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Arctic continues to break records in 2012: Becoming warmer, greener region with record losses of summer sea ice and late spring snow

Posted on 23 December 2012 by John Hartz

This is a reprint of a news release issued by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Dec 5, 2012. 

The Arctic region continued to break records in 2012—among them the loss of summer sea ice, spring snow cover, and melting of the Greenland ice sheet. This was true even though air temperatures in the Arctic were unremarkable relative to the last decade, according to a new report released today (Dec 5, 2012).

Map of Difference from average temperature in the Arctic from 2001-2011 compared to the long-term average (1971-2000)

Difference from average temperature in the Arctic from 2001-2011 compared to the long-term average (1971-2000). Credit: NOAA

"The Arctic is changing in both predictable and unpredictable ways, so we must expect surprises,” said Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator, during a press briefing at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting in San Francisco, Calif. “The Arctic is an extremely sensitive part of the world and with the warming scientists have observed, we see the results with less snow and sea ice, greater ice sheet melt and changing vegetation.”

Lubchenco participated in a panel discussion that presented the annual update of the Arctic Report Card, which has, since 2006, summarized the quickly changing conditions in the Arctic. A record-breaking 141 authors from 15 countries contributed to the peer-reviewed report. Major findings of this year’s report include:

  • Snow cover: A new record low snow extent for the Northern Hemisphere was set in June 2012, and a new record low was reached in May over Eurasia.

  • Sea ice: Minimum Arctic sea ice extent in September 2012 set a new all-time record low, as measured by satellite since 1979.

  • Greenland ice sheet: There was a rare, nearly ice sheet-wide melt event on the Greenland ice sheet in July, covering about 97 percent of the ice sheet on a single day.

  • Vegetation: The tundra is getting greener and there’s more above-ground growth. During the period of 2003-2010, the length of the growing season increased through much of the Arctic.

  • Wildlife & food chain: In northernmost Europe, the Arctic fox is close to extinction and vulnerable to the encroaching Red fox. Additionally, recent measurements of massive phytoplankton blooms below the summer sea ice suggest that earlier estimates of biological production at the bottom of the marine food chain may have been ten times lower than was occurring.

  • Ocean: Sea surface temperatures in summer continue to be warmer than the long-term average at the growing ice-free margins, while upper ocean temperature and salinity show significant interannual variability with no clear trends.

  • Weather: Most of the notable weather activity in fall and winter occurred in the sub-Arctic due to a strong positive North Atlantic Oscillation, expressed as the atmospheric pressure difference between weather stations in the Azores and Iceland. There were three extreme weather events including an unusual cold spell in late January to early February 2012 across Eurasia, and two record storms characterized by very low central pressures and strong winds near western Alaska in November 2011 and north of Alaska in August 2012.

“Popular perceptions of the Arctic as a distant, icy, cold place that has little relevance to those outside the region are being challenged”, said Martin Jeffries, co-editor of the 2012 Report Card and Arctic science adviser, Office of Naval Research & research professor, University of Alaska-Fairbanks. “As snow and ice retreat, the marine and terrestrial ecosystems respond, and talk of increased tourism, natural resource exploitation, and marine transportation grows. The Arctic Report Card does a great service in charting the many physical and biological changes.”

Satellite Image of Arctic Sea Ice Concentration on Sept 16, 2012

Ice concentration on Sept. 16, 2012, compared to previous record low (yellow line) and historic median extent (black line.) Credit: NOAA/National Snow & Ice Data Center.

Apart from one or two exceptions, the scientists said the air temperatures were not unusually high this year relative to the last decade. Nevertheless, they saw large changes in multiple indicators affecting Arctic climate and ecosystems; combined, these changes are strong evidence of the growing momentum of Arctic environmental system change.

The record-breaking year also indicates that it is unlikely that conditions can quickly return to their former state.

