Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Arctic shrinkage


Microplastics (MP) are recognized as a growing environmental hazard and have been identified as far as the remote Polar Regions, with particularly high concentrations of microplastics in sea ice. Little is known regarding the horizontal variability of MP within sea ice and how the underlying water body affects MP composition during sea ice growth. Here we show that sea ice MP has no uniform polymer composition and that, depending on the growth region and drift paths of the sea ice, unique MP patterns can be observed in different sea ice horizons. Thus even in remote regions such as the Arctic Ocean, certain MP indicate the presence of localized sources. Increasing exploitation of Arctic resources will likely lead to a higher MP load in the Arctic sea ice and will enhance the release of MP in the areas of strong seasonal sea ice melt and the outflow gateways.

Concepts: Canada, Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Arctic, Arctic Circle, Arctic shrinkage, Sea ice, Polar ice packs


Efforts to understand the influence of historical global warming on individual extreme climate events have increased over the past decade. However, despite substantial progress, events that are unprecedented in the local observational record remain a persistent challenge. Leveraging observations and a large climate model ensemble, we quantify uncertainty in the influence of global warming on the severity and probability of the historically hottest month, hottest day, driest year, and wettest 5-d period for different areas of the globe. We find that historical warming has increased the severity and probability of the hottest month and hottest day of the year at >80% of the available observational area. Our framework also suggests that the historical climate forcing has increased the probability of the driest year and wettest 5-d period at 57% and 41% of the observed area, respectively, although we note important caveats. For the most protracted hot and dry events, the strongest and most widespread contributions of anthropogenic climate forcing occur in the tropics, including increases in probability of at least a factor of 4 for the hottest month and at least a factor of 2 for the driest year. We also demonstrate the ability of our framework to systematically evaluate the role of dynamic and thermodynamic factors such as atmospheric circulation patterns and atmospheric water vapor, and find extremely high statistical confidence that anthropogenic forcing increased the probability of record-low Arctic sea ice extent.

Concepts: Earth, Precipitation, Climate, Climate change, Arctic Ocean, Global warming, Arctic shrinkage, Sea ice


The unprecedented rate of change in the Arctic climate is expected to have major impacts on the emergence of infectious diseases and host susceptibility to these diseases. It is predicted that malaria parasites will spread to both higher altitudes and latitudes with global warming. Here we show for the first time that avian Plasmodium transmission occurs in the North American Arctic. Over a latitudinal gradient in Alaska, from 61°N to 67°N, we collected blood samples of resident and migratory bird species. We found both residents and hatch year birds infected with Plasmodium as far north as 64°N, providing clear evidence that malaria transmission occurs in these climates. Based on our empirical data, we make the first projections of the habitat suitability for Plasmodium under a future-warming scenario in Alaska. These findings raise new concerns about the spread of malaria to naïve host populations.

Concepts: Scientific method, Infectious disease, Malaria, Plasmodium, Infection, Bird, Canada, Arctic shrinkage


Loss of Arctic sea ice owing to climate change is the primary threat to polar bears throughout their range. We evaluated the potential response of polar bears to sea-ice declines by (i) calculating generation length (GL) for the species, which determines the timeframe for conservation assessments; (ii) developing a standardized sea-ice metric representing important habitat; and (iii) using statistical models and computer simulation to project changes in the global population under three approaches relating polar bear abundance to sea ice. Mean GL was 11.5 years. Ice-covered days declined in all subpopulation areas during 1979-2014 (median -1.26 days year(-1)). The estimated probabilities that reductions in the mean global population size of polar bears will be greater than 30%, 50% and 80% over three generations (35-41 years) were 0.71 (range 0.20-0.95), 0.07 (range 0-0.35) and less than 0.01 (range 0-0.02), respectively. According to IUCN Red List reduction thresholds, which provide a common measure of extinction risk across taxa, these results are consistent with listing the species as vulnerable. Our findings support the potential for large declines in polar bear numbers owing to sea-ice loss, and highlight near-term uncertainty in statistical projections as well as the sensitivity of projections to different plausible assumptions.

Concepts: Arctic Ocean, Arctic, Pinniped, Bear, Polar bear, Arctic shrinkage, IUCN Red List, Sea ice


Regional declines in polar bear (Ursus maritimus) populations have been attributed to changing sea ice conditions, but with limited information on the causative mechanisms. By simultaneously measuring field metabolic rates, daily activity patterns, body condition, and foraging success of polar bears moving on the spring sea ice, we found that high metabolic rates (1.6 times greater than previously assumed) coupled with low intake of fat-rich marine mammal prey resulted in an energy deficit for more than half of the bears examined. Activity and movement on the sea ice strongly influenced metabolic demands. Consequently, increases in mobility resulting from ongoing and forecasted declines in and fragmentation of sea ice are likely to increase energy demands and may be an important factor explaining observed declines in body condition and survival.

Concepts: Arctic, Pinniped, Bear, Carnivore, Polar bear, Arctic shrinkage, Sea ice, Marine mammal


Arctic sea ice is retreating rapidly, raising prospects of a future ice-free Arctic Ocean during summer. Since climate-model simulations of the sea-ice loss differ substantially, we here use a robust linear relationship between monthly-mean September sea-ice area and cumulative CO2 emissions to infer the future evolution of Arctic summer sea ice directly from the observational record. The observed linear relationship implies a sustained loss of 3 ± 0.3 m(2) of September sea-ice area per metric ton of CO2 emission. Based on this sensitivity, Arctic sea-ice will be lost throughout September for an additional 1000 Gt of CO2 emissions. Most models show a lower sensitivity, which is possibly linked to an underestimation of the modeled increase in incoming longwave radiation and of the modeled Transient Climate Response.

