By Shani Cairns (she/her), MLIS, Science Communicator
The Arctic as we know it is disappearing. What are the impending global impacts?
“The Arctic is screaming. The ice is in a death spiral and may disappear in the summers within a couple of decades.” – Mark Serreze, Arctic climate expert at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC)
The polar ice caps are melting as increasing anthropogenic emissions continue to cause climate to change irrevocably around the globe. Simply put, we are losing the Arctic and with it, large portions of the cryosphere. Over the past 30 years, the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic has declined by a whopping 95%. Researchers everywhere are reporting that the Arctic is in free fall as the well-known death spiral graph (see image) shows.
Studies estimate that the Arctic may be ice-free during the summer within the next 15 years. In fact, "Arctic sea ice could be gone by next year," says Jennifer A. MacKinnon, lead climate scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. This is a shocking statement that should lead to widespread concern. Additionally, scientists warn that we have significantly underestimated the pace of the melt due to inadequate modeling methods. We know that the Arctic sea ice is melting at a rate far faster than almost all climate models have thus far predicted.
As scientific consensus has concluded, if we continue with our current rate of industrial emissions the Arctic could disappear. There is no longer any debate. Due to human activities that are driven by a profit-motive which derives fiat or imaginary wealth from natural resources in a limitless growth based economic scheme, the world is now dangerously close to losing this beautiful and pristine ecosystem that sustains life all over the world. In fact, our current economic system is turning the resources and the wonders of the natural world into money as fast as it possibly can.
As many polar researchers are fond of saying ‘what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.’ Sea ice loss has far-reaching consequences for the entire world. People everywhere must begin to prepare for a dramatically changed world. We have already entered the sixth mass extinction event. Many of the disasters unfolding now cannot be halted entirely, but they can be “mitigated in order to avoid the worst outcomes,” says eminent climate scientist Michael Mann. Further, we have a moral obligation to act, despite our heretofore unsubstantial response to this crisis. Either way, it is certain that we will face the consequences of our actions.
What Are the Consequences of An Ice-Free Arctic?
We have already crossed four out nine planetary boundaries and we risking activating countless tipping points because of unrestrained human activities all over the world. Tipping points are thresholds in which a tiny change could push a system into an entirely new regime. This is what is happening in the Arctic. The seasonal loss of all "Arctic sea ice is one of those tipping points and unfortunately we're going to pass that tipping point [...] I think we are going to lose that sea ice," says eminent climate scientist James Hansen. James Hansen, formerly Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor at Columbia University's Earth Institute, is often called the grandfather of climate science. The impending consequences of an ice-free Arctic have been outlined by Hansen et al. The effects of this will be evident on every corner of the globe. Just five of these include the following; some of which we are already experiencing (and please note this is just the tip of the iceberg, pun intended):
1. Temperatures will rise and global weather will destabilize...
Throughout the Holocene Epoch, the Arctic has been covered in white snow and ice that reflects heat back into space. This is known as the albedo effect. This balances out all the other parts of the world that absorb heat. Less ice means less reflected heat, and this will result in more intense heatwaves worldwide. As we have already seen, this also produces more extreme weather events as the polar jet stream is disturbed by warmer air which can in turn disrupt the polar vortex. These extremes are being referred to as weather whiplash. Increasing storms and disasters around the world are the result. One example of this is what happened in the spring of 2021 in Texas. Additionally, due to polar amplification temperatures in the Arctic are already rising several times faster than the rest of the globe.
“The Arctic is a natural freezer,” says Michael Mann. “Just like you’d be concerned if all of the ice in your freezer melted, so should you be concerned about the loss of Arctic sea ice.”
Further, the Alliance of World Scientists’ article declared 2020 as one of the hottest years on record, which resulted in massive extraordinary wildfire activity all across the planet, Siberia, the Western U.S., the Amazon, and Australia. These unprecedented disruptions are early indicators of a malfunctioning climate system and a failing Arctic ecosystem which can no longer cool the planet. The planet is sick. Melting ice opens doors for wider spread of contaminants, diseases. A sick planet, means sick people.
2. Coastal communities will be flooded...
Another dire consequence of an ice-free Arctic is that due to an unbalanced and overheated atmosphere, the oceans will also overheat. This essentially guarantees catastrophic future sea level rise. Rising seas endanger coastal cities and small island nations by adding to coastal flooding and storm surge, making dangerous weather events even more dangerous. Glacial melt on the Greenland ice sheet is a strong predictor of future sea level rise (SLR) and if it melts entirely, global sea levels may rise by 20 feet. In this instance it is important to remember that more than 85% of the world’s nuclear power plants are located in coastal areas. Humanity is extremely unprepared for the consequences of sea level rise.
