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Arctic's 'unparalleled' warmth brings region into 'uncharted territory'

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 12/11/2018 Doyle Rice
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Earth's "air conditioner" is going haywire.  

Due to climate change, temperatures in the Arctic are among the warmest on record, and the amount of sea ice there is close to its all-time lowest level, federal scientists announced in a report Tuesday. 

In fact, Arctic air temperatures over the past five years (2014-18) have exceeded all previous records since 1900, and the area is warming at two times the rate of other places on Earth. 

The report was prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Overall, the Arctic is enduring "its most unprecedented transition in human history," said report lead author Emily Osborne of NOAA at a press briefing on Tuesday.

In 2018, Osborne said that “warming air and ocean temperatures continued to drive broad long-term change across the polar region, pushing the Arctic into uncharted territory."

In addition, the report said wintertime sea ice in the Bering Sea is at its lowest level on record and that overall, almost all of the Arctic Ocean's oldest, thickest ice has been lost.

While still frigid by our standards down here, "the effects of persistent Arctic warming continue to mount," the annual "Arctic report card" noted.  

And if you think the warmth up there only affects polar bears, think again: The weird heat in the Arctic could be confusing the weather patterns down here over the U.S., sometimes shoving more powerful winter storms and more intense cold snaps into our neighborhood. 

The warmth in the Arctic is not occurring naturally, scientists say: "The changes we are witnessing in the Arctic are sufficiently rapid that they cannot be explained without considering our impacts on the chemistry of the atmosphere," report co-author and University of Georgia scientist Thomas Mote told CNN.

Wildlife is also affected by the warmth, as Arctic caribou and reindeer populations are shrinking. Plastic pollution – which can harm marine life – is also showing up in the water up there.

Another expert, Margaret Williams of the World Wildlife Fund, who was not involved in the report, added in an email that it is "yet another stark reminder of climate change’s indelible mark on our world. Warming temperatures are thawing permafrost and shrinking Arctic sea ice. These changes rob wildlife species of their habitat, and raise sea levels around the world, affecting communities from Nome to New Orleans."

Now in its 13th year, NOAA began its annual Arctic report in 2006. This year's peer-reviewed report was compiled by 81 scientists from 12 different countries and issued during a briefing at the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

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