The Arctic’s (Hot) Summer of Discontent

Botanical gardens near Reykjavík, Iceland. [Photo by Mingming Shi]
After weeks of winter-like weather, and concerns about whether summer would actually arrive in Iceland this year, the sun finally came out last week on most parts of the island. Nonetheless, Iceland remained a comparative cool spot compared with other parts of the world, including North America (especially Québec, where more than ninety of heat-related deaths were recorded this summer), Western Europe, China and Japan, which were experiencing record high temperatures. More worrisome has been the fact that much of the Arctic has also been breaking temperature records, culminating in serious forest fires in far-northern Sweden and neighbouring regions.

Even before the fires in Northern Europe began, the Nordic Arctic had been experiencing unprecedented warm spells this summer, with the Finnmark region in Norway recording a record high of 33.3ºC last week, and Siberia also seeing unusually high temperatures in recent weeks, with Murmansk, currently experiencing ‘white nights’ , with the sun never going below the horizon, also recording temperatures well above thirty degrees in the daytime.

The fires in Sweden, which fortunately have not caused injuries, have been blamed on draught and high temperatures since the summer began, as well as a ‘heat dome’ which had situated itself over much of the northern part of Europe this month. There was also the suggestion that some of fires may have been set accidentally despite a ban [In Swedish] on disposable outdoor barbecues which had been put into place since the high temperatures began. Overall, it was reported that eleven of about sixty fires recorded were burning north of the Arctic Circle.

The Swedish government under Prime Minister Stefan Löfven called for international assistance to combat the blazes, and this weekend the European Commission announced that it would further coordinate a joint European Union response to the crisis. Fire-fighting aircraft have already been dispatched [video] from Italy and Norway over the past week. Although forest fires in Sweden are not unusual, this year was significant given the number of fires, and the wide land area affected. Next-door Finland and Norway have also recorded ‘hotspots’, and severe fires were also reported on the border between Finland and Russia in Sápmi (Lapland) regions.

These incidents may be the latest in a series of indicators of how climate change and the melting ice cap is beginning to have more visible effects on the Arctic. Despite ongoing climate change denial in some parts of the world, the evidence is mounting that the Far North is starting to experience the effects of changing weather patterns and warmer temperatures more acutely in recent years. For example, a warning bell was heard last year when Greenland experienced mass wildfires to a greater degree than ever before, raising fears of black carbon deposits which could further accelerate the erosion of the island’s ice sheet.

Greenland saw another giant piece of climate change evidence earlier this month in the form of a massive iceberg, weighing an estimated eleven million tonnes, which drifted close to the town of Innaarsuit, in the north-western part of the island, threatening a possible tsunami if the ice breaks or calves.

[Photo by Pixabay]
In 2014, the Northwest Territories in Canada reported more than a hundred forest fires which were caused by both lightening and human agency. It was also reported in an article in June of this year by Norwegian researchers in the journal Nature Climate Change that the Arctic Ocean might be taking on some of the characteristics of the adjacent Atlantic, with evidence suggesting that the Barents Sea may have warmed by 1.5 degrees Celsius over the past eighteen years. Other studies which were released at the recent Polar 2018 conference in Davos, Switzerland estimated that glaciers on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut showed signs of rapid diminishment between 1999 and 2015. And the summer is not over yet.