Why the US loses 7cm of sea ice every year: a study reveals how climate change affects ecosystems

A study conducted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and Woodrow Wilson National Institute of Nature and History reveals that climate change has resulted in significant damage to natural resources and their inhabitants around the US.

Scientists at the Smithsonian conducted the study to inform conservation practitioners of the impact of climate change on organisms and ecosystems at the National Zoo, Audubon Park in Washington, DC, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina.

“Climate change is a global phenomenon with impacts across US ecosystems and it is essential that researchers and policy makers understand how climate change might affect America’s natural heritage,” noted Douglas Deal, dean of the Institute.

Extensive analysis of 16 different data points from each of the three sites revealed substantial shifts in the amount of rainfall, snowfall, sea ice thickness, sea level rise, and spring and summertime temperatures. The melting of sea ice in the Chukchi Sea near Alaska, for example, revealed that the land along the coast between the Arctic Ocean and Chukchi Sea has experienced about a sevenfold increase in its annual spring temperature and about a sixfold increase in its annual rainfall over the past couple of decades. The red color indicates warm temperature and dark blue color indicates cold temperature in each piece of evidence, indicating one of several ways in which the climate has changed.

The National Zoo in Washington DC, a biodiversity hotspot that includes the tiger exhibit, bears, and the sea otter exhibit, recently experienced a record amount of rain with several days of over four inches of rain in early June, the most intense rain event ever recorded in a single year for the area. This flooding also severely damaged some of the zoo’s wetlands by washing out levees. At the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, which is located in northern Georgia, sea ice this year was the third smallest on record, with only 12.5 miles of sea ice extent, which is approximately equal to two-thirds of the width of a football field. Okefenokee’s tufted and white pelicans are a unique species in the Southeast but they have reduced their breeding habitat by one-third because of sea ice and decreased winter food availability.

At the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, located on a barrier island in the southernmost barrier island of North Carolina, the most significant change observed during the study was a significant loss of sea ice coverage at mid-ocean temperatures of about 49°F. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse in the continental United States.

The study’s lead author, Jena Carpenter, concluded: “Locked water supplies across the US remain an important buffer against climate change. These data suggest that when infrastructure impacts or losses are added to the damage that climate change is already causing, the consequences for US ecosystems can be severe.”

The authors did not analyze the long-term impacts of climate change that have been significantly predicted in the US. But a long-term study currently being done by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and over 400 other U.S. scientists found that climate change was already harming vast areas of American forests and contributing to the loss of hundreds of thousands of species and habitat sites.

“Preliminary estimates of what warming may do to American forests predict a loss of several hundred thousand species and forest species by the end of the century,” the CBD’s conservation director Christine Ward, stated in September.

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