Monitoring the Arctic Heatwave: Alarmingly High Temperatures, Extreme Wildfires and a Significant Loss of Sea Ice


This image, acquired on August 11 by the Copernicus Sentinel-3 mission, shows Eureka in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. Eureka is inside the Arctic Circle, and as one of the northernmost inhabited locations in the world borders the sea-ice covered Arctic Ocean visible in the upper part of the image. Credit: Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel (2020), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Over the past months, the Arctic has experienced alarmingly high temperatures, extreme wildfires and a significant loss of sea ice. While hot summer weather is not uncommon in the Arctic, the region is warming at two to three times the global average – impacting nature and humanity on a global scale. Observations from space offer a unique opportunity to understand the changes occurring in this remote region.

According to the Copernicus Climate Change Service, July 2020 was the third warmest July on record for the globe, with temperatures 0.5°C (0.9°F) above the 1981-2010 average. In addition, the Northern Hemisphere saw its hottest July since records began — surpassing the previous record set in 2019.

The Arctic has not escaped the heat. On 20 June, the Russian town of Verkhoyansk, which lies above the Arctic Circle, recorded a staggering 38°C (100.4°F). Extreme air temperatures were also recorded in northern Canada. On 11 August, Nunavut’s Eureka Station, located in the Canadian Arctic at 80 degrees north latitude, recorded a high of 21.9°C (71.4°F) – which were reported as being the highest temperature ever recorded so far north.

Extreme Temperatures Eureka

This map shows the temperature of Eureka in the Canadian territory of Nunavut on 11 August 2020. This map has been generated using data from Copernicus Sentinel-3’s Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer (SLSTR). While weather forecasts use air temperatures, the Sentinel-3 SLSTR instrument measures the amount of energy radiating from Earth’s surface. Credit: Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel (2020), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

The image above shows the land surface temperature recorded on 11 August around Eureka. This map has been generated using data from Copernicus Sentinel-3’s Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer. While weather forecasts use near surface air temperatures, Sentinel-3 measures the amount of energy radiating from the Earth’s surface.

Although heatwaves in the Arctic are not uncommon, the persistent higher-than-average temperatures this year have potentially devastating consequences for the rest of the world. Firstly, the high temperatures fuelled an outbreak of wildfires in the Arctic Circle. Images captured by the Copernicus Sentinel-3 mission show some of the fires in the Chukotka region, the most north-easterly region of Russia, on 23 June 2020.

Wildfire smoke releases a wide range of pollutants including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and solid aerosol particles. In June alone, the Arctic wildfires were reported to have emitted the equivalent of 56 megatonnes of carbon dioxide, as well as significant amounts of carbon monoxide and particulate matter. These wildfires affect radiation, clouds and climate on a regional, and global, scale.

Siberia Wildfires

This image of Siberian fires was captured on 23 June 2020 by the OLCI instrument on board the Copernicus Sentinel-3 mission. Part of Sakha, Chukotka, and the Magadan Oblast is pictured here. Sea-ice can be seen to the north while smoke dominates the bottom part of the image with a number of active fires visible in the center.

The Arctic heatwave also contributes to the thawing of permafrost. Arctic permafrost soils contain large quantities of organic carbon and materials left over from dead plants that cannot decompose or rot, whereas permafrost layers deeper down contain soils made of minerals. The permanently frozen ground, just below the surface, covers around a quarter of the land in the northern hemisphere.

When permafrost thaws, it releases methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – adding these greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. This, in turn, causes further warming, and further thawing of the permafrost – a vicious cycle.

According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report, permafrost temperatures have increased to record-high levels from the 1980s to present. Although satellite sensors cannot measure permafrost directly, a recent project by ESA’s Climate Change Initiative (CCI), combined in situ data with satellite measurements of land-surface temperature and land cover to estimate permafrost extent in the Arctic.

The thaw of permafrost is also said to have caused the collapse of the oil tank that leaked over 20,000 tonnes of oil into rivers near the city of Norilsk, Russia, in May.

