The Arctic Could Be Dominated by Rain Instead of Snow Within Decades

New research suggests that the transformation may happen faster than anticipated

A chuck of glacier ice floating in the ocean in greenland with water running off of the ice
An increase in rainfall could create a feedback loop that leads to more warming, the study authors conclude. Paul Souders via Getty Images

This summer, for the first time on record, rain fell on Greenland’s frozen summit. The Northern Hemisphere experienced warmer-than-usual summer temperatures this year, and even the coldest environments are being impacted. A new study suggests the Arctic will undergo a major transformation within the next few decades, with most of the precipitation in the region falling as rain, instead of snow. In the study published in Nature Communications, researcher say that rainfall-heavy Arctic could trigger a global rise in sea levels, which has far-reaching implications for people and wildlife.

“Things that happen in the Arctic don’t specifically stay in the Arctic,” Michelle McCrystall, University of Manitoba climate scientist and lead author of the paper, told according to Rachel Ramirez for CNN. “The fact that there could be an increase in emissions from permafrost thaw or an increase in global sea level rise, it is a global problem, and it needs a global answer.”

To get a more accurate picture of climate changes in the region than previous studies, the team relied on data from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project combined with the most up-to-date global climate models, reports Chelsea Harvey for Scientific American. The new models, which can better simulate Arctic precipitation, helped the team understand how rain and snow patterns could shift in the coming decades. 

Based on their findings, the team anticipates that Arctic precipitation will shift from mostly snow to mostly rain between 2060 and 2070, which is decades earlier than scientists had projected. The recent work also found that the region’s weather may be more sensitive to small amounts of warming than previously thought.

"With the new set of models, this actually has been pushed forward to about between 2060 and 2070, so there's quite a jump there by 20 years with this early transition," says McCrystall to CNN. "Changes are going to be more severe and occur much earlier than projected and so will have huge implications for life in and beyond the Arctic," she adds in a statement.

The team attributes the increase in rainfall in part to the loss of sea ice due to climate change, which can lead to more evaporation and make the region wetter. Increased rainfall and melting ice will likely exacerbate climate change a feedback loop, according to Popular Science’s Hannah Seo. The melting of the Arctic’s permanently frozen soil releases stored carbon dioxide and methane, greenhouse gases that trap heat and lead to more warming. Rain can also cause more surface melt which makes the snowpack darker, leading to more sunlight absorption and snowmelt.

The authors conclude that the loss of snowfall in the Arctic could lead to more global heating, starvation of wildlife, threats to Indigenous communities, changes in ocean currents, and marine food webs. But it’s not all bad news: the study shows that if we take aggresive action to limit Earth’s warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius—the threshold scientists say the world should stay under to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis—Arctic precipitation will remain mostly snowfall. 

“If we can stay within this 1.5-degree world, these changes won’t happen, or won’t happen as rapidly,” McCrystall told the Washington Post. “It would be better for everybody. No two ways about it.”

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