The Arctic helps guide the world’s climates, cooling and warming vast jet streams that travel the globe, bringing icy weather to the Northern US in winter and a bit of relief to countries near the equator.
But with climate change rapidly melting ice — 620,000 square miles of winter sea ice cover since 1979 — this cycle is being unraveled and turning into something different and more unstable.
The past three years have all broke global temperature records and 2017 is on pace to continue that trend.
The acceleration of climate change is leading to an era of extremes, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
“With levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere consistently breaking new records, the influence of human activities on the climate system has become more and more evident,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas in a statement.
So far this year, the Arctic has been hit by three heat waves, halting an essential ice refreezing period. As a result, Canada and the US were hit with unusually warm winters and North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula faced unusually cold spells.
These shifts are confusing to environments everywhere. In the Northeast, for instance, “early springs” have disrupted intricate and highly regulated plant and animal cycles.
Throughout 2016 and into 2017, heatwaves bludgeoned the world with record-breaking temperatures, according to WMO.
Oceans are warming as well, cooking the world’s coral reefs which are sensitive to even minor temperature changes. Huge stretches of the Great Barrier Reef, for example, have been killed in recent years.
Precipitation patterns are also being pushed to the extremes. Parts of Southern Africa have been in the grip of severe drought, while China experienced its wettest year on record in 2016, according to the WMO report.
Sea levels are rising everywhere, eroding low-lying coastal regions that are struggling to adapt.
Climate change has historically been a story of simmering changes, of turmoil on the horizon. But increasingly it seems as if tipping points have been crossed or are about to be crossed.
In the words of World Climate Research Programme Director David Carlson:
“Even without a strong El Niño in 2017, we are seeing other remarkable changes across the planet that are challenging the limits of our understanding of the climate system. We are now in truly uncharted territory.”