Searing Arctic: Unprecedented Heat Wave Sweeps North Pole; Temperatures Breach All-Time High

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Verkhoyansk—a Siberian small town located in the Arctic Circle breached the highest temperature record on June 20, 2020. The temperature reached over 38°C (100° F)—a whopping 18°C more than normal mercury levels for this season. The town used to be known for its extremely low temperatures, which drops to the level of -69.8°C, making it one of the coldest places on the planet.

Experts are still verifying the spike in temperature, and once the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) confirms, this will be the hottest on record for the north of the Arctic Circle. As per WMO records, the previous such high temperature in the Verkhoyansk was recorded at 37.3°C on July 25, 1988. Another town, Fort Yukon in Alaska recorded the first-ever 37.7°C in 1915.

Reportedly, since the past few weeks, places around the arctic region have been witnessing an increase in the temperature levels, which was rarely seen earlier. In May 2020, Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) revealed Siberia experienced an unusually high spike in monthly average temperature by 10°C above normal.

“It has been an unusually hot spring in Siberia, and the coinciding lack of underlying snow in the region combined with overall global temperature increases, undoubtedly helped play a critical role in causing this extreme temperature observation,” said Prof Randall Cerveny from Arizona State University, who is also WMO’s Special Rapporteur on Weather and Climate Extremes, in a statement.

According to WMO, since the beginning of this year, from January onwards, the parts of the Arctic are witnessing the higher-than-average surface air temperatures. Moreover, since December the air temperatures in the Arctic have been noted 6°C above the average. The heatwaves are likely to continue for another week. According to the Arctic Climate Forum, the above normal temperatures are expected to continue across the majority of the Arctic from June to August 2020.

Rising temperatures in the Arctic Circle

Arctic summer sea ice.

(John Miller/ NOAA Mauna Loa Observatory)

The Arctic is regarded to be one of the fastest-warming regions worldwide and is said to be heating at twice the global average. As per the WMO data, the annual surface air temperatures over the last four years (2016–2019) in the Arctic region have been the highest on record. In fact, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average, according to the US Weather agency NOAA’s 2019 Arctic Report Card.

As per the study published in the journal Science Advances, over the past 100 years, the baseline temperature in the high Arctic has increased by between 2 to 3°C. Out of this, about 0.75°C has occurred in just the last decade alone. Even the winters are not spared! The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has confirmed that the winter average temperatures in the Arctic have already exceeded the threshold of 2°C.

“Although the planet as a whole is warming, this isn’t happening evenly. For example, western Siberia stands out as a region that is warming faster than average and where variations in temperature from month to month and year to year tend to be large. This means that, to some extent, large temperature anomalies are not unexpected. However, what is unusual in this case is how long the warmer-than-average anomalies have persisted,” said Copernicus in a statement.

Moreover, the impact of rising temperatures can be clearly seen through the melting of Arctic sea ice. In September 2019, the volume of Arctic sea-ice after its melting season declined by more than 50% compared to the mean value for 1979–2019. Several projections suggest that the annual average temperature for the region will exceed the 2°C threshold in the next few decades.

Fire and oil spills in the Arctic

As per the Russian Forest Service, about 12 million acres of land was on fire in early June. An increase in wildfire activity significantly contributes to a rise in temperatures. According to reports, since 2003 there has been a drastic increase in the emissions from Arctic fires in the past two summers. The emissions during June 2019 and June 2020, is said to be higher than combined emissions from all the June months from 2003-2018.

Recently, Siberia witnessed another major oil spill, when 20,000 tons of diesel fuel was spilled from a power plant storage facility—forcing Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to declare a state of emergency. The Arctic is covered with permafrost, which is capped by ice and usually remains frozen throughout the year. But in June this year due to hot air, permafrost melted and triggered the spill of thousands of tons of fuel in the river.

The permafrost in the Arctic Circle also holds unimaginable amounts of greenhouse gases from the decomposition of vast biodiversity that once thrived in this part of the world. As global warming melts these ice caps, millions of tons of greenhouse gases could escape, aggravating the warming situation further. Recent research suggests that for every 1°C rise in global average temperature, permafrost could release greenhouse gases equal to four to six years of coal, oil, and natural gas emissions.


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