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Arctic Archives ✔️ News For Finance
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Lightning strikes in the far north of Canada.
Enlarge / Lightning strikes in the far north of Canada.
Sandra Angers-Blondin

The Arctic isn’t doing so hot. That’s because it is, in fact, too hot. It’s warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the planet, which is setting off vicious feedback loops that accelerate change. Ice, for instance, is more reflective than soil, so when it melts, the region absorbs more solar energy. More dark vegetation is growing in northern lands, absorbing still more of the sun’s heat. And when permafrost thaws, it releases gobs of greenhouse gases, which further warm the climate.

The Arctic has gone so bizarro that lightning—a warm-weather phenomenon most common in the tropics—is now striking near the North Pole. And according to new modeling, the electrical bombardment of the region will only get worse. By the end of the century, the number of lightning strikes across the Arctic could more than double, which may initiate a shocking cascade of knock-on effects—namely, more wildfires and more warming. “The Arctic is a rapidly changing place, and this is an aspect of the transformation that I’m not sure has gotten a whole lot of attention, but it’s actually really consequential,” says UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain, who wasn’t involved in the research.

To make thunderstorms you need a lot of heat. When the sun warms up the land, hot air and moisture rise in the atmosphere. Simultaneously, cold air in the system sinks. This creates a swirling mass known as a deep convective cloud, which in turn creates electrical charges that grow into lightning.

That’s normal in the tropics, where there’s plenty of heat to go around, but the Arctic should be cold enough to better resist this large-scale rising of hot air. No longer, apparently. “With surface warming, you will have more energy to push air into the high latitude,” says UC Irvine climate scientist Yang Chen, lead author on a new paper in Nature Climate Changedescribing the modeling. “And also because the atmosphere is warmer, it can hold more water vapor.”

A thunderstorm brings dark clouds over the bottom of Harrison Creek (Pitkas Bar), Birch Creek Wild, and Scenic River in the Steese National Conservation Area, Alaska.
Enlarge / A thunderstorm brings dark clouds over the bottom of Harrison Creek (Pitkas Bar), Birch Creek Wild, and Scenic River in the Steese National Conservation Area, Alaska.

Put those together and you’ve got big, flashy storms that are now moving within 100 miles of the North Pole. (Scientists can pinpoint the strikes in the remote region with a global network of radio detectors: When a bolt hits the ground, it actually turns into a kind of radio tower, blasting out a signal.) And where you’ve got lightning, you’ve got the potential for fire, especially as the Arctic warms and dries. “The 2020 heat wave in the Russian Arctic shows how—even at high latitudes—really warm weather conditions can develop that can lead to fires that burn intensely and can grow to be very large,” says Isla Myers-Smith, an ecologist at the University of Edinburgh who studies the region but wasn’t involved in this new work. “A lot of area burned during the 2020 fire season in the Russian Arctic.”

An Arctic wildfire can chew through two main types of material, both of which are problematic. Much of soil is peat, essentially concentrated carbon from thousands of years of accumulated plant material. When this soil burns, the fire smolders deeper into the ground, releasing incredible amounts of a greenhouse gas that in a cooler, wetter Arctic would have been safely locked away. These blazes are so persistent that scientists have dubbed them zombie fires: They will fester underground for months and even snow over, only to ignite again as a new surface fire once the snow melts.

The other flammable material in the Arctic is above-ground vegetation. Grasses predominate on the tundra, but scientists are increasingly finding that shrubs are muscling in on their turf. “Shrubs like to grow where there has been disturbances, such as fire and permafrost thaw. So more fire in the tundra could mean more shrubs,” says Myers-Smith. “Shrubs grow more when summers are warmer and when water isn’t limited, so we expect an expansion of shrubs with future warming in the tundra.” Looking at sediment records, Myers-Smith can actually see how in the past, warmer times in the north encouraged the growth of more shrubs and led to more fires.

