Has the Arctic Finally Reached a Tipping Point?

Illustration for article titled Has the Arctic Finally Reached a Tipping Point?

Something is not right in the Arctic.

The recent wave of mild, humid air and its attendant impacts is disturbing. But this is the fourth winter where we’ve seen a veritable heat wave rack the Arctic.


The warm temperatures have also been accompanied by moist air, which has helped form clouds and lock in temperatures up to 60 degrees Fahrenheit above normal for extended periods in a typically dry, frozen climate. Disappearing sea ice also means warmer ocean waters are exposed, further spinning the region out of whack.

Climate change is warming the Arctic twice as fast as the rest of the world. We’ve known that for awhile. The big question now is whether it’s pushing the Arctic past a tipping point into a new, altered state after four unprecedented winters. And while scientists aren’t quite ready to say we’ve passed the point of no return, this unnerving string of winters has them quickly looking for more detailed answers about what’s happening so we can prepare for what comes next.

“Until recently, the seasonal sea ice maximum was relatively ignored; the September minimum got the attention,” Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, told Earther. “But that’s changing. Strange things are happening in winter.”

This winter’s warm weather oddity is what NASA sea ice researcher Alek Petty called a “pincher attack.” In previous winters, the heat has largely entered the Arctic through the North Atlantic between Greenland and Europe. This winter, heat is pouring in there but also rushing through the Bering Strait from the North Pacific. The double dose of heat is what’s creating wild records across the region, and winter temperatures have never been higher in recorded history.

Mild air is forecast to blitz the North Pole through this weekend.
Mild air is forecast to blitz the North Pole through this weekend.
Image: University of Maine Climate Change Institute

Utqiaġvik, Alaska (formerly Barrow), a place that’s warmed so fast, scientists thought its weather station was broken, topped out at 31 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday. Temperatures also swirled above freezing at the world’s northernmost land weather station.


Ice has disappeared from the Bering Sea when it would normally be growing. The Chukchi Sea to the north has even see ice dip, an occurrence that’s only ever happened one other winter in recorded history. The North Pole could see temperatures above freezing this weekend.

Petty has conducted research into whether this type of supercharged heat has hit the Arctic in winters past. He found that while these types of events have occurred before, their character has changed dramatically to resemble a heat wave on steroids.


“The key is they’re happening more frequently, lasting longer and their intensity is increasing,” he told Earther. “It’s this triple whammy of factors.”


Jennifer Kay, an Arctic clouds researcher at the University of Colorado, said the heat building up on the rest of the planet is helping amplify these heat waves. And the clouds that form with it only lock in that heat further.

“When you warm the planet, now that air you’re bringing from lower latitudes is even warmer so you can have even more extreme warmth in the Arctic in winter,” she told Earther.


The warming on top of warming has led to three years in a row of record-low sea ice peaks. This year is on track to set the record yet again.

“As sea ice diminishes, many areas that typically experience a continental climate in winter now experience a maritime climate for much, or all of the winter,” Brian Brettschneider, a climate researcher with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told Earther. “This dramatically changes the climate locally, which creates a positive feedback loop of more ice melting, and more warming.”


It’s these types of feedbacks that matter. The steady, gradual drumbeat of climate change increasing background temperatures can eventually set enough of these other feedbacks in motion to create unstoppable changes. You can think of it like water circling the drain in lazy circles only to get more torrid the closer it gets to the center of the drain.

Generally, summer sea ice has disappeared faster than winter sea ice. While winter appears to making up for lost time, (relatively) cooler and less stormy springs and summers have kept the September sea ice minimum for setting records. A stronghold of older, thicker sea ice north of Greenland has also helped summer ice pack hold (albeit in a vastly weakened state).


If that pattern breaks and we see a warm spring and summer following one of these crazy winters, the other shoe could drop for sea ice. Losing that old, strong ice north of Greenland could also portend a dramatic summer melt. And ominously, Petty said satellites have shown signs of a crack up there in recent days as the heat has poured into the region.

“If we see that ice fracture and melt out, that would be big,” he said. “That will really open up the likelihood of rapid loss of ice.”


Serreze said one question researchers are focusing on are what atmospheric phenomenon are driving these heat waves.

While the basic mechanism of more heat and water vapor (which is a greenhouse gas) melting ice is obvious, the exact ways that clouds form in Arctic winter is an active area of research. Kay said that clouds can both warm and cool the region when there’s sunlight owing the fact that they can insulate heat from the ground while reflecting sun back into space. But once the sun goes down, only the insulation effect remains. The next frontier for her and other cloud scientists is trying to understand how how much of a warming feedback that could cause as sea ice dwindles.


Answering these questions has vast implications for our understanding of the Arctic and our future climate. The current Arctic heat wave is being accompanied by freezing weather descending on Europe courtesy of Siberia. Similar continental cold snaps have accompanied Arctic warming events the past three winters as well.

People living in the Arctic also need to know what comes next for their region. Ice cellars in the permafrost that tribes rely on for food security have started to fail, forcing them to find ways to adapt. People’s homes are literally falling into the sea without protective ice.


“Remember that frozen rivers are the highways of western Alaska,” Brettschneider said. “Lack of coastal ice in fall (and now winter) means significant coastal erosion. Melting permafrost means costly impacts to infrastructure.”

If we pass a tipping point, it will require quick thinking to adapt basically everything people rely on. Even if we’re not there yet, we need to be ready when it arrives.


“The Holocene climate system is unraveling,” Jason Box, an ice researcher at the Danish Meteorological Institute, told Earther in an email. “We should not be surprised if/when ongoing de-glaciation of the Arctic combined with global (and Arctic) atmospheric heating and humidification causes climate shifts that appear to be step changes.”

Managing editor at Earther, writing about climate change, environmental justice, and, occasionally, my cat.



The tipping point was reached a while ago. It just takes time for the effects to manifest in visible enough ways to make people think “now” might be the tipping point. But the truth is that the line in the sand was 20 years ago. Now all we’re doing is digging the hole deeper when its already over our heads.

The Earth will abide, of course. Worse things have happened to it - worse things will happen to it. Doesn’t mean we’ll survive it though, not by a long shot. The Earth will be habitable (for the most part) for another 800 million to 1.2 billion years. By then the sun will be too hot for the planet to survive and everything will slowly die off. We, however, have no such written fate. As always, what happens to us is in our own hands. And no one and nothing elses’.