Arctic Sea Ice Concentration August 2020

This map shows the Arctic sea ice extent on 25 August 2020. The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that day. The grey circle in the middle indicates a lack of data. Credit: NSIDC/processed by ESA

The Siberian heatwave is also recognized to have contributed to accelerating the sea-ice retreat along the Arctic Russian coast. Melt onset was as much as 30 days earlier than average in the Laptev and Kara Seas, which has been linked, in part, to persistent high sea level pressure over Siberia and a record warm spring in the region. According to the Copernicus Climate Change Service, the Arctic sea ice extent for July 2020 was on a par with the previous July minimum of 2012 – at nearly 27% below the 1981-2020 average.

ESA’s Mark Drinkwater comments, “Throughout the satellite era, polar scientists pointed to the Arctic as a harbinger of more widespread global impacts of climate change. As these interconnected events of 2020 make their indelible marks in the climate record, it becomes evident that a ‘green’ low-carbon Europe is alone insufficient to combat the effects of climate change.”

Without concerted climate action, the world will continue to feel the effects of a warming Arctic. Because of the Arctic’s harsh environment and low population density, polar orbiting space systems offer unique opportunities to monitor this environment.  ESA has been monitoring the Arctic with its Earth-observing satellites for nearly three decades. Satellites not only can monitor changes in this very sensitive region, but can also facilitate navigation and communications, improve Arctic maritime security, and enable more effective management of sustainable development.

ESA’s Director for Earth Observation, Josef Aschbacher, adds, “Whilst the first generation of Copernicus Sentinels today offer excellent global data, their combined Arctic observation capabilities are limited in scope. As part of the preparation of Copernicus 2.0, three new high priority candidate missions: CIMR, CRISTAL, and ROSE-L, and next-generation Sentinels are being prepared by ESA.

“Together with the Copernicus CO2M mission, these new missions will provide new pan-Arctic, year-round monitoring and CO2 emissions data to support the EU Green Deal and further boost the Copernicus climate change monitoring and service capabilities.”

14 Comments on "Monitoring the Arctic Heatwave: Alarmingly High Temperatures, Extreme Wildfires and a Significant Loss of Sea Ice"

  1. I want everyone in the world to take a look look at the above photo of the ice left in the Arctic. Take a look at the Russian area of that photo. You will see that ice has disappeared on the Russian side of the Arctic. Russia’s permafrost area of the world has been draining into the Arctic Ocean since the 1960’s. WHY?! Something weird is going on here! Why did the Russian area of thermofrost melt so quickly before the rest of the world’s permafrost started melting in mass? Why was Russia and Putin building Russian Navy Ports with trained personnel to operate them for years? Why was Putin and Russia for decades holding yearly massive military drills across Russia in the Fall before Winter? Was it to put massive amounts of hot air into the area of Russia so to create a warmer layer of air over Russia? In these military drills Putin would fly numerous planes from one end of it’s border to the other end. Russia is a very big country that covers 5 time zones! That’s a lot of pollution and hot air put up yearly. Then Putin doesn’t even ever try well enough to put out the numerous fires that happen in the desolated areas of Russia. Also we got China with all of it’s pollution problems and also industrial and everyday lifestyles contributing to the warming of the Earth in that region of the world. So the above photos show that all the ice in the North pole will probably be gone in about 10-20 years. The South poles ice will also be gone in about 15-30 years. All the world’s glaciers and snow covered mountains will have lost their ice and snow in about 10-20 years. My question to all of you is just what kind of a planet will you have then? Come on NASA or anyone else? Can anyone one of you put on your reality hat and take a realistic look at what you all are going to be facing in about 10-30 years? You are doomed folks because the Earth in about 10 to 30 years will be in a whole new weather pattern that will create an environment that civilization as we know it will not be able to survive! You are either going to change your ways now or you can kiss this planet goodbye! I tried telling you why but you folks just don’t listen to what I got to say so all I can say is good luck because you are going to need it!

