Arctic heat wave sets new world record

Joaqlin Estus

‘What people ... need to worry about is food security’

Joaqlin Estus

Indian Country Today

Saturday in Siberia the temperature hit 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the hottest it’s ever been north of the Arctic Circle.

Climate change expert Brian Brettschneider, with the National Weather Service in Anchorage, said the Russian town of Verkhoyansk is known for having the world’s widest weather extremes, with a 190-degree difference between the highs and lows. It’s gone as low as 90 below zero in the winter there, and as high as 99 degrees Fahrenheit a few summers.

Now it has topped that.

While Brettschneider cautions people not to read too much into one temperature, he said, “we can read a lot into … the tremendous warmth that has been seen over a larger area of Russia the entire year.

“It is just so far much warmer than any other year that that is just really a remarkable sign of the current state of the climate,” he said. Temperatures in much of Russia have been approximately 14 degrees warmer than usual.

Earth had the warmest May on record, the second warmest months of January to May, and June, he said, is going to be among the top three warmest Junes on record.

In Interior Alaska, the village of Fort Yukon, previously held the record for the highest temperature in the Arctic. It hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit on June 17, 1915.

The temperature on Earth over the past few decades has been rising, on average, by nearly one-third of a degree Fahrenheit every 10 years. But in Russia it increases by 0.85 degrees Fahrenheit — and in the Russian Arctic, by 1.24 degrees Fahrenheit every decade, said Andrei Kiselyov, the lead scientist at the Moscow-based Voeikov Main Geophysical Observatory.

“In that respect, we’re ahead of the whole planet,” Kiselyov said.

The increasing temperatures in Siberia have been linked to prolonged wildfires that grow more severe every year and the thawing of the permafrost — a huge problem because buildings and pipelines are built on them. Thawing permafrost also releases more heat-trapping gas and dries out the soil, which increases wildfires, said Vladimir Romanovsky, who studies permafrost at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“In this case it’s even more serious, because the previous winter was unusually warm,” Romanovsky said. The permafrost thaws, ice melts, the soil subsides and then it can trigger a feedback loop that worsens permafrost thawing and “cold winters can’t stop it,” Romanovsky said.

Persistently warm weather, especially if coupled with wildfires, causes permafrost to thaw faster, which in turn exacerbates global warming by releasing large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that’s 28 times stronger than carbon dioxide, said Katey Walter Anthony, a University of Alaska Fairbanks expert on methane release from frozen Arctic soil.

“Methane escaping from permafrost thaw sites enters the atmosphere and circulates around the globe,” she said. “Methane that originates in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. It has global ramifications.”

And what happens in the Arctic can warp the weather in Alaska and beyond to the lower 48 states and Europe.

Michael Peter, Gwich'in Athabascan, is second chief of the Gwichwaa Zhee Gwich’in tribe of Ft. Yukon in Interior Alaska.

He said climate change is rapidly changing life there. High winds, thunder, lightning, and heavy rain once were rare. Villagers had all three at times in the past week. Situated where the Yukon and Porcupine rivers meet, flooding is a concern in Fort Yukon. So the continued rain has villagers watching the water levels.

Climate change is also affecting the ancient migratory patterns of wildlife. Caribou make up a large part of the Gwich’in people’s diet, but in the spring, Peter said, waterfowl are a staple. Ducks and geese used to come and stay in the area for two weeks or so. Now, some years they’re there for less than a week.

And the seasons more quickly move from winter to summer now. Last year, he said, it seemed like the thick ice on the river broke up and almost immediately, “It got hot, it got like 70 degrees right in May. So it was 75, almost 80 and the birds, when the weather gets too hot, when it’s too hot for them, they go North.”

“So we had a short window to harvest,” at a time when winter supplies are running low and before salmon runs arrive to help fill freezers and cupboards, Peter said.

Another concern is that people are getting cut off “from what they normally are used to. You know, we've been here for thousands of years, we can learn to adapt.” Peter, though, worries that wildlife won’t be able to adapt quickly enough to the changes.

Referring to debates about oil development in the Arctic, Peter said, people are “sure worried about fuel security (oil development), but what they need to worry about is food security, you know, for our Indigenous people, and not only that, but I mean other people also in our nation.”

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Corrected: To say it reached 99 degrees a couple of summers, not winters.

Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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