Executive Summary for January 13th

We review and analyze the latest news and most important developments in the Arctic, including an investigation into the mass die-off of Arctic seabirds in Alaska, how clouds drive the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and a proposal by the IMF to add a carbon tax to shipping fuels.

Published on Jan. 13, 2016 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Alaska: Scientists Investigate Mass Die-off of Arctic Seabirds

The bodies of thousands of common murres, one of North America’s most abundant seabirds, have washed up on the rocky beaches of Whittier, Alaska, the Associated Press reports.

About 8,000 birds have been found dead in the area, John Piatt, a research wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center, told the AP. Die-offs have occurred in the past, but none has been as large as this.

Federal scientists are trying to determine what may have caused the mass die-off. Preliminary investigations show that the birds may have starved. Fish and Wildlife biologist Robin Corcoran told United Press International that almost all the birds examined are emaciated.

Winter storms can affect the murres’ ability to hunt, but scientists studying the birds say that the deaths are likely related to warmer than usual sea-surface temperatures, according to a press release issued by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Warmer waters can send the forage fish on which murre prey to cooler waters.

Alaska Public Radio reported that whales, sea otters and fish are also experiencing high mortality this winter.

Greenland: Cloudy Days Contribute to Ice Sheet Melt

Cloud cover can influence the runoff of meltwater draining from Greenland’s ice sheet, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications.

Like a blanket, clouds trap heat and can raise local temperatures. Their largest effect on the ice sheet comes at night when they keep temperatures from cooling, the Washington Post reported.

The study shows that clouds may enhance the annual meltwater runoff by more than 30 percent, according to a press release. Instead of refreezing, the liquid water is lost as runoff.

The team used data from two satellites and ground-based observations, as well as modeling data to identify the effect of the clouds. The findings should help scientists improve their predictions about future changes in the rate of melting of the Greenland ice sheet and its contribution to sea-level rise. Its melt rate has been increasing recently.

Other research indicates that warming Arctic temperatures have led to increased evaporation and cloud cover in the fall.

Tax Carbon in International Transport Fuels, says IMF

In a report released this week, the International Monetary Fund has called for a carbon tax on aviation and shipping fuels to mitigate climate change and hit global targets, Climate Home reports.

Such a tax would have raised about $25 billion in 2014, had a fee of $30 per tonne of carbon dioxide been applied to shipping and aviation fuels, the IMF estimates. The charges could be a source of climate finance, the report states.

The climate deal reached in Paris at the COP21 meeting did not include specific mention of shipping or aviation in the final text. Aviation and maritime emissions account for about 4 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions – and are rising rapidly.

Some shipping companies are already looking to Arctic sea routes to shorten the journey between continents, which could save them money on fuel costs. A carbon tax on shipping fuel could add further appeal to using these northern routes in the future – if they can be used safely.

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Top image: A new study shows clouds are playing a larger role in heating the Greenland ice sheet than scientists previously believed, accounting for as much as 30 percent of the ice-sheet melt. (Hannes Grobe)