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The Arctic is heating up even faster than scientists had expected it would. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports on the scientists and the Arctic residents who are trying to understand what this means for the future.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Every year, Jackie Grebmeier and her husband, Lee Cooper, go to the Arctic. They are both climate scientists, and they have both been going to the Arctic every summer since the late '80s. It's got to be the summer because, by fall, there are a lot of storms, and some of the water is usually starting to freeze.
JACKIE GREBMEIER: We normally do our research cruises up in the Arctic in July through September.
LEE COOPER: It's a first for us in 30, 35 years that we've gone out in October. It's normally - no, you wouldn't want to go out then.
HERSHER: But this year, the pandemic shut down research during the summer. So the only choice was to sail through the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia in October.
GREBMEIER: We saw not one piece of ice.
HERSHER: It was the first of many surprises. For the last five to seven years, Grebmeier says she's been noticing that climate change in the Arctic seems to be accelerating. The water in the ocean is hotter. This year, they saw a container ship on its way from Quebec to Korea via the Arctic. It was going through water that used to be frozen that time of year. The changes have been so abrupt that even as seasoned Arctic travelers, Grebmeier says they packed the wrong clothing this year.
GREBMEIER: Not as cold as we anticipated. All the long johns we bought to wear and so forth, didn't need them.
HERSHER: The thing that really has scientists baffled, though, is that the climate models that are supposed to predict how the Earth will heat up, most of them don't show the Arctic getting this hot this quickly. That's led to a flurry of studies all trying to figure out what's going on at the top of the world and what it means for all of us in the future because a warmer Arctic affects sea level rise and weather patterns all around the world. Jens Hesselbjerg Christensen is one of the scientists who's obsessed with this. He published a major study in 2020 that asked this basic question.
JENS HESSELBJERG CHRISTENSEN: What does it mean if something changes fast? Have we seen this before?
HERSHER: Hesselbjerg Christensen is Danish, and he's done a lot of research in Greenland, which is part of Denmark. Back during the last Ice Age, there was this period of about 70 years when Greenland got a lot hotter really quickly - like, 10 to 15 degrees Celsius hotter. You can see it in the ice. And it's a benchmark for what truly rapid warming looks like. Hesselbjerg Christensen says the Arctic is heating up just as fast today as it did then.
HESSELBJERG CHRISTENSEN: It's a little scary because a lot of ecosystems are simply not capable of adjusting.
HERSHER: Some humans, on the other hand, are capable of adjusting, at least to a point, says Mellisa Johnson. She runs the Bering Sea Elders Group, which organizes leaders from more than 40 communities on the Alaskan coast.
MELLISA JOHNSON: You know, climate change for Indigenous people is not anything new. It's maybe new for science to say, oh, yeah, the Arctic is warming. There's a lack of sea ice.
HERSHER: Johnson says the elders she works with have lived through the last 40 years of rapid warming. They know how to hunt on thinner ice, for example, or with no ice at all. The question is how much they will need to adapt in the coming years. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEAS OF YEARS' "LIKE TALL SHIPS UPON THE SKY")
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