Further complicating these feedback loops, more shrubs in turn make for a warmer Arctic thanks to the decreasing reflectance of the landscape, or its albedo. When bright white snow covers a grassy tundra, it reflects the sun’s energy. But if shrubbery takes over that landscape, more dark vegetation will poke above the snow layer, absorbing more heat. The albedo effect is particularly acute in the summer, when the Arctic is bathed in 24 hours of sunlight. “The Arctic is kind of a strange place relative to what most of us are used to in the lower latitudes, in the sense that the solar radiation there is actually very intense, but only for a brief period,” says Swain. “And during the rest of the year, it can be almost nonexistent.”

A darker, warmer landscape means more melting of permafrost. More wildfires, too, will melt the permafrost by burning off moss and other organic matter that sits atop the frozen soil and keeps it from warming up. The extra-bad news: Arctic permafrost holds a third of all the carbon that’s stored in the world’s soils.

White smoke rising from the tundra in front of the Baird Mountains.
Enlarge / White smoke rising from the tundra in front of the Baird Mountains.

Chen and his colleagues also predict that forests could march farther north if wildfires burn away both grasses and shrubs. A tree canopy would further darken the landscape and potentially lead to more thunderstorms and more lightning: If a forest is absorbing more of the sun’s energy, the resulting hot air and moisture will rise to create those deep convective clouds. Bang! There’s your lightning—and possibly another fire that will chew through a nearby tundra’s grasses, making way for yet more shrubs or trees and consequent warming. And so the cycle will continue.

Scientists who study the Arctic, like Myers-Smith, are experiencing firsthand the toll of Arctic thunderstorms: We’re talking around 200,000 strikes each summer. “Sometimes we are caught out on the tundra when the thunderstorms roll in,” says Myers-Smith. “Out there, you’re the tallest thing around, which means lightning is a real danger. We’ve found ourselves running from the high ground and rushing back to camp to escape the storm, often ending up exhausted by the escape and drenched by the rain.”

Yet that rain may—at least in part—temper the feedback loops that are warming the Arctic. A “dry” thunderstorm that produces lightning but not water is a particular wildfire hazard, as Californians learned last summer, because there’s nothing to douse the sparks. But so long as a storm also produces rain, “it may not lead to actual burning,” says Chen. “It’s just ignited, and then the rain puts those ignitions down.”

Also, Chen adds, accelerated growth of vegetation may help sequester some carbon, though it wouldn’t be enough to compensate for the amount that could be released as the ground warms. Losing permafrost will unlock astonishing amounts of carbon that’s been stuck in the ground for thousands of years. The only remedy to restore some semblance of balance will be for humanity to bring down the production of emissions—and fast.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

Narwhal tusks tell a troubling tale
Science & Society Picture Library | Getty Images

Researchers have long debated what the 10-foot-long tooth that erupts from a narwhal’s head is actually for. Perhaps it has something to do with sexual selection, and males with longer horns attract more females. Or maybe the things sense salinity. Or perhaps a narwhal uses its tusk to flush out prey on the ocean bottom.

Whatever the purpose, scientists know this for certain: the Arctic region, which the narwhals call home, is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and by analyzing these tusks, researchers can glean surprisingly detailed insights into how the animals are dealing with catastrophic change. It’s not looking good.

Writing in March in the journal Current Biology, scientists described what they found in 10 tusks collected from animals in northwest Greenland. Because a tusk grows continuously over the many decades of a narwhal’s life, the researchers could read the outsized teeth like the rings of a tree. They found that between 1962 and 2000, the mercury in the tusks increased by an average of 0.3 percent a year, but between 2000 and 2010 it increased by 1.9 percent per year. This is consistent with increased mercury discovered in the bodies of other top predators in several regions across the Arctic, possibly due to air pollution blowing in from the south.

The scientists are also finding evidence in the tusks that the narwhals’ diet is changing, from consuming species associated with sea ice to eating more open-ocean species. This corresponds to a dramatic decline in Arctic sea ice since the year 1990.

“Instead of doing 40 years of work to get 40 years of data, you can in one year of work get narwhal tusks and go back 50 years in time,” says McGill University wildlife toxicologist Jean-Pierre Desforges, one of the lead authors on the paper. “So that’s the really remarkable thing.”

