Study: Arctic is Warming Four Times as Fast as the Rest of the World

A tundra permafrost shoreline melting off (USGS file image)

Published Aug 11, 2022 10:08 PM by The Maritime Executive

A new study suggests that the frozen Arctic could be warming four times as fast as the rest of the planet, much quicker than previously estimated. If it is accurate and sustained, the pace of warming could improve the commercial prospects of the Northern Sea Route and hasten the opening of over-the-pole summertime routing. 

The study took the past four decades of Arctic climate data, from 1979 through 2021, and calculated that the real-world rate of warming in the Arctic comes in at about 1.3 degrees F per decade, about four times as fast as the global average of about 0.35 degrees per decade. This ratio is known as "Arctic amplification," and previous estimates yielded a lower value in the range of two to three times as fast.

The ratio also exceeds the values generated by the latest state-of-the-art climate computer models - by a wide margin. 

"The observed four-fold warming ratio over 1979-2021 is an extremely rare occasion in the climate model simulations," the authors found. "Our results indicate that the recent four-fold Arctic warming ratio is either an extremely unlikely event, or the climate models systematically tend to underestimate the amplification."

The Arctic's fast pace of warming is well-understood, as residents often relate: thawing permafrost visibly undermines buildings and erodes coastlines, and thinning ice interferes with the hunting patterns of polar bears and coastal communities. On the positive side, reduced summer ice extent and the decline of multi-year ice are already improving the navigability of the Arctic. A true summertime transpolar passage - a straight line run from Rotterdam to Dutch Harbor over the North Pole - could be open by midcentury

The fastest-warming area of the Arctic (and the planet) is the area of the Barents Sea between Svalbard and Novaya Zemlya, and the authors found that this region is warming at a rate of about 2.25 degrees F every decade - making its pace about seven times faster than the global average. A separate, earlier study found a similar rate, suggesting that Svalbard could be fully 18 degrees F warmer than today by the end of the century.