CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE ARCTIC
ice pack off Barrow Alaska The Arctic region is warming at twice the rate as the rest of the world. Temperatures in the Arctic winter rose between 1.6̊C and 2.2̊C in the 20th century, compared to an average of 1̊C elsewhere in the world. According to an eight-nation report on Arctic climate change issued in 2004: “For the past 30 years, there’s been a dramatic increase in temperatures and a decrease in the thickness of ice. Western Siberia has warmed up more than almost anywhere else on earth. Temperatures there have risen 3̊C in the last 40 years. Some think the Arctic could warm by an additional 8.3̊C to 11̊C by 2100.
The Arctic also plays a global role in dispersing heat. White ice and snow reflect away large amounts of energy and heat. When they melt they exposes darker ground and water, which absorbs more heat and accelerates warming in a way that doesn’t happen further south. Some think this could cause a “positive feedback loop” which could warm up the entire planet. This process doesn’t happen in Antarctica so much because the ice there is so thick that even if it melts it doesn’t expose much land or water.
Evidence of climate change in the Arctic includes the presence of blue mussels only 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from the North Pole (usually they are found in warmer off France and the United States); birch trees are growing in areas, where there used to be tundra; ice melts earlier than it did in the past; places once clogged with ice are now ice free; and Eskimos above the Arctic Circle have seen robins and yellow jackets for the first time.
The Arctic has traditionally acted as net “carbon sink,” absorbing carbon into it vast expanse of lakes, tundra and bogs and storing it there as if it were a freezer. One of the big worries of global warning is how this system will be compromised. The Arctic could not only stop absorbing carbon, but start releasing it.
Arctic Warming Feedback Loops
Christopher J White wrote in The Conversation: Extreme events like wildfires in the Arctic “are providing worrying evidence of climate “feedback loops”, which were predicted to happen as the climate warms. This is where increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere contribute to further warming by promoting events — like wildfires — which release even more greenhouse gas, creating a self-perpetuating process that accelerates climate change.
ice pack off Barrow Alaska “Record CO emissions released from burning Arctic forests during the summer of 2020 will make future conditions even warmer. But ash and other particulates from the wildfires will eventually settle on the ice and snow, making them darker and accelerating their melting by reducing how easily their surface reflects sunlight.
When we think of the Arctic, we don’t tend to picture wildfires and heatwaves — we think of snow and ice and long, brutal winters. Yet the region is changing before our eyes. It’s too early to say whether the last two summers represent a permanent step-change...These record-breaking events in the Arctic are being fuelled by human influences that are changing our world’s climate sooner than many expected. With climate models predicting a future where already hot and fire-prone areas are likely to become more so, 2020’s record temperatures paint a worrying trend towards more of the same.
“The Arctic is at the frontline of climate change. What we are witnessing here first are some of the most rapid and intense effects of climate change. While the impact is devastating — record CO emissions, damaged forests and soils, melting permafrost — these events may prove to be a portent of things to come for the rest of the world.
In June 2005, the Alaskan Eskimo village of Shishmaref on an island on the Chukchi Sea announced that it was going to move because of rising seas levels, erosion, increased storms, lack of sea ice and the thawing of permafrost associated with climate change. The villages hunted seals that were and walruses that were disappearing. The village itself was threatened by storm surges. The estimated cost of moving the village to a safe location on the mainland was $180 million.
Climate Change and Arctic Ice
The Arctic ice cap is melting. By some estimates it will melt away completely in the warmer months by th year 2100 or perhaps earlier. Sea ice around the North Pole is shrinking at a rate of about 4 percent per decade. If the melting continues at this rate there will be 80 percent less ice in 2090 than there is today. Based on declassified sonar data from military submarines, Arctic ice thinned by as much 40 percent between 1970 and 2000. Places where the ice was 10 feet thick in 1970 are now 6 feet. Many believe the 40 percent figure is too high. They say 15 percent is probably more accurate and say the ice is thinning at a rate of about 3 percent a year.
Robert Ferris wrote in CNBC.com:“Historically, sea ice forms every winter across the top of the planet, and covers much of the Arctic Ocean. Every summer, the ice melts a bit and retreats, only to repeat the cycle again. But since the 1980s, the ice has been retreating further and further overall, contributing to sea level rise, changes to ecosystems, and erosion so severe it is biting off chunks of coastlines in Alaska, Canada and elsewhere. [Source: Robert Ferris, CNBC.com, August 20, 2016]
The amount of sea ice is shrinking by 15,000 square miles a year. In 2002, the Arctic’s largest ice shelf broke in half. The following summer saw record low summer ice cover. The waters in the Arctic are warmer than they used to be and the currents that bring up warm water from the south are also warmer. Once Arctic ice begins to melt it sets off a snowballing chain reaction. As more water is exposed, the upper ocean absorbs more sunshine, warming the ocean further and causing more ice to melt.
