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Recording climate change from the top of the world

Recording climate change from the top of the world

Barrow reports record-breaking 2015 Spring warming

Monday, August 31, 2015

Spring came early this year, breaking several records at the top of the world in Barrow, Alaska, according to a new report that combines observations from NOAA, the North Slope Borough and a scientist who has tracked an Arctic bird for the last four decades. 

  • Barrow experienced its warmest May on record, averaging 28 degrees Fahrenheit, which is nearly 9 degrees above the average for the last 90 years. 
  • The snow disappeared from the NOAA Barrow Observatory on May 28, the second earliest date since records began some 73 years ago. The only year it was earlier was in 2002, when snow disappeared on May 24. 
  • A black guillemot bird laid its first egg on June 8, the earliest in the 40 years that George Divoky of the Friends of Cooper Island has observed these Arctic seabirds.
  • Ice completely disappeared from the Isaktoak Lagoon in Barrow on June 27, the earliest date recorded since 1986 when Craig George, the senior wildlife biologist for the North Slope Borough, began tracking the lagoon’s ice status.

Weighing and measuring chicks

Weighing and measuring chicks

George Divoky has been monitoring black guillemots for 40 years on the remote Cooper Island near Point Barrow, Alaska. He's watched as climate change has brought the birds and the Arctic community many new challenges. (Mike Morrison/ Friends of Cooper Island)
“Scientists from NOAA have long monitored changes in the northern Alaskan climate, giving them a front row seat on climate change, which is happening faster here than on much of the planet,” said Diane Stanitski, a physical scientist with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory Global Monitoring Division. “In recent years, NOAA has been working more closely with other scientists who look at how other parts of the natural environment and people are affected by changes in ice, snow and temperature in America’s northernmost community.”

Ice prediction would save lives

Barrow observations map

Barrow observations map

This map shows the main locations that NOAA, the North Slope Borough and George Divoky of Friends of Cooper Island have collected longterm ice, snow and bird observations. (NOAA)
Craig George, who works for the North Slope Borough, started looking at when ice disappeared from Isaktoak and Elson lagoons so he could plan the borough’s wildlife research long before climate change made the information vital to community safety.

“Ice safety is a major issue now that we’re finding the ice in both the spring and fall can be thinner than people remember,” said George. “It’s led to accidents of close friends and community elders. Some elders have told me their long-term traditional knowledge no longer applies to these new conditions. If we could better predict the ice conditions it would make subsistence hunting and research much safer.”

Bird's eye view of changing climate

Black guillemot chick

Black guillemot chick

This is one of the chicks that hatched this summer on Cooper Island, which is near Barrow, Alaska. ( Mike Morrison/ Friends of Cooper Island)
George Divoky, who began studying the black guillemots for the Smithsonian Institution in 1972, said he has found his long time data series on the bird helps people understand climate change. “While I’m personally more taken with the physical data showing declining sea ice and increased warming, people need to have a story they can relate to and this bird provides that narrative.”

The birds winter on pack ice and lay their eggs on Cooper Island near Barrow. They now have a much longer snow-free season to lay their eggs, but they are also suffering a loss of abundant food as the edge of the sea ice continues to move farther north and with it Arctic cod, key food for black guillemots as well as the ice seals that are prey of polar bears.

NOAA records decline in solar reflectivity

Earlier spring

Earlier spring

Longterm data shows that snow melts, lagoon ice disappears and the black guillemot lays the first egg sooner with each passing decade. (NOAA)
Robert Stone, who recently retired from the University of Colorado's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences in Boulder, Colorado, established another valuable time series of data collected at the Barrow Observatory. He used longterm measurements of incoming and reflected sunlight to show that, due to earlier snow melt in spring, more solar radiation is being absorbed by the surface at the Barrow Observatory.

Prior to the annual snow melt, about 85 percent of the sunlight received at the surface is reflected back to space, but after the snow melts about 80 percent of the sun’s energy is absorbed by bare tundra, and more than 90 percent is absorbed by the ocean surface after the sea ice melts. Declining snow and ice results in increased solar absorption that, in turn, accelerates melting and warming.

Aerial view of Cooper Island

Aerial view of Cooper Island

Cooper Island juts into the Arctic Ocean and provides a resting place for black guillemots to nest amid the stones each spring. (Katie Morrison/ Friends of Cooper Island)
“Barrow and other Arctic communities need to know when snow and ice will disappear to make decisions about transportation as well as when and where to hunt for caribou or harvest whales,” said Stone. “Understanding the factors that underlie the observed longterm changes can provide the foundation to build a predictive tool that could help Arctic communities better plan for the significant challenges of the future.”

For more information, please contact Monica Allen, director of public affairs for NOAA Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, at 301-734-1123 or by email at monica.allen@noaa.gov

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