“The record low spring snow extent and record low summer sea ice extent in 2012 exemplify a major source of the momentum for continuing change,” added Jeffries. “As the sea ice and snow cover retreat, we’re losing bright, highly reflective surfaces, and increasing the area of darker surfaces—both land and ocean—exposed to sunlight. This increases the capacity to store heat within the Arctic system, which enables more melting—a self-reinforcing cycle.”

In 2006, NOAA’s Climate Program Office introduced the State of the Arctic Report which established a baseline of conditions at the beginning of the 21st century. It is updated annually as the Arctic Report Card to monitor the often-quickly changing conditions in the Arctic. To view this year’s report, visit

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Comments 1 to 13:

  1. Any predictions as to when the Arctic will be ice free in the summer? I predict 2020 for first ice free season.
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  2. Hmmm... I make it 2017... but we'd need to define "Ice Free" to make it more real. I am pretty sure this was done over at Tamino's site too :-) I am however, further predicting that it won't make a lick of difference to CEI, Heartland, Watts, Limbaugh, Inhofe or Monckton.
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  3. As a working biologist/ecologist, I found the article interesting, but scant on information. It did prompt me to do a little research on the vegetation and food chain bullets. My initial reaction was that those statements did not appear to be a negative consequence of climate change and instead appeared to be generally positive. A Christmas Eve morning spent reviewing published data supported my intuition. From Environmental News Network, "Rising temperatures in the Arctic circle has caused changes in vegetation in the last few decades. Plants are growing taller, there is less bare ground devoid of vegetation, and even some shrubs are growing. It is far from being an agricultural breadbasket, but is well on its way to becoming a more lively ecosystem." The arctic fox population fluctuates based on prey availability - notably lemmings. It is a well studied and classic example of predator/prey relationships as pertaining to population sizes. Also, competition with the larger red fox has caused population decline in areas where the red fox has increased it's range. The northern limit of the red fox's geographic range is determined directly by resource availability, whereas the southern limit of the arctic fox's range is determined, through interspecific competition, by the distribution and abundance of the red fox. There are definitely climate change fingerprints on resource availability. However, it is not the only reason red fox numbers have increased. It has to be considered that the decline in gray wolf numbers has led to an increase in the number of red foxes due to decreases inter-specific competition and predation. Less gray wolves also results in fewer carcasses for arctic foxes to scavenge from. Also, a recent paper shows that climate change will favor non-specialist animals in the sub-arctic. From the paper: "The reason they expect global warming to benefit Arctic mammals rather than hinder them, they say, is that most high-latitude species are generalists: they’re used to having to cope with a wide range of climatic conditions and aren’t too dependent on any one feature of the ecosystem." Some species will decline, but many others will benefit. And, with phytoplankton being the base of the trophic level pyramid more energy will be available to move upward to larger animals. There may, or may not, be issues related to the timing of the phytoplankton bloom, but regardless aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems will be benefit. A recent paper by Arrigo, et al (2012) supports this.
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  4. @Terranova, #3 I'm not really sure what your point is. I guess it depends on what we define as 'negative' and 'positive'. Clearly some species will see their habitat shrinking, while other species will experience improving conditions and a population explosion. So is that positive or negative? For the oil companies it's already clear that they see the Arctic as a land of opportunity, as do shipping companies wishing to send their cargoes over 'the top of the world'. Positive or negative? The problem is we're taking a world that's to a large extent been in a reasonably steady state and we're giving it a really good shake up; not by intent but as a side effect of our activities. Eventually, of course, it will all settle again into a new and different equilibrium, but in the meantime you can expect turmoil amongst all species of flora and fauna with much 'collateral damage'. Positive or negative? From a human perspective we can expect much turmoil, in geo-political terms, as areas nearer the equator could eventually become uninhabitable and food production is forced to migrate latitudinally. I guess Canada, Siberia, Greenland and Svalbard become power houses of a new economy and we leave the Mediterranean, Middle East, India and Central America to stew in their own juice. Positive or negative? I know what I think.