    • master of the obvious | December 23, 2021 at 7:05 am | Reply

      Or, maybe, actually, the coast of Canada is just ten degrees further north on average than the coast of Russia….

  2. Alarmingly? There is nothing like someone born yesterday.

  3. Let her rip let’s see what happens. Most of these coastal cities need to be destroyed anyways

  4. I’ll be blunt. Only the most trained individuals will understand the depth of what is happening. The conspiracy theories will state “I told you” as if it was their intellect that discovered the warming trends of the planet and contributing factors. There is so much more to this story and I promise….no one is or should be interested in hearing it. Live your life, conserve and care as much as you can, but in the end nature will take its coarse. Humans are just another species. Not more or less important than any other despite our ability to communicate, decipher language, add numbers, or love, hate and display all other emotions that we humans think make us so valuable to the cosmos.

  5. Well the way I see it is that the earth acts like a boomerang because we humans increased greenhouse emissions and hence the melting of ice in the poles, it’s like the law of cause and effect, now since we humans have already began this ,destroying the planet and so we must reap wat we sow.
    Infact there is no one to blame other than us as inhabitants of the earth and so the only thing we can do is change and devise measures to reduce the risks and damage.

  6. Those places presently are dangerous to humans and most other life…In advanced worlds, all the land supports life…Of course, there is too much evil on this planet to not expect trouble from any big changes…The wildfires could be easily stopped with massive “sprinkler systems” in the trouble zones…

  7. Matthew Schneider | September 6, 2020 at 2:07 pm | Reply

    This is stupid. I know we control the weather now. If we shared this technology with the world we could fix global warming and China would stop sending us hurricanes.

  8. Wow. Some people really drank the koolaid.
    Yes, climate change is Still happening. Sure we did our part to accelerate it, but we are just a drop in the bucket. The worst part of what we are doing, thats the air we breath and water we drink, stop polluting it. Dont promote strip mining the planet for lithium as a ‘better’ alternative though, it’s really not. The whole cycle builds on itself until it because it’s own catastrophe.
    Here is a clue folks, remains of giant deep sea Jurassic era creatures have been found in landlocked areas at low elevations, and as the glaciers recede we are finding viking artifacts. Pretty cool, humans lived there before it was a frozen waste, and creatures swam above lands we now call home. Wonder what other treasures and histories we will uncover when the cycle comes around. There is apparently evidence of a settlement under the Dead Sea, guess we will find out what secrets it holds when it goes the way of Lake Bonneville.
    Or was it human made climate change that turned that into a salt flat… 70k years ago.

  9. Until someone announces that there were no record lows recorded for the entire planet, I am not going to concern myself with ‘climate change’.

  10. Enjoy every single day you get… now, you could say, who cares! does anything in this short existence of ours really even matter anyway? NO, it really doesnt. But with that said, then, might as well just try to make the best of it even if its a mess because its all going to be coming to an end much sooner than we thought. So thats why i just try to enjoy this messed up life of mine the best i can everyday for whatever its worth. And thats usually not an easy task. Our planet with all of its life forms, and all the things we think are so important, while constantly under some ever changing massive threat in one form or another trying to wipe us out is through out time, is all so completely pointless its amazing weve made it this far. Hopefully ill die before things get really bad. But the younger generations that are coming up right now? oh man, im glad im not you. Best of luck. God bless.

  11. The Roman Warm Period … the Dark Ages Cold Period … the Medieval Warm Period … the Little Ice Age … what caused these? human activity? the millions and millions of belching ruminants on the planet? The sun’s activity level, and earth’s not-quite-circular orbit?
    The Medieval Warm Period was a great time on earth for all life. The Little Ice Age that followed it was a disaster of severe cold, starvation, and plague.

  12. Some of the inane, non-science comments above illustrate the need for educated people. Humans with their wack superstitions and “I know more than all of the climate scientists on the planet” attitudes are accelerating our headlong dash into extinction.

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