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We Are Failing to Protect the Arctic From the Climate Crisis, Report Card Shows

Climate
We Are Failing to Protect the Arctic From the Climate Crisis, Report Card Shows
The melting of Greenland alone, pictured above, has risen sea levels by about 0.7 millimeters a year. MB Photography / Moment / Getty Images

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its 14th annual Arctic Report Card Tuesday, and the results are grim.


The average land temperature between October 2018 and August 2019 was the second-warmest on record since 1900, sea ice extent at the end of the summer was at its second lowest since satellite observations began and the Greenland ice sheet melted at rates that rivaled the record melt year of 2012.

"If I had gotten a report card like this as a kid, I would have been grounded," Dr. Donald Perovich, a professor at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College who led the writing of the sea ice chapter, told The New York Times. "It's not showing much improvement at all. Things are getting worse."

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and this has major consequences for the ecosystems and indigenous communities it supports, as well as for the whole Earth. That is why NOAA produces the report card every year. This year's efforts combined the expertise of 81 scientists from 12 countries, according to a NOAA press release.

"The speed and trajectory of the changes sweeping the Arctic, many occurring faster than anticipated, makes NOAA's continued investment in Arctic research and activities all the more important," Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere at NOAA Timothy Gallaudet said in the release.

The report shone a special light on the Bering Sea, which suffered from record low winter sea ice in both 2018 and 2019, InsideClimate News reported. This makes it harder for the more than 70 indigenous communities that call the region home to sustain themselves, according to an essay by the Bering Sea Elders Group, included in the report. Less sea ice makes hunting and fishing more difficult.

"The way that the lower 48 relies on, say, citrus or grapes or the potato as garden food sources, the Bering Sea, when the sea ice comes, it is our garden," Bering Sea Elders Group member Mellisa Johnson told The New York Times. "It is our way of life."

At the same time, melting permafrost is causing sinkholes, and the lack of sea ice makes storm surges more intense. This puts homes and other structures at risk, the elders wrote.

But the thawing permafrost isn't just a local problem. Scientists have long worried that the carbon stored in the permafrost could release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere as it melts, The Washington Post explained. There is almost twice the amount of carbon stored in Arctic soil as there are greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. It won't all be released just yet, but the report suggests that the Arctic has now become a net emitter of greenhouse gasses. The region's permafrost could be emitting between 1.1 billion to 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year, roughly equivalent to Japan or Russia's 2018 emissions.

Ted Schuur, a Northern Arizona University researcher who wrote the chapter on permafrost, said that the Arctic's permafrost emissions were equal to less than 10 percent of what is released by the burning of fossil fuels every year, but any new source of carbon dioxide makes lowering emissions more difficult.

"We've crossed the zero line," he told The Washington Post.

Another global concern is sea level rise. Between 2002 and 2019, the melting of Greenland alone has risen sea levels by about 0.7 millimeters a year, the report found.

Fisheries are also changing. As Bering Sea ice melts, Arctic fish like Pacific Cod migrate farther north and southern species like northern rock sole move in.

"This is a big change to the ecosystem," NOAA Fisheries research biologist Lyle Britt told The Washington Post.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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