The small Russian town of Verkhoyansk ushered in summer with a potentially record-breaking high of 38 °C this weekend (June 20), a searing exclamation point punctuating the region’s hottest winter on record.
The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the globe, and National Geographic reports that winter average temperatures have already exceeded the 2 °C threshold set by the Paris climate agreement to limit catastrophic consequences. While the World Meteorological Organization is still working to verify Verkhoyansk’s record, scientists say it points to a troubling trend.
“The key point is that the climate is changing and global temperatures are warming,” Freja Vamborg, a senior scientist at the Copernicus Climate Change Service in the UK, tells the Associated Press. “We will be breaking more and more records as we go.” Antarctica also registered record-breaking temperatures this year.
The propensity for polar regions to warm more quickly than lower latitudes is known as “polar amplification,” and many factors feed into it. Both the Arctic and the Antarctic are covered in snow and ice that reflect incoming sunlight, functioning as the world’s refrigerator. But each year, the snow seems to melt more quickly, according to NASA. This year, National Geographic reports, ground cover was gone a month earlier than normal, and sea ice continues to shrink. The water and soil beneath are darker, absorbing heat that warms the surrounding air. This process is exacerbated during the Arctic summer when the sun never fully sets.
“At this time of the year, around the summer solstice, you get 24 hours of sunlight,” Walt Meier, a climate scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, tells National Geographic. “That’s a lot of solar energy coming in.”
Warmer weather has brought new and pressing problems to the Arctic, including several years of raging wildfires, Vox reports. Last year, when temperatures were around 8 °C warmer than the long-term average, a particularly intense fire season claimed an area larger than the European Union. “The Arctic is figuratively and literally on fire,” Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan, says in an email to the AP.
Higher temperatures have also prompted changes in the region’s permafrost, the layer of soil that remains mostly frozen year-round. Like its forests, the permafrost of the Arctic serves as a carbon sink. But according to NASA, global warming is shifting the balance, and melting permafrost is now releasing as much—if not more—carbon dioxide than plants can take up. In addition, permafrost is also shedding methane, a greenhouse gas 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
“Methane escaping from permafrost . . . enters the atmosphere and circulates around the globe,” Katey Walter Anthony, a University of Alaska Fairbanks expert on methane release, tells the AP. “Methane that originates in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. It has global ramifications.”