Rain comes to the Arctic, with a cascade of troubling changes

Rain comes to the Arctic, with a cascade of troubling changes

This story was originally revealed by Yale Ambiance 360 and is reproduced right here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In August of 2021, rain fell atop the 10,551-foot summit of the Greenland ice cap, triggering an story meltdown and a extra-than-2,000-foot retreat of the snowline. The unparalleled tournament reminded Joel Harper, a College of Montana glaciologist who works on the Greenland ice sheet, of a strange anomaly in his data, one that suggested that in 2008 it may well have rained remarkable later in the season — in the fall, when the location is typically in deep freeze and dark for almost 24 hours a day.

When Harper and his colleagues carefully examined the measurements they’d detached from sensors on the ice sheet these many years ago, they had been astonished. No longer handiest had it rained, nevertheless it had rained for four days as the air temperature rose by 30 degrees C (54 degrees F), finish to and above the freezing level. It had warmed the summit’s firn layer — snow that is in transition to turning into ice — by between 11 and 42 degrees F (6 and 23 degrees C). The rainwater and surface melt that followed penetrated the firn by as remarkable as 20 feet earlier than refreezing, creating a barrier that would alter the ride of meltwater the following year.

All that rain is significant because the melting of the Greenland ice sheet — appreciate the melting of other glaciers around the world — is one of the most important drivers of sea level upward push. Each time a rain-on-snow tournament happens, says Harper, the structure of the firn layer is altered, and it becomes a bit extra susceptible to impacts from the subsequent melting tournament. “It suggests that handiest a minor increase in frequency and depth of similar rain-on-snow events in the future will have an outsized impact,” he says.

Rain weak to be rare in most parts of the Arctic: the polar regions had been, and calm are, usually too cool and dry for clouds to earn and absorb moisture. When precipitation did happen, it most often came as snow.

Twenty years ago, annual precipitation in the Arctic ranged from about 10 inches in southern areas to as few as 2 inches or less in the far north. But as Arctic temperatures continue to warm three times faster than the planet as a total, melting sea ice and extra launch water will, according to a contemporary glance, bring up to 60 percent extra precipitation in coming decades, with extra rain falling than snow in many places.


Such changes will have a profound impact on sea ice, glaciers, and Greenland’s ice cap — which are already melting at chronicle rates, according to Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the College of Colorado. The precipitation will space off extra flooding; an acceleration in permafrost thaw; profound changes to water quality; extra landslides and snow avalanches; extra misery for Arctic animals, many of which are already in precipitous decline due to the transferring climate; and excessive challenges for the Indigenous peoples who count on these animals.

Changes can already be considered. Thunderstorms are now spawning in places where they have historically been rare. In 2022, the longest thunderstorm in the history of Arctic observation was recorded in Siberia. The storm lasted nearly an hour, twice as long as typical thunderstorms in the south. Merely a few days earlier, a series of three thunderstorms had passed via a part of Alaska that rarely experiences them.

Surface crevassing, which allows water to enter into the inside of of the icecap, is accelerating, thanks to rapid melting. And slush avalanches, which mobilize large volumes of water-saturated snow, are turning into frequent: In 2016, a rain-on-snow tournament triggered 800 slush avalanches in West Greenland.

Rick Thoman, a climate scientist based at the College of Alaska Fairbanks, says that rainfall at any time of year has increased 17 percent in the state over the past half century, triggering floods that have closed roads and landslides that, in one case, despatched 180 million tons of rock into a narrow fjord, generating a tsunami that reached 633 feet excessive — one of the very best tsunamis ever recorded worldwide.

But chilly weather rain events are also on the upward push. The place Fairbanks weak to examine rain on snow about two or three times a decade, Thoman says, it now happens at least once in most winters. That’s a discipline for local drivers because, with miniature solar heating, ice that varieties on roads from November rains typically remains till spring.

Caribou walk in the foreground of a glacier on July 12, 2013 in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The science of each rain and rain-on-snow events in the Arctic is in its infancy, and it’s complicated by the fact that satellites and automated weather stations have a tough time differentiating between snow and rain, and because there are no longer satisfactory scientists on the ground to evaluate firsthand what happens when rain falls on snow, says Serreze.

It was hunters who first reported, in 2003, that an estimated 20,000 muskoxen had starved to death on Banks Island, in Canada’s Excessive Arctic, following an October rain-on-snow tournament. It happened again in the winters of 2013-2014 and in 2020-2021, when tens of thousands of reindeer died on Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula.

In each places, the rain had hardened the snow and, in some places, produced ice, which made it almost very no longer likely for the animals to dig down and reach the lichen, sedges, and other plants they need to live to declare the tale the long chilly weather.

Kyle Joly, a natural world biologist with the U.S. National Park Service, views an increase in rain-on-snow events as but another excessive challenge for the world’s 2.4 million caribou, which have been in rapid decline heavenly remarkable all over the place over the past three generations. The ebbing numbers are a large anxiety for northern Indigenous of us who count on caribou for food. Public health specialists fear that Indigenous health will be seriously compromised if the animals can no longer be hunted.

