, Volume 46, Issue 1-2, pp 159-207

Observational Evidence of Recent Change in the Northern High-Latitude Environment

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Abstract

Studies from a variety of disciplines documentrecentchange in the northern high-latitude environment.Prompted by predictions of an amplified response oftheArctic to enhanced greenhouse forcing, we present asynthesis of these observations. Pronounced winter andspring warming over northern continents since about 1970ispartly compensated by cooling over the northern NorthAtlantic. Warming is also evident over the centralArcticOcean. There is a downward tendency in sea ice extent,attended by warming and increased areal extent of theArctic Ocean's Atlantic layer. Negative snow coveranomalies have dominated over both continents sincethelate 1980s and terrestrial precipitation has increasedsince 1900. Small Arctic glaciers have exhibitedgenerally negative mass balances. While permafrost haswarmed in Alaska and Russia, it has cooled in easternCanada. There is evidence of increased plant growth,attended by greater shrub abundance and northwardmigration of the tree line. Evidence also suggeststhatthe tundra has changed from a net sink to a net sourceofatmospheric carbon dioxide.Taken together, these results paint a reasonablycoherent picture of change, but their interpretationassignals of enhanced greenhouse warming is open todebate.Many of the environmental records are either short,areof uncertain quality, or provide limited spatialcoverage. The recent high-latitude warming is also nolarger than the interdecadal temperature range duringthis century. Nevertheless, the general patterns ofchange broadly agree with model predictions. Roughlyhalfof the pronounced recent rise in Northern Hemispherewinter temperatures reflects shifts in atmosphericcirculation. However, such changes are notinconsistentwith anthropogenic forcing and include generallypositive phases of the North Atlantic and ArcticOscillations and extratropical responses to theEl-NiñoSouthern Oscillation. An anthropogenic effect is alsosuggested from interpretation of the paleoclimaterecord,which indicates that the 20th century Arctic is thewarmest of the past 400 years.