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What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic: a Michigan perspective

As part of the United States’ global outreach initiative surrounding the United Nations’ 2015 Paris Climate Conference – COP21 – NASA and the State Department came together to give a presentation about rapid climate change in the Arctic, titled “What Happens in the Arctic Doesn’t Stay in the Arctic.” I am bringing you the Michigan perspective of how and what that means for us.

Senior science advisor to President Obama John Holdren and NASA Langley Climate Scientist Dr. Patrick Taylor presented about the growing dangers of rapid Arctic warming. The climate is changing more rapidly in the Arctic than anywhere else on Earth. The average surface air temperature is going up two times faster than the global average, and according to Dr. Holdren, “in some places it is going up three to four times as much.” Alaskan glaciers are losing 50 to 75 billion tons of ice every singly year.

“The rapid climate change is affecting atmosphere weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere,” said Holdren. “What happens in the Arctic isn’t staying in the Arctic.” Wildfires are becoming an increasingly severe problem. In Alaska, the average number of annual wildfires has doubled since the 1980s and the average area burned has tripled. Tripled. The conditions in Canada are not much different. We experienced the fallout from one such wildfire this past summer as pollution and smoke streamed down from the Canadian wilderness affecting air quality and visibility across the mitten. “There are real impacts on human health,” said Holdren, health impacts like asthma and irritation of the eyes and throat.

The Polar Vortex

The disruption of the Northern Hemisphere circulation in the atmosphere is having a profound impact on the jet stream and we are feeling the effects. The jet stream is driven and controlled by temperature differences between the latitudes. “The polar jet stream — about six miles above our head with speeds that reach above 100 mph — changes in the Arctic outpace the rest of the globe, which means the gradient between the two changes how the jet stream moves,” said Taylor. “[In 2014] The Arctic jet stream broke loose thanks to the temperature changes and the jet stream that would normally be constrained in the north broke loose and stayed over the South East, Midwest, and North East United States.”

When the Arctic warms faster than the mid latitudes, strange temperature anomalies occur thanks to the wobbly jet stream. “Changes in the temperature differences is something we expect to have — monthly average temperatures in some part of the arctic during polar vortex year were 5 to 10 degrees above normal.” I’m sure many of us remember times when Alaska was warmer than Michigan this past winter. Dr. Holdren and Dr. Taylor both expounded that it is highly likely we’re going to see more of that in the near future.

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