Some of the ice loss appears to be the result of natural cycles. The most dire forecasts on ice melting are based on comparisons to the 1970s, an exceptionally cold period when there was more ice than usual. It is possible that warmer weather could cause more ice than less. Ice bridges that used to last all year and keep out the colder hard ice from the north have disappeared, allowing harder, colder ice to track south.
Arctic Sea Ice Vanishing Much Faster Than Thought Possible
Arctic sea ice has melted at a rate far faster than anyone though possible and the changes may be permanent and have an impact on the entire planet. 2016 was be one of the warmest years on record. That year Arctic sea ice levels were also among the lowest on record. Tom Wagner, program manager for NASA's cryosphere research — a name given to the study of frozen regions of the planet told CNBC. "It doesn't look like the ice is healing or growing back."[Source: Robert Ferris, CNBC.com, August 20, 2016]
"By some accounts we have lost more than two-thirds of the ice that used to be back in the 1980s," Wagner said. "This looks to be a very, very long-term trend and we are only going to be losing more ice. This matters because the "health" of the ice is considered a general indicator of what is going on in the Earth's total climate system.
“"This is not something that will affect humanity in the far off future," Wagner said, "loss of this ice is already wildly changing the Arctic," and rippling outward to the rest of the planet. "The planet is not just changing, it is changed."And we have to deal with the change that has occurred. The melting of the glaciers in Alaska and Canada and Greenland is already raising sea levels to the point that Miami and New York are experiencing flooding."
Consequences of Climate Change and Melting Arctic Ice
Annual Arctic Sea Ice Minimum. The Arctic is already well on its way to becoming a different place. In 2005, the largest ever summer retreat of Arctic ice was measured. The ice cover in September 2005 was 1,295,000 square kilometers, smaller than the historical average and a 9.8 percent from perennial ice cover. Some parts that the Arctic Ocean will lose 40 percent of their ice cover and the North Pole could be ice free by 2050. Already in Canada ice is melting three weeks earlier than it used to. Inuit say they have observed eroding shorelines, thinning ice and fewer polar bears. Northern rivers are discharging more fresh water into the Arctic seas than they used to and this could drastically change the ecology of the region.
Melting Arctic ice will not have much impact on sea levels. Most of it is water-based and were it all to melt it would not raise the sea level by much in the same way ice melting in a glass does not cause the liquid in the glass to overflow. Most Arctic ice is already floating. In addition, there is not that much of it compared to Antarctic ice. The melting of Greenland glaciers is more significant.
The loss of Arctic ice is bad news for animals such as seals, walruses and polar bears that rely on summer ice for hunting and feeding and places to get out of the water. The loss also affects Arctic people such as the Inuit that depend on these animals to maintain their traditional way of life.
Pretty soon the ice-clogged Northwest Passage will be ice free. This could make shipping easier; improve access to offshore oil and gas sources on the continental shelves in the Arctic; and allow the exploitation of new fisheries in the open sea. Tankers that are too large to go through the Panama Canal could save large time and money by traveling through the same Northwest Passage that left many ice-trapped men dead in the 19th century. The increase in human traffic could result in more wear and tear on the Arctic ecosystem.
