Arctic regions are showing the effects of climate change. Temperatures in the region are warming at twice the rate of other parts of the globe. This trend will have a huge impact in many areas including trade, navigation, atmospheric changes and life in general.
Last year, air temperatures in the Arctic were on average one degree Celsius higher than normal. Unseasonably warm years like 2014 are becoming more frequent in the area, as compared to the rest of the globe, where temperature increase has slowed.
This doubled rate is due to the “Arctic amplification of global warming.” This phenomenon is directly attributed to the melting of summer ice. These are frozen stretches of ice in the Arctic that melt every summer and re-freeze every winter.
Arctic climate change due to amplification is a cyclical, self-sustaining effect. The bright, white surface of summer ice reflects the radiation from the sun back into the atmosphere. This heat is prevented from penetrating and low temperatures are maintained. But as the summer ice melts at a fast pace, the earth and ocean beneath are exposed. They absorb, retain and lock the heat into the already-warming heart of the planet. Summer ice could disappear entirely from the oceans within the next five to 10 years, or it may take decades, but it is a very real danger.
Martin Jeffries, scientist with the Office of Naval Research and chief editor of the Arctic Report Card likens the reflective shield to a thermostat that regulates global climate. The report card is an annual check on the health of the polar regions. It is issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Over 60 scientists from 13 countries contribute to its compilation. The report was reviewed by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program of the Arctic Council and released on Dec. 17 in San Francisco at the 47th annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
The report, which covers the period from Oct. 2013 to Sept. 2014, summarized their findings. Forty percent of the Greenland ice cover has melted at an above-average rate. Alaska experienced record warm temperatures for January – almost 20 degrees higher than normal. Spring snow in Eurasia was at an all-time low in April. June snow cover in North America was the third lowest on record. Western Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and Russia experienced the last of the winter snow a month earlier than normal due to below average accumulations in winter and above normal temperatures in spring.
The expanse of floating sea ice in the Arctic in Sept. 2014 was the sixth lowest on record. The Greenland ice sheet had the same mass in 2014 as compared to 2013, but its albedo, or reflectivity, was at an all-time low in August. The north polar regions had a below-average amount of summer sea ice, which continued its steady decline in 2014.
The report includes 10 treatises on different topics including sea and ocean temperatures, snow cover, Arctic air temperatures, vegetation, fish migrations and ice sheets in different regions. Polar bears were the subject of a special essay.
Polar bears use floating ice masses for transportation, hunting and mating. Sea ice is a major factor in their existence. Diminishing amounts are having an impact in some areas. Regional studies have indicated that the population of the Arctic’s largest predator declined by a third in the western Hudson Bay area of Canada between 1987 and 2011. Sea ice here breaks up earlier and re-freezes later, causing a shortened season.
In the southern Beaufort Sea, polar bears have stabilized after a 40 percent decline in 2001. In the Chukchi Sea, bears are rebounding from decimation in the mid 1990s, according to Geoff York with Polar Bears International. Sea ice is declining in the area, but not as rapidly as other areas.
Rising temperatures in the Arctic are thought to affect the rest of the planet. Research has suggested that warming around the North Pole can cause the typical path of the jet stream to go off course. A wavering jet stream can hugely influence weather and cause sharp temperature increases.
While Arctic climate change and melting ice are causing concern in scientists and environmentalists, excitement among governments and commercial interests is increasing. The attraction is the mineral wealth hidden beneath, which may become more accessible due to global warming. The United States Geological Survey estimates the area contains one-eighth of the world’s untapped oil and a quarter of its gas reserves. Prohibitive drilling costs and falling oil prices have made the economics of Arctic energy unfavorable. These inhibiting factors may be eliminated by climate change.
Most known energy and mineral reserves are within countries’ 200-nautical mile economic radius established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The law of the sea stipulates countries may control an area of seabed if it is demonstrably an extension of their continental shelf. Denmark, Russia, Norway, and Canada all have territorial claims to the region near their borders.
The melting of summer sea ice opened up trade routes between Asia and Europe via the northern polar route. The Northeast Passage allowed 71 cargo ships to travel the route last summer – an increase from the 46 in 2012.
Arctic climate change affects the entire planet. As Howard Epstein, environmental professor at the University of Virginia quipped, unlike Vegas, what happens in the region does not stay there. Over the past three decades, the Arctic has been growing greener, warmer and more accessible. According to NASA, this year, Arctic sea ice reached the lowest levels on record, while Antarctic sea ice reached a record maximum. While there are commercial upsides to this, they need to be balanced against the long-term detrimental effects of this phenomenon.
By Bina Joseph
Photo by Florian Seiffert – Flickr License
Photo by PJ Hansen – Flickr License