Preoccupied with report cards? The Arctic gets one too.

On campuses around the nation, the fall semester is drawing to a close. For students, and also for their faculties, it’s crunch time. The last classroom sessions are underway, and a lot of essential, core material is being crammed into a few hours of instruction – as both pupils and instructors pay the penalty for that leisurely pace earlier in the school year. Term papers are due, and they’ll have to be carefully evaluated. Final exams are being developed; it won’t be long until they’re administered. And tutors, many preparing for their own exams, are experiencing heavy demands for their services as students wake up to the gap between their knowledge and what they’ll be expected to demonstrate on those tests.

Hanging over each student, and all this activity, like a dark cloud, is the report card – that final, and once determined, immutable metric by which students will be judged. Important for them to do well…and equally important for faculty to have set tests, homework, and classroom discussion that allows them to both credibly and fairly rate students’ skill and accomplishments. In the balance? Parental approval, institutional evaluation of students and teachers, admission to a coveted major field of study, any future aspirations for graduate education, chances of nailing that all-important first job in one of the worst job markets in recent memory…

Other than that? No pressure!

Well, the Arctic gets an annual report card as well. A team of NOAA scientists has just issued this year’s report. The judgment of more than 100 scientists from 14 countries? The Arctic has been changing rapidly since about 2007. There’s less multi-year ice than there used to be; the summertime minimum extent has been shrinking. The water of the upper ocean is both warmer and fresher.

That is associated with higher atmospheric temperatures above that ice. In response, marine productivity is up. Mammalian (e.g. walrus, polar bear) habitat is on the decline.

And on land, things are greening up; glaciers and ice sheets are in retreat, and the permafrost is warming. The active layer thickness (the thickness of the layer that thaws each summer and re-freezes in the fall) has remained relatively stable in the American Arctic, but seems to be increasing along the Eurasian side.

A major concern, of course, is the potential positive feedbacks in this part of the world. Reduced ice extent leads to greater radiation absorption in summer months, heating up things still further. Melting permafrost can potentially release large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, leading to further warming.

Ask those 100+ scientists what grades they merit for their research, and they’d probably equivocate. On the one hand, they’d tell you that they’re getting smarter about the Arctic, and how it’s behaving, and what it’s going to do next. They know more than they did last year or the year before that. But that includes knowing more about what they don’t know, and having a clearer view of what they need yet to learn. Moreover, they more than the rest of us are positioned to see the stakes as being quite high.

It’s not so much about their careers. These are seasoned professionals whose future is relatively assured. Instead, they see that we’re facing potentially enormous changes, affecting our planet in its entirety, not just in the Arctic. Yet we’re abdicating trillion-dollar policy decisions on carbon emissions and adaptation (and remember, that’s trillions of dollars over many years relatively to a $60 trillion-a-year world economy…the economics of action aren’t as big as we might think) while foreclosing any opportunity for far greater rewards for effective action. More shamefully, we’re shying away from the miniscule costs required to improve Earth observations, science, and services. We’re looking to beleaguered federal agencies for cuts of hundreds of millions of dollars in this work, when we can and should be upping our investments by similar amounts, and building our ability to see what the Earth and its Arctic will do next.

Unlike most students, the Arctic is unperturbed by the specter of any report card or other human evaluation. You see, by just humming along, responding to all the natural and manmade forcings, obeying the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology,  point by point, and moment by moment, it’s automatically getting A’s.

It’s the graders who are losing sleep.

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