Very Hot Days in the Arctic and Why This Is So
On June 20 2020, the temperature reached 38°C (100° F) in Verkhoyansk, Siberia — the hottest it’s ever been in the Arctic in recorded history and 18°C warmer than the maximum daily average for June in that part of the world. Jonathan Bamber wrote in The Conversation: New records are being set every year, and not just for maximum temperatures, but for melting ice and wildfires too. Scientists have developed models of the global climate system, called general circulation models, or GCMs for short, that reproduce the major patterns seen in weather observations. GCMs have been used to project changes to the climate in a world with more atmospheric CO since the 1990s. A common feature of these models is an effect called polar amplification. This is where warming is intensified in the polar regions and especially in the Arctic. The amplification can be between two and two and a half, meaning that for every degree of global warming, the Arctic will see double or more. This is a robust feature of our climate models, but why does it happen? [Source: Jonathan Bamber, Professor of Physical Geography, University of Bristol, The Conversation, Published: June 25, 2020]
Northern Hemisphere Sea
Ice Extent until August 2009Fresh snow is the brightest natural surface on the planet. It has an albedo of about 0.85, which means that 85% of solar radiation falling on it is reflected back out to space. The ocean is the opposite – it’s the darkest natural surface on the planet and reflects just 10% of radiation (it has an albedo of 0.1). In winter, the Arctic Ocean, which covers the North Pole, is covered in sea ice and that sea ice has an insulating layer of snow on it. It’s like a huge, bright thermal blanket protecting the dark ocean underneath. As temperatures rise in spring, sea ice melts, exposing the dark ocean underneath, which absorbs even more solar radiation, increasing warming of the region, which melts even more ice. This is a positive feedback loop which is often referred to as the ice-albedo feedback mechanism.
This ice-albedo (really snow-albedo) feedback is particular potent in the Arctic because the Arctic Ocean is almost landlocked by Eurasia and North America, and it’s less easy (compared to the Antarctic) for ocean currents to move the sea ice around and out of the region. As a result, sea ice that stays in the Arctic for longer than a year has been declining at a rate of about 13% per decade since satellite records began in the late 1970s. In fact, there is evidence to indicate that sea ice extent has not been this low for at least the last 1,500 years. Extreme melt events over the Greenland Ice Sheet, that used to occur once in every 150 years, have been seen in 2012 and now 2019. Ice core data shows that the enhanced surface melting on the ice sheet over the past decade is unprecedented over the past three and a half centuries and potentially over the past 7,000 years.
In other words, the record-breaking temperatures seen this summer in the Arctic are not a “one-off”. They are part of a long-term trend that was predicted by climate models decades ago. Today, we’re seeing the results, with permafrost thaw and sea ice and ice sheet melting. The Arctic has sometimes been described as the canary in the coal mine for climate breakdown. Well it’s singing pretty loudly right now and it will get louder and louder in years to come.
Could the Great North Woods Become a Grassland
Elizabeth Weise wrote in USA Today: The vast boreal forests of the north face a future as treeless grasslands. Cold weather forests that run across the Western United States, Canada and Alaska are estimated to store more than 30 percent of all forest carbon on the planet. Without them, huge amounts of greenhouse gases would be released into the atmosphere, worsening global warming. [Source: Elizabeth Weise, USA Today, April 7, 2022]
“A combination of three things are destroying it: heat, fire and bark beetles. Rising temperatures cause droughts and make forest fires more likely. Heat also boosts the population of bark beetles devastating the forests. “Forests can tolerate heat and drought up to a point, and then there’s a point where they can’t tolerate anymore,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said. “There’s evidence that we’re hitting that point or close to it.”
“Bark beetles are native to North America. In northern latitudes, when winters are cold and summers cool, they typically reproduce once a year. With warmer and shorter winters, they can reproduce twice, resulting in larger populations and more stress and tree death. The dead trees become fire hazards, causing wildfires to burn larger and hotter. When the fire is gone, grasslands, not forests, can grow back. “There are some trees that are well adapted to the harsh cold, but you’ve made the summers too hot for them, so they’re replaced with a steppe grassland that can cope with the hotter summers,” Timothy Lenton, Timothy Lenton, chair of climate change and Earth system science at the University of Exeter, said.
Fires in the Arctic
Christopher J White wrote in The Conversation: “ With the heatwaves that produced the 38°C temperature in Verkhoyansk came fire, and by the start of August around 600 individual fires were being detected every day. By early September, parts of the Siberian Arctic had been burning since the second week of June. CO emissions from these fires increased by more than a third compared to 2019, according to scientists at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service. The wildfires produced an estimated 244 megatons of CO between January and August, releasing thousands of years’ worth of stored carbon. [Source: Christopher J White, Senior Lecturer in Water & Environmental Engineering, University of Strathclyde, The Conversation, September 8, 2020]
The summer of 2019 was already a record breaker for temperatures and fires across the Arctic. Seeing these events unfold again in 2020 — on an even larger scale — has the scientific community worried. What does it all mean for the Arctic, climate change and the rest of the world? Even with climate change, the severe summer heatwave of 2020 was expected to occur, on average, less than once every 130 years. Wildfire observations in the Arctic are fairly limited prior to the mid-1990s, but there is no evidence of similarly extreme fires in the years before routine monitoring started.
