Environmental Research Letters (2014, v9 p114021; doi:10.1088/1748-9326/9/11/114021) / by Brage B Hansen, et al.
One predicted consequence of global warming is an increased frequency of extreme weather events, such as heat waves, droughts, or heavy rainfalls. In parts of the Arctic, extreme warm spells and heavy rain-on-snow (ROS) events in winter are already more frequent. How these weather events impact snow-pack and permafrost characteristics is rarely documented empirically, and the implications for wildlife and society are hence far from understood. Here we characterize and document the effects of an extreme warm spell and ROS event that occurred in High Arctic Svalbard in January–February 2012, during the polar night. In this normally cold semi-desert environment, we recorded above-zero temperatures (up to 7 °C) across the entire archipelago and record-breaking precipitation, with up to 98 mm rainfall in one day (return period of >500 years prior to this event) and 272 mm over the two-week long warm spell. These precipitation amounts are equivalent to 25 and 70% respectively of the mean annual total precipitation. The extreme event caused significant increase in permafrost temperatures down to at least 5 m depth, induced slush avalanches with resultant damage to infrastructure, and left a significant ground-ice cover (~5–20 cm thick basal ice). The ground-ice not only affected inhabitants by closing roads and airports as well as reducing mobility and thereby tourism income, but it also led to high starvation-induced mortality in all monitored populations of the wild reindeer by blocking access to the winter food source. Based on empirical-statistical downscaling of global climate models run under the moderate RCP4.5 emission scenario, we predict strong future warming with average mid-winter temperatures even approaching 0 °C, suggesting increased frequency of ROS. This will have far-reaching implications for Arctic ecosystems and societies through the changes in snow-pack and permafrost properties.