Concepts: Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Arctic, Emission standard, Global warming, Arctic shrinkage, Sea ice, Polar ice packs


Recent observations suggest that polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are increasingly using land habitats in some parts of their range, where they have minimal access to their preferred prey, likely in response to loss of their sea ice habitat associated with climatic warming. We used location data from female polar bears fit with satellite radio collars to compare land use patterns in the Chukchi Sea between two periods (1986-1995 and 2008-2013) when substantial summer sea-ice loss occurred. In both time periods, polar bears predominantly occupied sea-ice, although land was used during the summer sea-ice retreat and during the winter for maternal denning. However, the proportion of bears on land for > 7 days between August and October increased between the two periods from 20.0% to 38.9%, and the average duration on land increased by 30 days. The majority of bears that used land in the summer and for denning came to Wrangel and Herald Islands (Russia), highlighting the importance of these northernmost land habitats to Chukchi Sea polar bears. Where bears summered and denned, and how long they spent there, was related to the timing and duration of sea ice retreat. Our results are consistent with other studies supporting increased land use as a common response of polar bears to sea-ice loss. Implications of increased land use for Chukchi Sea polar bears are unclear, because a recent study observed no change in body condition or reproductive indices between the two periods considered here. This result suggests that the ecology of this region may provide a degree of resilience to sea ice loss. However, projections of continued sea ice loss suggest that polar bears in the Chukchi Sea and other parts of the Arctic may increasingly use land habitats in the future, which has the potential to increase nutritional stress and human-polar bear interactions.

Concepts: Arctic Ocean, Arctic, Bear, Walrus, Polar bear, Arctic shrinkage, Sea ice, Chukchi Sea


Rapid Arctic warming and sea-ice reduction in the Arctic Ocean are widely attributed to anthropogenic climate change. The Arctic warming exceeds the global average warming because of feedbacks that include sea-ice reduction and other dynamical and radiative feedbacks. We find that the most prominent annual mean surface and tropospheric warming in the Arctic since 1979 has occurred in northeastern Canada and Greenland. In this region, much of the year-to-year temperature variability is associated with the leading mode of large-scale circulation variability in the North Atlantic, namely, the North Atlantic Oscillation. Here we show that the recent warming in this region is strongly associated with a negative trend in the North Atlantic Oscillation, which is a response to anomalous Rossby wave-train activity originating in the tropical Pacific. Atmospheric model experiments forced by prescribed tropical sea surface temperatures simulate the observed circulation changes and associated tropospheric and surface warming over northeastern Canada and Greenland. Experiments from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 (ref. 16) models with prescribed anthropogenic forcing show no similar circulation changes related to the North Atlantic Oscillation or associated tropospheric warming. This suggests that a substantial portion of recent warming in the northeastern Canada and Greenland sector of the Arctic arises from unforced natural variability.

Concepts: Atlantic Ocean, Climate change, Canada, Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Arctic, Global warming, Arctic shrinkage


Ice-albedo feedback due to the albedo contrast between water and ice is a major factor in seasonal sea ice retreat, and has received increasing attention with the Arctic Ocean shifting to a seasonal ice cover. However, quantitative evaluation of such feedbacks is still insufficient. Here we provide quantitative evidence that heat input through the open water fraction is the primary driver of seasonal and interannual variations in Arctic sea ice retreat. Analyses of satellite data (1979-2014) and a simplified ice-upper ocean coupled model reveal that divergent ice motion in the early melt season triggers large-scale feedback which subsequently amplifies summer sea ice anomalies. The magnitude of divergence controlling the feedback has doubled since 2000 due to a more mobile ice cover, which can partly explain the recent drastic ice reduction in the Arctic Ocean.

Concepts: Feedback, Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Arctic, Arctic shrinkage


Despite the growth in knowledge about the effects of a warming Arctic on its cold-adapted species, the mechanisms by which these changes affect animal populations remain poorly understood. Increasing temperatures, declining sea ice and altered wind and precipitation patterns all may affect the fitness and abundance of species through multiple direct and indirect pathways. Here we demonstrate previously unknown effects of rain-on-snow (ROS) events, winter precipitation, and ice tidal surges on the Arctic’s largest land mammal. Using novel field data across seven years and three Alaskan and Russian sites, we show arrested skeletal growth in juvenile muskoxen resulting from unusually dry winter conditions and gestational ROS events, with the inhibitory effects on growth from ROS events lasting up to three years post-partum. Further, we describe the simultaneous entombment of 52 muskoxen in ice during a Chukchi Sea winter tsunami (ivuniq in Iñupiat), and link rapid freezing to entrapment of Arctic whales and otters. Our results illustrate how once unusual, but increasingly frequent Arctic weather events affect some cold-adapted mammals, and suggest that an understanding of species responses to a changing Arctic can be enhanced by coalescing groundwork, rare events, and insights from local people.

Concepts: Climate, Mammal, Canada, Arctic Ocean, Polar bear, Arctic shrinkage, Wrangel Island, Bering Strait