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Climate change in the Arctic

December 08th, 2019
topic:Global Warming
by:Ama Lorenz
tags:Arctica, climate-change, environment

Climate change in the Arctic is something that should be worrying every person on earth at the moment, even if they live in warm climates far from any ice and snow.

Climate change in the Arctic is a sign not only of the planet warming up, but of an acceleration in that warming, the advancing of the processes of global warming to a point from which there is no return.

Signs of global warming

The obvious sign of climate change in the Arctic is the melting of pack ice that has been in place for thousands of years, but there are other symptoms that all is not well with the planet's thermostat. These include items that are featured on the news with depressing regularity, that seem unrelated to the Arctic and, indeed, to ice levels in that region, as they are from the rest of the world.

These include fires that seem to burn out of control in California every year, as soon as it becomes dry enough for the fires to take hold. Now, it is true that autumn (or Fall) in California has always been the warm dry season, with the risk of fires heightened. But, ever since around 1970, the fire season has been growing longer which gives the rapacious flames longer to wreak damage on the area. 

This increase in the duration of the fire season has been ascribed to global climate change interfering with rainfall patterns drying out California, leaving it prone to the smallest spark or errant ember.

Australia – a flat, wide dry island – is also experiencing the effects of climate change with a longer fire season, and also sweeping floods that devastate entire communities. Along with this, the antipodean nation is increasingly suffering from heatwaves.

Heatwaves are also pulverising Europe with multiple countries breaking their 'hottest temperature ever' records year after year. Floods sweep through low-lying areas, with Venice – already threatened by the sea – now on the brink of being washed away entirely, and large areas of the United Kingdom regularly under water and said to be at risk of having those regions and more entirely waterlogged by 2050.

What does any of the above have to do with climate change in the Arctic? Everything. The Arctic and Antarctic have long held immense stores of fresh water in the form of ice. These sheets of ice have helped to moderate the temperature of the earth by acting as enormous reflectors, bouncing a significant proportion of the sun's heat back out into space. 

The more ice that melts, the smaller these reflectors are, the hotter the area will get. This is not helped by the fact that the melted ice sheets are replaced with bodies of water, or join with the oceans. Water absorbs the heat of the sun, rather than reflecting it, so the resulting warmth caused by the ice melt is effectively redoubled. All of which will have one result: even faster melting of the ice sheets. What’s more, this will accelerate us reaching the point of no return.

Should enough ice melt, as well as physically rising sea levels, it will affect the salinity of the ocean, and this, in turn, will affect the 'conveyor' effect of the tides and ocean currents. Fresh water is less dense than salt water, and the fresh water will race over the surface of the oceans, disrupting currents that have been in place for millennia. 

For example, the United Kingdom is a temperate and pleasant place to live because the Gulf Stream flows towards it, bringing warm seas and mild winds that stave off what would otherwise be an inimically icy climate. If the Gulf Stream is disrupted, the United Kingdom will, within a month or two, lose all outdoor crops and farm animals, and winters will transform from merely chilly to positively lethal.

When will this happen?

It has already begun. Already summers are hotter and winters colder, already the losses to the pack ice are alarming, already Arctic animals are suffering from a severe reduction in their natural habitat.

In the Arctic, there is a sense of urgency because the Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else in the northern hemisphere: ice sheets that used to lie year round, thinning in summer and fattening up again in winter are now completely gone for months at a time in summer, and return with reluctance in winter. 

Coastal villages are frequently flooded and it is anticipated that they will be inundated year round before much longer, and migration paths of marine mammals like whales and seals, as well as fish, have already changed dramatically. With long histories of Innuit hunts stretching back into antiquity, it is difficult to claim that this is part of a natural cycle as many climate-change deniers attempt to say.

Is there anything we can do?

We are scarily close to the point of no return, but yes, there are still changes that can be made to halt or reverse some of these effects of climate change in the Arctic. Scientists are working on a number of fronts, and there are people who are physically blanketing immense areas with white sheeting and reflective particles in an effort to reflect some of the sun's rays away from the precious remaining ice, and to boost the reflective effect of new ice. 

Old ice is thicker and has more albedo, giving it greater reflectivity than new ice. Adding mica beads to thin new ice can make it work more effectively to reflect more of the sun's rays, emulating the work of the older, now lost, ice layers.

Countries are beginning to work on reducing their national carbon footprint: reducing contaminants and pollutants that are released, increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which, itself, is contributing to global warming. 

Moves towards renewable energy sources, towards sustainable farming and towards recycling, repurposing and reusing items that cost a lot, resource-wise, to produce, are all helping to lower emissions that can cause global warming, triggering drastic climate change in the Arctic.

The situation is not yet hopeless, but there is still a lot to be done if we are to reverse the melting of the Arctic ice sheets. Should they melt completely, the entire world may well be lost.

Article written by:
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Ama Lorenz
Editor-in-Chief, Editorial Board Member, Author
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