowhead population is now estimated at roughly 10,000 whales.

The Arctic Ocean isn't the only surface turning green.

As highlighted in the new report, more than a third of Arctic tundra has experienced greening of the last several decades. However, the latest research suggests rates of greening have slowed in recent years, and during the most reason growing season, some areas showed signs of browning.

Overall, the latest report card paints a picture of a region in dramatic flux.

While the Arctic's warming trends are often referenced as the "new normal," the authors of the latest report card suggest "most parts of the Arctic environmental system are continuing to change very rapidly."

"As the past 15 years of ARCs have vividly demonstrated, the Arctic of yesterday is different from today, and the Arctic of today is not predictive of tomorrow," scientists wrote.

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