Alaska’s western Arctic herd, which has been, at times, the largest in North America, had 490,000 animals in 2003 nevertheless suitable 152,000 in 2023. But at least that herd can calm be hunted. In Canada’s central Arctic, the Bathurst herd has plummeted from roughly 470,000 animals in the 1980s to suitable 6,240 animals today; searching these caribou in the Northwest Territories is at level to banned.

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Caribou are highly adaptable to unsuitable environmental variability, and their numbers can upward push and fall for several reasons, according to Joly. The proliferation of biting flies in a warming climate can sap their energy, as can migration detours compelled by the spread of roads and industrial vogue, and an increase in dumps of deep, soft snow, which are linked to the loss of sea ice. (An ice-free ocean surface increases humidity near the surface, which leads to extra moisture in the atmosphere.)

Sharp-edged ice and crusty snow can also lacerate caribous’ legs, and rain on snow has periodically affected some of Alaska’s 32 caribou herds. For example, the day after Christmas in 2021, temperatures rose to extra than 60 degrees F (15 degrees C) for the duration of a storm that dropped an lag of rain over a large area of the state. Alaska’s Fish and Game Department estimated that 40 percent of the moose, caribou, and sheep in the state’s inside of perished that chilly weather because they may no longer dig via the hard snow and ice.

It’s no longer suitable caribou and muskoxen that are being threatened. There is rising evidence that rain falling in parts of the Arctic where precipitation usually arrives as snow is killing peregrine falcon chicks, which have handiest downy feathers to offer protection to them from the cool. As soon as water soaks their down, the chicks succumb to hypothermia.

Few scientists have evaluated the hydrological and geochemical impact of rain-on-snow events in polar wasteland regions, which are underlain by permafrost and receive miniature or no snow in chilly weather. Fresh studies revealed by Queen’s College scientist Melissa Lafrenière and colleagues from several universities in Canada and the United States level to a worrisome image unfolding at the Cape Bounty Arctic Watershed Observatory on Melville Island, in Canada’s Excessive Arctic, which has been in operation since 2003.

A shift from runoff dominated by snowmelt in spring and summer to runoff from each rain and snowmelt is accelerating permafrost thaw and ground slumping, and it’s filling fish-bearing lakes with sediments. One glance found a fiftyfold increase in turbidity in one lake that led to a upward push in mercury and a decrease in the health of Arctic char, a fish that the Inuit of the Arctic count on.

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Lafrenière says that with handiest 20 years of measurement, it’s tough to level conclusively to a vogue. “But we have been seeing extra rain falling in greater events, in late summer especially. In 2022, we had unusually heavy rain that dropped an average summer’s value of rain in less than forty eight hours.”

To assist scientists and decisionmakers better understand the impacts of what is happening, Serreze and his colleagues have created a database of all known rain-on-snow events across the Arctic. And increasingly, scientists appreciate Robert Way of Queen’s College in Canada are working with the Inuit and other northern Indigenous of us to ground-truth what they mediate the satellites and automated weather stations are telling them and to share the data that they are accumulating and evaluating.

Way, who’s of Inuit descent, was a younger man when he witnessed parts of the George River herd, one of the world’s largest caribou herds, migrate across the ice in central Labrador. “There had been thousands and thousands and thousands of them,” he recalls with shock. The herd contained 750,000 animals in the 1980s; today, it has no extra than 20,000. The animals are facing the same climate change challenges that caribou all over the place are facing.

Way is working with Labrador’s Inuit to better understand how these weather events will affect caribou and food security, as effectively as their possess travel on snow and ice. But, he says, “It’s increasingly tough to achieve this research in Canada because half of the weather stations have been shut down” due to federal value range cuts. Most of the manually operated stations, Way adds, “are being replaced by automated ones that originate data that makes it hard for scientists to resolve whether it’s raining or snowing when temperatures hover around the freezing mark.”

To better understand how rain-on-snow events are affecting the Arctic, Serreze says, researchers need to better understand how often and where these events happen, and what impact they have on the land- and seascape. “Satellite data and weather items can reveal some of these events, nevertheless these tools are harmful,” he says. “To validate what is happening at the surface and the impacts of these events on reindeer, caribou, and musk oxen requires of us on the ground. And we don’t have satisfactory of us on the ground.” Researchers need to work with Indigenous of us “who are at once dealing with the effects of rain on snow,” he notorious.

In 2007, Serreze stated in a College of Colorado Boulder glance that the Arctic may have reached a climate-change tipping level that may space off a cascade of events. Extra rain than snow falling in the Arctic is one such tournament, and he expects extra surprises to come. “We are attempting to sustain with what goes on,” he says, “nevertheless we aid getting stunned.”

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