A cross-section of a narwhal tusk, showing the layers of material.
Enlarge / A cross-section of a narwhal tusk, showing the layers of material.
Jean-Pierre Desforges

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that bioaccumulates in species as they ingest it over a lifetime. When an organism at the bottom of the food chain consumes mercury, it collects in its tissues. Then something bigger eats that animal and its mercury, and so on up the food chain.

Some top predators, like the polar bear, bioaccumulate a lot of mercury but can also expel it—the bears sequester it in their thick fur. No such luck for the smooth-skinned narwhal. “For an animal that lives a long time—these whales can live over 50 years—they’re accumulating mercury year after year,” says Desforges. “That’s why they get to really high levels, and that’s of course why we’re concerned. If these levels get high enough, they could have a negative effect for the species.” That might include reproductive or cognitive effects, since mercury is a neurotoxin.

The other troubling signal the researchers found in the tusks hinted at the whales’ changing food sources. They looked for stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen, residues of narwhals’ diet that linger in their tusks. Carbon reveals information about the prey’s habitat—for instance, if it lived in the open ocean or closer to land. Nitrogen tells you its trophic level, or where in the food chain it was. “Together, they give you an idea of the overall foraging ecology of the species,” says Desforges.

As with mercury, Desforges could map how this diet changed over time. Prior to 1990, the whales had been feeding on “sympagic” prey associated with icy habitat—Arctic cod and halibut. Then their diet began to shift toward more “pelagic,” or open-ocean, prey like capelin, a member of the smelt family. “We’re not looking at actual stomach contents of prey or anything,” says Desforges. “But we are essentially arguing that this temporal pattern matches extremely well with what we know about sea ice extent in the Arctic, which after 1990 starts dropping pretty dramatically.”

As sea ice has diminished, narwhals have shifted their diets. At the same time, mercury levels (Hg) have been on the rise.
Enlarge / As sea ice has diminished, narwhals have shifted their diets. At the same time, mercury levels (Hg) have been on the rise.
Jean-Pierre Desforges

A couple of things could be going on. As the sea ice retreats in the Arctic, the ecosystems below it may be reshuffling, leading to population declines among Arctic cod and halibut. In that case, the narwhals would have to turn to hunting open-ocean species to make up their dietary deficit. On the other hand, those populations of cod and halibut may not necessarily be declining, but simply shifting north. Or it could be that as Arctic waters warm, more capelin are around, and the narwhals aren’t about to pass up an abundant meal.

But if a fish is a fish, why would it matter what the narwhals are eating, so long as they’re getting enough food? It turns out that not all fish are created equal. “Arctic species are more nutritious, energy-wise,” says Desforges. To survive the cold, fish need to pack on fat, which means more calories for the predators that feed on them, like narwhals. “If they’re shifting prey to less Arctic species, that could be having an effect on their energy level intakes,” Desforges adds. “Whether that is true is yet to be seen, but it’s certainly the big question that we need to start asking themselves.”

This dietary reshuffling—which may or may not be a problem for the narwhal—could collide with rising mercury levels, which are a problem for any animal. These two threats could turn out to be more problematic combined than they are alone. “That’s the tricky part,” says Desforges. “We essentially have data that suggests that things are changing, but we really don’t have an idea of how that’s impacting the whales here.”

The power of this tusk-analysis technique is that it can theoretically allow scientists to look even further back in time than the 1960s. Taking a tissue sample from a living narwhal only gives you data on how the individual is faring at that moment. But natural history museums all over the world have narwhal tusks in their collections going back over 100 years.

“Museum collections offer a great opportunity to look at these changes over even deeper time,” says Moe Flannery, senior collections manager of birds and mammals at the California Academy of Sciences, who wasn’t involved in this work. “Museum specimens hold this hidden information that is not easily accessible, but is accessible to researchers who study changes over time.”

Looking forward in time, though, it’s hard to say what a rapidly changing Arctic will have in store for the narwhal, and what signals of climate change we might find in its tusks in the future.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.