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A gloomy report card from the Arctic

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A 100-degree day is extreme almost anywhere in the world. In the Arctic, it was literally unheard of until now. Today, the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization officially verified that a town in Siberia called Verkhoyansk hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit last year. This comes on the same day the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its annual Arctic Report Card. Climate scientist Twila Moon is one of the report's authors, and she joins us now.

Welcome.

TWILA MOON: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: What does that record high in Siberia tell you?

MOON: Unfortunately, that's another good indicator of patterns that we're seeing across the Arctic. The Arctic is actually warming faster than most of the globe. And as a result, we're seeing rapid and really dramatic changes.

SHAPIRO: A melting Arctic leads to a series of dominoes falling, so let's talk about some of the different knock-on effects. To start with, sea ice reflects sunlight. So what happens when there is less of that sea ice in the Arctic?

MOON: If we look at the planet from space, we can imagine looking down on sea ice, and it's very bright. And that's what's helping to reflect the additional energy back to space and reduce melt. But if we remove that sea ice, we uncover a very dark ocean surface, and that's good at absorbing heat. And those warm ocean temperatures can linger into fall and winter, causing disruptions for future sea ice.

But also, we see animals behaving differently in different seasons, difficulties with food access. And as we're losing sea ice in the Arctic, that's also opening up opportunities for additional shipping and industry. And we see those influences, for example, with some extreme marine trash events in the Bering Strait of Alaska and also differences in the marine soundscape and what animals that live in the ocean are hearing and how they can communicate with each other.

SHAPIRO: Just - you're describing the disappearance of sea ice leading oceans to retain more heat. Sounds like we're talking about a feedback loop here, where a warming planet leads to a planet that warms even more quickly.

MOON: Unfortunately, there are many of these amplifying vicious cycles. Certainly, the loss of sea ice leading to a warming ocean and encouraging further sea ice and warming is one of them. Another is as we thaw frozen ground in the Arctic or permafrost, that thawing allows us to better release carbon dioxide and methane, both strong polluting greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere. And in another instance, as we melt more ice from the Greenland ice sheet, we also make that ice sheet more vulnerable to future losses.

SHAPIRO: Another consequence of melting ice in the Arctic is rising sea levels. So what do the trends that you are documenting in places like Greenland and Alaska mean for places like Bangladesh or Miami?

MOON: Well, unfortunately, the news right now is not good. This is another year - and now every year since 1998 - that we have seen large ice losses from the Greenland ice sheet, and we're seeing ice loss from glaciers all around the world. And this loss does move directly into our oceans and actually most often shows up in low and mid latitudes. And unfortunately, we are going to continue to see sea level rise into the next several decades.

But the future is not completely written here. What we can expect from sea level rise as far as the continued rate of sea level rise and also how much sea level rise we get to over the next 50 to 80 years is still highly dependent on what we people do politically, business-wise, socially in regards to restraining greenhouse gas pollution and really tamping down climate change.

SHAPIRO: Climate scientist Twila Moon is with the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, and she's one of the authors of this year's Arctic Report Card - speaking with us on Skype.

Thank you very much.

MOON: Thank you so much and for speaking about this important issue. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Gabe O'Connor