Peter Aldhous / BuzzFeed News / Via data.giss.nasa.gov
Use the search box or click on the map to see how the average annual temperature has changed at that location. The colored overlay shows average temperatures from 2004 to 2018, compared to the average from 1951 to 1980. Darker orange and red areas have warmed the most.
This March was the warmest on record in Alaska. For communities that depend on ice for everything from getting their supplies trucked in to their leisure activities, that’s posed serious problems. And for Jan and Amber Westlake, a couple in their thirties from the village of Noatak, and their 11-year-old niece Alexandria Howarth, it led to disaster.
At 1:08 a.m. local time on April 15, the Alaska State Troopers received a call from the local search and rescue coordinator. A snowmobile ridden by Amber and Alexandria had gone through the ice on the Noatak River, a few miles south of the village. Jan reportedly died trying to save his wife and niece.
This tragedy, one of several similar incidents in the past few weeks, was part of a wider pattern of disruption, as ice roads on frozen rivers that in winter serve as the main transport arteries for the state’s remote communities have started to melt weeks ahead of schedule. Native Alaskan seal hunters have been unable to take to the sea ice. Sled dog races have been canceled for a lack a snow.
“This winter, particularly in February and March, Alaska hit what I would call the unlucky jackpot,” Brian Brettschneider, a climate scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’s International Arctic Research Center, told BuzzFeed News. The Arctic as a whole has been unusually warm, he added, “but the center of the bull’s-eye was over Alaska.”
We often think of climate change as a distant threat — something for future generations to worry about. But as the map above shows, almost everywhere on the planet has warmed noticeably since the middle of last century. Click on the map or use the search box to see how global warming has affected that location.
Search for Noatak, and you’ll see that its location in northwest Alaska is one of the fastest-warming places on Earth. The regions swathed in red and deep orange show that the planet’s far North has borne the brunt of global warming. And in places where an increase in temperature just a couple of degrees means the difference between water being solid or liquid, the consequences are severe.
Across much of the Arctic, towns and cities are built on permafrost, a layer of frozen soil beneath the surface that never thaws — or at least, it previously didn’t. Buildings and roads that were built on frozen ground as strong as bedrock are now cracking and shifting as the permafrost turns to mush. Some 60% of buildings in Norilsk, an industrial city of 175,000 people in the heart of Siberia, have already been damaged.
The Arctic Ocean is also undergoing a drastic transformation. Its crust of sea ice naturally grows and shrinks with the seasons, peaking in March and reaching its annual low in September. But since the late 1970s, when the daily extent of the ice first came under the gaze of orbiting satellites, the ice has steadily been shrinking. Thanks to this year’s unusually warm Arctic spring, right now the ice is at its lowest-ever recorded level for the time of year.
The thickness of sea ice depends on how long it has been around. And thicker, multiyear ice has been hit especially hard, dropping from 61% of the total at peak ice extent in March 1984 to just 34% in March 2018, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. That makes the thinner, remaining ice more vulnerable as it melts more quickly in the summer months.
Meanwhile, coastal settlements that were once protected from the worst ravages of Arctic storms by a protective blanket of sea ice are now dangerously exposed. In February 2018, the Alaskan village of Diomede, on Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait, made news when a resident shared a video on Facebook of waves crashing and hurling debris between its buildings.
The big melt, both at sea and on land, is opening up the Arctic to shipping, oil exploration, and mineral extraction, which is in turn leading to an increased military presence, as the US and Russia vie for supremacy in the region.
But the consequences extend way beyond the Arctic Circle. Retreating glaciers and ice sheets on land are already calving off an increased number of icebergs that drift south, threatening shipping lanes and offshore oil platforms.
The loss of sea ice is likely to accelerate global warming and disrupt climate way beyond the Arctic Ocean. Sea ice is white, reflecting up to 85% of the sun’s energy back into space. But darker water absorbs most of that energy, and as it warms may change patterns of ocean circulation in ways that are likely to have far-reaching effects on the world’s weather. Already, some studies suggest that the “Atlantic conveyor belt,” which brings warmer surface waters up from the Gulf of Mexico and returns cooler, deeper water down the US Eastern Seaboard, has weakened by up to 15% since the mid-1900s.
Knowing that the oceans and atmosphere form a connected, global system leads climate scientists to see the dramatic changes in the Arctic as a harbinger of disruptions that will increasingly affect the rest of the globe. These will have profound effects as natural ecosystems and human infrastructure get pushed beyond the limits they are used to tolerating.
“Any change will have drastic impacts on us because both the human and the natural world were designed or evolved for the recent past,” Thomas Peterson, former president of the World Meteorological Organization’s Commission for Climatology, told BuzzFeed News.
Away from the Arctic, climatologists are studying extreme weather events, including floods, droughts, and storms, trying to determine which ones were caused or exacerbated by climate change. These “attribution studies” often involve running climate models not to forecast future conditions, but rather to simulate past events to understand how they would have evolved with and without the warming our planet has already experienced.
This is hard to do, and in many cases, scientists have been unable to come up with a definitive answer. But in recent years, they have become more confident about blaming human-caused global warming for making specific disasters more severe, or more likely to have happened in the first place.
In July 2018, for example, the international collaboration World Weather Attribution concluded that the water shortage that nearly brought Cape Town, South Africa, to its knees earlier that year was driven by a three-year drought that had been made three times more likely by global warming.
Extreme conditions in one place can also trigger changes elsewhere. In the summer of 2010, western Russia was beset by a record-setting heat wave, which together with pollution from wildfires may have killed up to 56,000 people, according to the reinsurer Munich Re. At the same time, Pakistan faced severe floods from unusually heavy monsoon rains, which affected some 18 million people and killed around 2,000 people.
While climatologists disagree on the extent to which human-caused global warming can be held to blame for these two disasters, both have been linked to changes in atmospheric circulation that were driven by high sea surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean and beyond.
Some of the clearest signals that global warming is affecting severe weather come from hurricanes and other tropical cyclones, which brew above warm oceans. Add more heat to the tropics, and it would be surprising if they didn’t become more intense.
According to the World Weather Attribution project, global warming increased the rainfall dumped on the Houston area by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017 by between 8% and 19%. Other researchers put the range at 13% to 37%. And in September 2018, one team estimated the contribution of global warming to the rainfall from Hurricane Florence even before it made landfall in the Carolinas.
As well as delivering heavier rain, hurricanes are becoming more of a threat because the dangerous surges in sea level are superimposed over the steady rise caused by global warming — as warmer water expands and ice melts.
Peter Aldhous / BuzzFeed News / Via French Space Agency/NASA/U. Colorado Sea Level Research Group
The colored overlay shows average sea level from 2008–2010, compared to the average from 1993–1995. Darker blues indicate greater sea level rise.
On average, sea level is rising by about 3 millimeters per year, but there is a lot of variation from place to place, due in part to the interaction of currents and coastal geography, as well as variations in gravitational pull. Near the Philippines, sea level is rising at five times the global average rate.
Last November, BuzzFeed News highlighted the locations on the US coast likely to face regular flooding from rising seas by the time a new homeowner has paid off their mortgage. But even now, some coastal cities are getting flooded by the highest tides even in the absence of storms. Adapting to this new reality is expensive. Miami Beach in South Florida, for instance, is spending $500 million on a plan to install pumps to remove water from low-lying areas and to raise roads and sidewalks above the waves.
With other pressing demands on their budgets, cities don’t spend megabucks to fight a “hoax.” Climate change is happening now, it’s changing lives and taking lives, and it’s costing us billions of dollars.
Zahra Hirji contributed reporting to this story.