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The Arctic Heat Wave Is a Timely Reminder of What’s at Stake in the North

Boys look at the Kremlin on May 18, the day it reached 87.8 degrees Fahrenheit in Moscow. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

For the second year in a row, a heat wave has swept through the Arctic Circle in May, bringing temperatures 38 to 43 degrees Fahrenheit above the seasonal average. On Wednesday, it was a balmy 86.5 degrees in the far-northern European outpost of Nizhnyaya Pesha, which one French meteorologist described as the earliest reading that high ever observed that far north in Russia. Further south in Moscow, the heat broke multiple 100-year-old records for May highs, as residents swam in fountains and grabbed free water bottles from the Moscow Metro. It’s not just Russia’s tundra and capital experiencing the subtropical heat. South of the Circle, in north-central Canada, temperatures spiked 10 to 30 degrees above normal, as wildfires burned in Manitoba in the wake of a dry spring, with haze from the blazes traveling as far as the eastern seaboard.

The heat wave is a timely reminder that the Arctic is getting hotter at a faster rate than the rest of the world. (Due to feedback effects, one study from 2019 found that the region had warmed 1.35 degrees Fahrenheit in the previous decade, though the planet as a whole had warmed 1.44 Fahrenheit in the past 137 years.) As swim trunks become appropriate attire in parts of the Circle this week, leaders of the Arctic Council nations gathered in Reykjavík to commit to fighting warming in the far north. While Secretary of State Antony Blinken charts the U.S. position on power struggles and ground skirmishes elsewhere, he told representatives from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia that the Biden administration is “committed to advancing a peaceful Arctic region where cooperation prevails on climate, the environment, science, and safety.”

More pointedly, he added that the Arctic has “seized the world’s attention” as its ice cover retreats, and that the interests gathered must ensure it remains a zone “free of conflict where countries act responsibly.” Though the setting for the geopolitical grappling was a bit colder than usual, the comment was meant for the usual suspects — Russia and China, the latter of which has been an observer nation on the council since 2013. Both parties broadcast good intentions in the region, although increased warming would benefit the economic goals of both American antagonists: increased drilling opportunities and the use of a northern shipping route that Chinese officials are calling the Polar Silk Road.

Responsible acting in the Arctic is a relatively new idea in the United States, considering that just four months ago the president who tried to buy Greenland and bailed on the Paris climate agreement was still in office. (It was a real starting-from-square-one situation when Blinken had to “confirm” on Thursday that the U.S. was no longer pursuing a deal for the world’s biggest island.) And though the Biden administration has made progress on keeping Alaskan carbon in the ground — blocking Trump-approved drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — many diplomats are still skeptical that an American commitment made in 2021 will remain valid in 2025.

Talking material benefits, Blinken offered $1 million to the Arctic Council’s environmental protection initiative. (As for the reason for the small sum, the AC states that it is a “forum” with “no programming budget.”) More importantly, the secretary of State noted the U.S. had dropped its black carbon emissions by “34 percent below 2013 levels, the largest reported black carbon reduction by any Arctic state.” This pollutant, more commonly known as the particle that gives soot its dark color, is particularly damaging in the Arctic, where it can settle and cause snow to melt faster. A report published by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program found that a significant reduction of black carbon emissions in the region could help slow melting over the next two to three decades.

Just as the heat wave and the Arctic Council meeting reiterated the need for action to stave off melting — researchers already predict the Arctic Ocean could be completely free of sea ice by 2035 — studies released this week added to the complexity of the northern crisis. While the AMAP report released Thursday determined that the Arctic is warming three times faster than the planet at large, a study published in Nature on Wednesday detailed the impact of what are known as zombie fires: blazes that smolder quietly in the carbon-rich boreal soil through the winter to pop aboveground when the winter eases. Though the zombies are rare at this point, their impact is significant, and the authors worry that “they will actually be a force shaping subsequent fire seasons,” as one researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder told the New York Times. Already, burnt soil has an outsized effect on wildfires in Alaska, where burning peatlands rich with carbon amount for 90 percent of emissions, compared to just 10 percent from burnt trees. At the other end of the world, the consequences of melting were made obvious this week as well: A sheet of ice 70 times the size of Manhattan broke off into the Weddell Sea on Thursday, becoming the largest iceberg currently afloat on the planet.

The diplomatic push in Reykjavík was met with mixed reviews. Some direct goals were established — including a council-wide effort to cut black carbon emissions by 25 to 33 percent below 2013 levels by 2025 — but that benchmark was deemed “aspirational,” not mandatory. And according to Heather Exner-Pirot, the managing editor of the research journal the Arctic Yearbook, the council’s 10-year strategic plan to encourage sustainable action was underwhelming. “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with what’s in it, it’s just that there’s no reform and no ambition,” she told the Barents Observer. Meanwhile, as Moscow comes into the two-year rotating chair position for the Arctic Council, Secretary Blinken failed to make progress to stop Russian efforts to control Arctic shipping, or to establish guidelines for military action in the region. As is usual in climate diplomacy hashed out in more hospitable terrain, resolving the differences between long-term environmental goals and short-term geopolitical tiffs will be crucial to securing a cold Arctic for years to come.

Arctic Heat Wave a Reminder of What’s at Stake in the North