A viral video of a skeletal polar bear crawling across the barren tundra of northern Canada, by wildlife photographer Paul Nicklen, has now been viewed more than 3.5 million times on Instagram. Taken one way, the video is pure propaganda: Nicklen, a contributor to National Geographic, is also a biologist and cofounder of Sea Legacy, a nonprofit dedicated to ocean conservation. Climate change critics caviled: fake news. And even environmentalists concede that there is no worldwide risk of polar bear extinction — yet.
But it’s propaganda in service of a hard truth: Arctic ice is melting, a radical disruption that is already wreaking havoc with tourism, fisheries, and the frozen ecosystem needed to sustain wildlife like the polar bear. The damage is well documented in the latest report card on Arctic health, issued annually by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. At first, it might be easy to mistake the data for good news: After an unduly warm fall in 2016, air temperatures in the Arctic were near average in spring and summer of this year. Unfortunately, over the long term, that amounts to a blip in an unprecedented warming streak.
And climate change, unlike weather, is most appropriately measured over the long term. What researchers at NOAA see is nothing short of alarming. As the NOAA report card puts it, the Arctic “shows no sign of returning to [the] reliably frozen region” of the recent past. In fact, the rate of Arctic sea ice decline and warming temperatures is higher than at any other time in 1,500 years — since around the time of the fall of Rome. Water in the Barents and Chukchi seas was 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than just a few decades ago, according to the report.
That’s a sign that the chilly ice cap at the North Pole, which helps cool the entire planet, is inexorably eroding, scientists say. That, in turn, could alter weather patterns in distant places. An atmospheric researcher told NPR that air circulation over the eastern Pacific could easily be affected, causing a drier climate by the end of this century in California. That should concern the Trump administration, which recently authorized federal disaster funds to fight at least four voracious fires raging near Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.
There’s another previously unforeseen consequence of a warmer North Pole: An international team of scientists writing in the journal Nature Geoscience found that unusually warm spring temperatures in the Arctic Ocean can lead to colder temperatures across North America, hurting the growth of vegetation that absorbs carbon and cutting into farmers’ crop yields.
It’s clear that the planet’s climate is like a complex operating system, a networked web that is influenced by a variety of factors — including humankind’s activity. But in an administration led by a climate denier in chief, there’s a rare note of hope for the future of NOAA’s important work: Barry Myers, the nominee to become the agency’s administrator, came down on the side of mainstream science at his Senate confirmation hearing last month.
Because Myers is not a scientist himself, many were surprised to hear him vouch for “quality, peer-reviewed, scientific research” as a basis for policy, and for furthering a much-needed national discussion on the environment. Although this page has not supported the Trump administration’s environmental policies, the government’s continued commitment to NOAA’s research — including the annual Arctic report card — is critical. The full Senate should confirm Myers, and Myers should devote his tenure to pressing for more science and less fiction when it comes to climate policy.