Last week, at a New Orleans conference center that once doubled as a storm shelter for thousands during Hurricane Katrina, a group of polar scientists made a startling declaration: The Arctic as we once knew it is no more.
The region is now definitively trending toward an ice-free state, the scientists said, with wide-ranging ramifications for ecosystems, national security, and the stability of the global climate system. It was a fitting venue for an eye-opening reminder that, on its current path, civilization is engaged in an existential gamble with the planet’s life-support system.
In an accompanying annual report on the Arctic’s health—titled “Arctic shows no sign of returning to reliably frozen region of recent past decades”—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees all official U.S. research in the region, coined a term: “New Arctic.”
Until roughly a decade or so ago, the region was holding up relatively well, despite warming at roughly twice the rate of the planet as a whole. But in recent years, it’s undergone an abrupt change, which now defines it. The Arctic is our glimpse of an Earth in flux, transforming into something that’s radically different from today.