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  5. @Trranova #3: The detail that you are looking for is embedded in the NOAA report itself, i.e., Arctic Report Card: Update for 2012 .
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  6. @Terranova #3: Here is an example of a negative result on the Siberian permafrost. Of you're thinking of agriculture in that region, heavy equipment simply will not be able to operate in swampland. The only positive result I can think of is that the vegetation growing in this muck may slow down the CO2 build up by a bit. Other than that, it is not to our benefit to have increased levels of methane.
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  7. John Russell @4: "From a human perspective we can expect much turmoil, in geo-political terms, as areas nearer the equator could eventually become uninhabitable and food production is forced to migrate latitudinally. I guess Canada, Siberia, Greenland and Svalbard become power houses of a new economy..." My understanding is that the soil in Canada's boreal forests is thin, rocky and acid. The acidity can be neutralized with lime though you'll need large amounts. The rockiness will make mechanized agriculture difficult. What's more, the albedo change in the arctic will guarantee that there will be more intense storms in that region which can ruin crops.
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  8. villabolo #7 I'm sure you're right (though you're making my point about 'positives'). Never mind, they'll be too busy mining tar sands, minerals and pumping Arctic oil to notice.
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  9. John Russell @ #8 Wasn't meant as a criticism. :-) I could imagine what will happen to storm lashed refineries, pipe lines, and tar sands' pits.
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  10. Villabolo, Yes. Some people seem to love to rather simplistically belief that agriculture can simply move further north, without considering that:
    • The length of the growing season (available sunlight and length of day) is shorter
    • The soil was scraped away during the previous glacial period, and it takes thousands of years of growth to replace such soil
    • How are the exiting farmers in Texas, Oklahoma and the rest of the US Midwest supposed to react to this?
    • Now we're going to clear that many more tens of thousands of square miles of forest, further adding CO2 to the atmosphere, in order to make room for all of those farms?
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  12. Sphaerica "How are the exiting farmers in Texas, Oklahoma and the rest of the US Midwest supposed to react to this?" Russian passports? Seems that the Ruskies won the cold war after all. :-)
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  13. @ John Russell #4 I was speaking merely from a biology/ecology perspective. But, since you brought it up, I do expect to see oil production in the not so distant future. I also think it can be done with minimal impact to wildlfe and will actually occupy a miniscule footprint. To draw an analogy from work I do with cellular tower construction companies -the demands of society will lead to development. It is our job as biologists to ensure that the construction of these towers does not impact (or we minimize to the fullest extent of the law) any Threatened or Endangered Species, Migratory Birds, etc... That leads to moving site locations, installing different lighting, etc... I am not naive enough to think there will be no impact from oil exploration/production, but it can certainly be reasonably managed. And, as far as shipping over the "top of the world" goes, I can't envision any significant or moderate environmental impact. In fact, if you look at the reduced distance travelled you would find that less fuel will be consumed and that should be a benefit. Yes, we've been in a reasonable steady state for the bulk of modern human history, but you know as well as I do that has not always been the case and flora/fauna and ecosystems have changed and spread and shrunk and appeared and disappeared. Survival of the fittest in action. And, yes, we do have a hand in that climate change, but one has to be a realist. Everyone on the planet needs to do their best at minimizing our impact to the environment, but any near-future moving away from FF is unlikely. Those cell towers I mentioned earlier? Don't even get me started on the much greater environmental impact that wind farms and solar farms have. There are certainly good applications for each, but for the most part the impact I have seen from them has been quite significant. Villabolo and Sphaerica: I did not mention agriculture and I do understand the limitations of different types of soil. I am not a geologist, but we do have to work closely with them when doing T&E surveys. But, it should be noted that the increased biomass in natural ecosystems on land and in the ocean will have a greater uptake of CO2 due to increased photosynthesis.
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  14. @Terranova #12 Beats me why anyone expects to be taken seriously, when they claim a couple highly reductionist cherry-picked shimmies of the overall spider web of which we are part constitutes "ecological" speech.
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