3. Food shortages will intensify...
Weather whiplash, increased storm surges, heat waves, fires, floods, and droughts caused by ice loss are already causing significant damage to crops on which global food security depends. This instability will continue as extreme weather events increase. Food shortages bring refugees, rising tensions, and can even result in war.
Additionally, many nations are already waiting for the Arctic to become an open shipping lane when the Arctic is ice-free. Roughly 80% of the world’s goods are shipped by cargo. Big business and governments are going to fight for the rights to access sea routes in this area. This sets off a number of questions which bring up national security concerns. Nations will seek to control who gets access to
what routes and when. They will also pursue resource rights, i.e. who will get to drill for oil in the region. The Arctic will be increasingly contested and sought after as the sea ice melts, which puts this fragile environment in even more jeopardy.
4. Wildlife will suffer...
When there’s less sea ice, animals that live in these regions must adapt or perish. Loss of ice and melting permafrost spells trouble for polar bears, walruses, arctic foxes, snowy owls, reindeer, and thousands of other species. As they are affected, so too are the other species that depend on them and that includes human animals. This can also mean that wildlife begin to encroach on Arctic communities, looking for refuge as their habitat disappears.
5. The Permafrost will melt...
Arctic ice and permafrost store large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. “Permafrost covers approximately 22.8 million square kilometers (8.8 million square miles) in the Arctic, sub-Arctic and alpine regions — comprising nearly a quarter of the exposed land surface in the northern hemisphere,” according to Mongabay.
“The world’s permafrost serves as a massive carbon reservoir, storing nearly twice the amount of carbon currently found in the atmosphere. An estimated 1,400 gigatons of carbon — made up of decomposed plants and animals which once inhabited the Earth — can be found embedded in permafrost.”
Should the world’s permafrost melt, it would unleash massive amounts of carbon into the already carbon saturated atmosphere. The effects of this would be catastrophic and would lead to a Hothouse Earth. We have already thrown off the Quaternary, according to H.J. Schellnhuber. This may not mean the end of the planet, but it would likely be the end of its human inhabitants.
“The will be no ice age again. The human impact is so powerful already, … that we have suppressed the Quaternary planetary dynamics.” – H.J. Schellnhuber.
We Must Act Now
The Arctic region is unravelling faster than anyone has yet predicted. The Arctic of the past is already gone. Following our current climate trajectory, it will be impossible to return to the conditions that existed just three decades ago. Yet many experts believe there’s still time to act, to preserve what once was, if the world’s governments respond to this threat now in order to prevent any further harm and to conserve what remains of this unique and fragile ecosystem. Halting climate change in the Arctic will require a complete reduction in the emission of fossil fuels. It will also require cutting energy and mass consumption rates globally.
Sadly, the world has not yet made progress toward the goals set forth to reduce emissions or consumption, despite the many promises to do so, the obvious urgency, and the increasing warnings from the scientific community. In fact, a recent IEA global report states that carbon emissions are expected to soar in 2021 by second highest rate in history. Speaking exclusively to the Guardian, Fatih Birol, the executive director of the IEA, and one of the world’s leading authorities on energy and climate, said:
“This is shocking and very disturbing. On the one hand, governments today are saying climate change is their priority. But on the other hand, we are seeing the second biggest emissions rise in history. It is really disappointing.”
There is no question that the current global neoliberal infrastructure will continue to rely on fraudulent schemes, corruption, doublespeak and lies to preserve business as usual. Ask anyone, this is simply how it works. This is all part of the game. However, this is no longer a game we can play if we want to continue as a species. The only real remaining question is how do we get off growth which only serves the most affluent among us, and switch to an ecological economy which serves all life instead?
Immediately reducing industrial pollution, chemicals and particulate emissions in order to limit the increase in global temperature is the only way to secure a safe future for all life on Earth and save the Arctic. We must prevent ever more damaging consequences than those we are already witnessing. We must assist vulnerable communities and wildlife to adapt to the changes already underway. We must find a way to get off predatory colonialist capitalism that relies on enslaving the most vulnerable and unsustainably pillaging limited planetary resources. We must act now. The recent pandemic has shown us that people are capable of responding to a global emergency. If we can come together as global species we can act now to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The choice is ours.