There’s really no place to hide from the heat: new reports from both ends of the world show just some of the consequences of a steadily warming planet. The NSIDC and NASA have announced a new record low in the Arctic sea ice cover, and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is suffering a devastating bleaching event — both the result of higher global temperatures.
National Snow and Ice Data Center and NASA have announced that the Arctic sea ice sheet peaked in size at a mere 5.607 million square miles (14.52 million square km), a record low since records first started to be taken in 1979. The ice pack’s coverage is slightly below last-year’s record-holder, continuing the trend of the ice sheet’s steady retreat: the 13 smallest maximum extents on the record have occurred within the last 13 years.
This season’s record low is attributed to record-high atmospheric heat, with temperatures around the edge of the ice pack recorded at 10ºF (5.6ºC) above normal, and the north pole rising above freezing over new year’s.
“It is likely that we’re going to keep seeing smaller wintertime maximums in the future because in addition to a warmer atmosphere, the ocean has also warmed up. That warmer ocean will not let the ice edge expand as far south as it used to,” explains Walt Meier, a sea ice researcher at NASA. “Although the maximum reach of the sea ice can vary a lot each year depending on winter weather conditions, we’re seeing a significant downward trend, and that’s ultimately related to the warming atmosphere and oceans.”
At the other end of the world, our record temperatures are impacting the Great Barrier Reef, the planet’s largest coral community. The reef is experiencing a massive bleaching event, caused by the rise in global temperatures. Coral bleaching occurs when temperatures get too high for the coral, and they expel the symbiotic algae that lives with them. This algae, called zooxanthellae, provides nutrients for their hosts, as well as the vibrant colors that coral often displays. Without this algae, the coral can’t feed itself properly, and begins to die.
The last such major bleaching event occurred during the 1997-1998 El Niño, which affected 18 percent of the planet’s coral population. The current El Niño cycle is similar to the ’97-’98 cycle, but has since topped the record temperatures of it’s predecessor. Last fall, NOAA predicted that the current bleaching event, having begun in 2014, would affect 40 percent of the planet’s coral, but the El Niño cycle that is underway is likely to exacerbate the situation, possibly well into 2017.