Accelerated Arctic climate change has global implications
The Arctic Council, presently headed by the United States, has produced the 240-page Arctic Resilience Assessment, ARA for short, a study of global implications of accelerated climate change in the Arctic. The Stockholm Environmental Institute, or SEI, led the five-year study based on collaboration with Arctic countries and indigenous peoples in the region, as well as Arctic scientific groups.
The Arctic Council is a high-level intergovernmental forum that addresses issues faced by the Arctic governments and the indigenous people of the Arctic.
In a new report released Nov. 25, climate scientists have warned that faster and faster melting of the Arctic ice cap could cause increasingly faster climate change cascading lickety-split over the globe with devastating consequences.
Scientists have documented that warming is happening four times faster in the Arctic than in lower latitudes, with speed that could trigger “tipping points” experienced as far away as the Indian Ocean.
Tipping points? These shifts occur in natural systems, such as the polar ice cap, undergoing dramatic changes that have a profound effect on surrounding ecosystems that could be irreversible.
“The warning signals are getting louder,” said Marcus Carson of the Stockholm Environment Institute and one of the lead authors of the report. “[These developments] also make the potential for triggering [tipping points] and feedback loops much larger.”
Feedback loop? In this case, it is a vicious circle that accelerates a warming trend: The more ice that melts, the more dark ocean is exposed, causing more warming, for example.
The SEI released the ARA on Nov. 25. This research lists such effects of climate change that include increased growth on the tundra, which replaces snow and ice acting as a mirror to deflect heat with a darker surface that absorbs heat.
There has been an increasing release of methane gas, a “greenhouse” gas.
Another dramatic shift or possible tipping point to irreversible effect on ecosystems is a change in snow distribution that warms the ocean and changes climate patterns, as far away as Asia, affecting weather such as monsoons, for example.
Ice melting perpetuates more melting, leaving dark spots that absorb more heat and thus further increase ice shrinkage.
Temperatures in the Arctic have been generally 20 degrees warmer than usual for this time of year. Nomeites, even during the current cold snap, have seen ice-free open water in Norton Sound about a month later than usual.
“This is Dec. 5, my birthday, and the water is still open. Been that way for about the last four years,” Olaf Walters, just turned 55, of Nome said. Walters looked past the Nome Visitors and Convention Bureau office at the sea. “Used to be it would be frozen up, come time for my birthday,” he added.
The U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that the extent of Arctic ice was 2.5 million square miles, which was the lowest extent on record to date.
A current piece in the Guardian of UK online edition shows a series of time-lapse photos from satellites that visually represent the changes in ice patterns and extended population areas over the past 32 years.
One area of warming generates spiraling feedback from the globe and can have an effect on whole ecosystems, according to the Arctic Resilience Assessment.
The ARA analyzed 25 case studies across the map of the Arctic for the report. These places include areas in Alaska—Savoonga, Bering Strait and Newtok —and looks at the way each shows both loss of resilience and resilience to climate change, including examples of transformational change.
The Bering Strait and Savoonga, according to the study, are showing resilience, while Newtok is not. Coastal erosion there is forcing relocation of the community where people have lived for 2,000 years.
Governmental interventions in the Arctic have often reduced resilience, disrupting many of the structures and processes that nurture resilience by limiting people’s ability to move, imposing forced schooling, and restricting hunting and other food-gathering activities. Yet, Arctic nations could instead invest in supporting capacities that enable local people to construct their own resilient futures. For example, on St. Lawrence Island, the Yupik whalers in Savoonga created a new whaling season in response to changing weather and ice conditions, according to the ARA.
“This was possible due to local knowledge and organization, but also because of sufficient flexibility in international whaling law,” the document reads.
The report identifies “19 “regime shifts” — hard-to-predict, persistent reorganizations of Arctic ecosystems — that can and have occurred in Arctic marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. These regime shifts impact the stability of the climate and landscape, the ability of people to travel, the presence of plants and animals, and people’s sense of place.
Climate change and its accelerated effects in the Arctic are big news in current events. Even without debating the causes — carbon and continued use of fossil fuels, for example, dramatic climate change is occurring and documented — climate change is producing rapid changes in Arctic ecosystems, which pass on to global systems and produce dramatic effects on Arctic societies that will be translated to global communities.
Changes in water flow are redesigning landscapes. In Alaska’s own backyard, temperature changes and altered relationships in the food chain are bringing species north with warmer temperatures while other species leave. Ice is melting and eroding coastlines are stealing land from coastal communities.
Ecosystem regime changes are affecting Arctic cultures, including the ability to travel and modes of travel. Changes also create new livelihoods, new fisheries, increase the scope of maritime travel and its risks to environment and human safety, as well as expand communication links and open new sea routes.
The report stresses that 18 of 19 climate tipping points affect the United States, Russia and Canada, but that all Arctic countries are vulnerable to 10 or more regime shifts.
“The potential impacts of Arctic regime shifts on the rest of the world are substantial, yet poorly understood. Oceans, air movement, animals and people connect changes in the Arctic to the rest of the world and may transmit change in surprising ways,” according to the report.
However, understanding that what occurs in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic can motivate efforts to develop plans for the Arctic region and its global effects by gaining an empirical understanding from direct experience on one hand, and through discriminating use of abstract information gained from media and education on the other hand.
Connections between developing industrial activity and ecosystems link the Savoonga and Bering Strait case studies, two of the studies from the 25 Canada, Russia, Greenland, Scandinavia and Iceland.
“This situation can be seen where the same area is used by different actors, often with conflicting interests. For example, the Bering Strait is simultaneously used by the shipping industry as well as by migrating bowhead whales and walruses that are important for food security in the Savoonga case study, as well as other communities on either side of the Strait, according to the ARA.
At the same time, “climate change is allowing increased shipping through the Bering Strait, an important whale migration route. The narrowness of the passage brings whales and ships close together, so the increased traffic could disturb whale migrations and increase whale/boat collisions that could affect whale populations. Whales and other marine mammals are important to the livelihoods, food security and cultural identity of many Arctic people, so these collisions will also impact human well-being. The risk for whale/boat collisions and disruptions is particularly important in the Bering Strait, as the three main Arctic shipping routes pass through it,” also in the report.
However, efforts to develop plans for this region by learning from the experience in Alaska and applying the knowledge to the Bering Strait before whale/shipping conflicts occur represents a potentially proactive approach to building resilience.