Unprecedented Arctic change demands action

Unprecedented Arctic change demands action



28 September 2016
Press Release Number:

WMO welcomes White House Arctic Science Ministerial

28 September 2016 (WMO) - Dramatic and unprecedented warming in the Arctic is driving sea level rise, affecting weather patterns around the world and may trigger even more changes in the climate system. The rate of change is challenging the current scientific capacity to monitor and predict what is becoming a journey into uncharted territory.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is therefore contributing to the first ever White House Arctic Science Ministerial which aims to increase international  collaboration on Arctic science, research, observations, monitoring, and data-sharing. 

“The Arctic is a principal, global driver of the climate system and is undergoing an unprecedented rate of change with consequences far beyond its boundaries,” said WMO President David Grimes, who is one of the keynote speakers at the ministerial in Washington on 28 September.

The one-day meeting brings together ministers of science, chief science advisors, and other high-level officials from many countries around the world, as well as representatives from indigenous groups, The United States of America currently holds the chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

“The changes in the Arctic are serving as a global indicator – like  “a canary in the coal mine” - and are happening at a much faster rate than we would have expected. We need to establish an “Arctic observatory” to help us monitor, predict and cope with these changes,” said WMO President Grimes.

Global temperatures are rising as a result of climate change, with 2014, 2015 and the first eight months of 2016 breaking records. The Arctic is warming at least twice as fast as the world average, in places even faster. For instance, Inuvik in the Northwest Territories in Canada has warmed by almost 4° Celsius  since 1948.

Arctic sea ice melt

The extent of Arctic sea ice at the peak of the summer melt season now typically covers 40 percent less area than it did in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Its minimum extent (after the melt season) on 10 September 2016, was 4.14 million square kilometers (1.60 million square miles) which tied the second lowest in the satellite record, according to provisional data from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The maximum Arctic sea ice extent in March 2016 was the lowest on record, as was northern hemisphere snow cover. The Greenland ice sheet also began its melt exceptionally early this year, according to the Danish Meteorological Institute.

“The melting of snow and ice cover is having far reaching environmental consequences and may potentially contribute to changes in circulation patterns in the ocean and atmosphere. The Arctic changes have also been a factor in unusual winter weather patterns in North America and Europe, The thawing of the frozen permafrost in Arctic regions has the potential to release vast quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These are part of the vicious circles of climate change which are the subject of intense scientific research,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. “

“The first luxury cruise ship crossed the Arctic through the Northwest Passage last month. It won’t be the last,” said Mr Taalas.

“The melting of  Arctic sea ice opens up new transport, tourism and exploration possibilities and will cut shipping journeys between Europe and east Asia. But it also increases the risk of accidents in hazardous waters and oil spills which will be much harder to clean up than elsewhere. Less ice does not mean less danger. There is a need to enhance the Arctic weather and marine service and related weather observation capacity to ensure safety of Arctic marine transportation,” said Mr Taalas.

The opportunities and risks were addressed by the Arctic Marine Shipping Report published by the Arctic Council.

WMO is working with partners and with the tourism and shipping industry to improve weather, water, ocean, wave and sea ice forecasting in the Arctic .

But the challenges are considerable. The Arctic represents about 4% of the Earth’s surface but it is one of the most data sparse regions in the world because of its remoteness and previous inaccessibility. Lack of data and forecasts in the Arctic does impact on the quality of weather forecasts in other parts of the world.

Year of Polar Prediction

Improved research and observations for Polar and High Mountain regions is one of WMO’s top strategic priorities.  WMO’s Global Cryosphere Watch programme seeks to support and promote observation, monitoring and research into the cryosphere, including sea and freshwater ice, snow, glacies and ice caps, ice sheets and permafrost.

In a bid to meet the demand for better weather and climate services in Polar regions, WMO is sponsoring the Year of Polar Prediction which will take place from mid-2017 to mid-2019, in order to cover an entire year in both the Arctic and Antarctic.  

The Year of Polar Prediction is designed to increase investment in observational networks and prediction capabilities to address immediate safety requirements and climate services needs in the Arctic region, and ensuring social, economic and environmental sustainability.

It also seeks to foster greater international cooperation to support public and private sector strategic planning and enhanced global security in the face of climate change.

WMO President Grimes will use his address to the Whitehouse Arctic Science Ministerial to increase awareness of the need for better Polar predictions and observations.

The ministerial has four key themes:

  • Arctic Science Challenges and their Regional and Global Implications. 
  • Strengthening and Integrating Arctic Observations and Data Sharing. 
  • Applying Expanded Scientific Understanding of the Arctic to Build Regional Resilience and Shape Global Responses. 
  • Arctic Science as a Vehicle for STEM Education and Citizen Empowerment


White House Fact Sheet 

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