Feb. 15, 2020

Warmest January on record

January was the warmest on record globally, according to atmospheric monitoring group Copernicus, with records shattered in Europe and Asia. A number of locales in Eastern Europe and particularly Russia wound up more than 12 to 13 degrees above average.

This year, Antarctica has logged its hottest temperature on record, with an Argentinian research station thermometer reading 18.3C, beating the previous record by 0.8C. The reading, taken at Esperanza on the northern tip of the continent’s peninsula, beats Antarctica’s previous record of 17.5C, set in March 2015. The Antarctic Peninsula, on which Thursday’s anomaly was recorded, is one of the fastest-warming regions in the world. In just the past 50 years, temperatures have surged a staggering 5 degrees in response to Earth’s swiftly warming climate. Around 87 percent of glaciers along the peninsula’s west coast have retreated in that time, the majority doing so at an accelerated pace since 2008.

In 2018 the Arctic had a very unusually warm winter. The relative heat wave resulted in the warmest February on record since 1958, with temperatures reaching up to 35 F (1.7 C) to 40 F (4.4 C). The northernmost land outpost, Cape Morris Jessup, remained above freezing for a full 24 hours on February 25th, 2018. What has astounded scientists is that no sunlight reaches the ground during this month. Overall, temperatures in the whole region were above zero C on nine separate days during the month, which has never happened before.

Climate change is occurring faster in high-latitude regions due to the phenomenon of Arctic amplification, the positive feedback effects that spur further warming of the climate. There are a multitude of variables that effect this amplification.

Sea ice reflects the sun’s rays back into space, reflecting more heat than it absorbs, which helps keep the planet cool. As sea ice decreases, there is more open ocean that absorbs more heat from the sun, and as the ocean absorbs more heat, more ice melts. 

Along with the decline in sea ice, the ocean waters have gotten warmer. A large mass of warm water (referred to as The Blob) has been detected off the coast of Alaska for the past few years. Warm waters are less productive, hold less oxygen, and are more conducive to algal blooms. This disruption of the food web has been linked to massive seabird die-offs (from starvation), a decrease in the number of salmon, sea star wasting disease, and marine mammal deaths.

Permafrost, soil that remains frozen year round, is thawing as the earth warms. Permafrost stores a lot of carbon; as it thaws, it releases greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane, principally) into the atmosphere. Thawed permafrost causes landscape slumps that can damage infrastructure such as roads, airstrips, houses, and utility lines. It can also cause or contribute to the severity of landslides. Many people in the Arctic depend on frozen ground to travel to hunting areas or between villages; as the ground thaws, transportation and access to resources is impacted.

Ocean acidification is exacerbated by cold waters in Alaska and inputs of freshwater from tidewater glaciers. Shifts in plant communities are occurring due to raising temperatures and changing conditions. As plant communities shift, so do wildlife communities. Plants, wildlife, and people can adapt to changing climate conditions, but may not adapt fast enough to keep pace with the swiftly changing climate. Human contributions of greenhouse gases are causing rapid changes unlike natural processes, which generally occur slowly.

Even though changes are stark at higher latitudes, the more dramatic impact could actually be in the moist tropics, despite modeling that indicates temperatures there will warm just 2 or 3 degrees by 2100 compared with 6 degrees or more at higher latitudes. That is because organisms in the tropics normally do not experience much temperature variation because there is very little seasonality, so even small temperature shifts can have a much larger impact than similar shifts in regions with more seasonal climates.

Temperatures in the tropics don’t fluctuate that much, so the relatively small temperature shifts predicted by climate change models will be very large in relation to what organisms are adapted to tolerate. It’s only going to be perhaps a 2-degree change, but in many tropical areas organisms have never experienced a 2-degree change.