“The fires caused by these hot, dry conditions are occurring in remote and sparsely populated forests, tundra and peat bogs, where there is ample fuel. Climate change is not the direct cause of this summer’s fires, but it is helping to create the right conditions for them. The extreme temperatures and wildfires seen throughout the Arctic in 2020 would have been almost impossible without the influence of human-induced climate change — and they are feeding themselves.
Warm, dry weather also caused wildfires in Greenland, Alaska and elsewhere in the Arctic in 2019. On the fires in Greelnad, Business Insider reported: “Satellites first detected a wildfire near Sisimiut area on July 10. Temperatures in the region at the time approached 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius); the normal daily high is 50 degrees (10 degrees Celsius). This was the first fire of its size since another large one in the same area surprised scientists in August 2017. That fire blazed for two weeks. [Source: Morgan McFall-Johnsen, Business Insider, August 14, 2019]
Unprecedented wildfires also raged across the Arctic in the summer of 2019, releasing 50 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in June alone. That's the equivalent of Sweden's annual emissions, and more carbon than Arctic fires released during every month of July from 2010 to 2018 combined, according to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS). CAMS tracked over 100 "intense and long-lived" wildfires in the Arctic Circle over six weeks in June and July. Those fires spread farther, burned more intensely, and lasted longer than normal.
“Fires in Alaska and Siberia also deposited soot on Greenland's ice sheet, which darkened the surface and caused it to absorb more heat, which leads to faster melting. “"It is unusual to see fires of this scale and duration at such high latitudes in June," Mark Parrington, a CAMS wildfire expert, said in a release. "But temperatures in the Arctic have been increasing at a much faster rate than the global average, and warmer conditions encourage fires to grow and persist once they have been ignited."
Arctic ice from space in 2009
Climate Change and Permafrost
Much of the land in the Arctic is frozen permanently into what is called permafrost. Permafrost is essentially bog frozen hard a brick. Sometimes the permafrost is several feet under the ground. Sometimes it lies under ice and snow at the surface. Melting permafrost creates bogs and pools of stagnant water and swamps filled with lichens, mosses and berries.. In some places the permafrost is over 1,400 feet thick. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the deepest recorded permafrost (more than 4,500 deep) was recorded near the Viluy River in Siberia.
The permafrost in a beat bog the size of France and Germany is melting in Siberia. The landscape is being transformed in a series of swamps and lakes, releasing billions of tons of methane trapped in the frozen peat In other places the permafrost line has moved 80 miles northward. Melting permafrost results in drowned forests (as the permafrost melts the land sinks and is inundated with water), the creation of silk holes, buckled and cracked roads,, buildings with undermined foundations, unsafe bridges, and moving of runways.
As temperatures rise, the surface layer gets deeper and structures embedded in it start to fail as the ground beneath them expands and contracts. Places that used to melt down to about 15 centimeters in the summer now melt down to 30 centimeters. Melting permafrost can expose nuclear, chemical and biological contaminants that had been buried and were thought to be safe from release in the frozen ground. Melting permafrost was at least partly to blame for the catastrophic oil spill that occurred in Siberia in June 2020, when a fuel reservoir collapsed and released more than 21,000 tonnes of fuel – the largest ever spill in the Arctic.
One of the biggest worries with climate change is the effect it will have on the vast methane deposits that are tied up in frozen bogs and permafrost. If the worlds’ largest frozen peat bogs in Siberia melt it will releases vast amounts of methane, which is 20 times more powerful from a climate change perspective than carbon dioxide..
To track the retreat of permafrost scientist examine plant-covered mounds called palsas that form naturally over ice in the soil of northern peat bogs. Their disappearance is sign that permafrost is melting.
Melting Greenland Glaciers Already Raising Sea Levels
Greenland's ice melt has already raised sea levels more than 1.25 centimeters (0.5 inches) since 1972. Half of that occurred between 2010 and 2018, according to a study published in April. Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute, told Inside Climate News: "Somewhere between 1.5 and 2 degrees, there's a tipping point after which it will no longer be possible to maintain the Greenland Ice Sheet," she told Inside Climate News. "What we don't have a handle on is how quickly the Greenland Ice Sheet will be lost." [Source: Morgan McFall-Johnsen, Business Insider, August 14, 2019]
According to Business Insider “Greenland's ice is already approaching that tipping point, according to a study published in May. Whereas melting during warm cycles used to get balanced out by new ice forming during cool cycles, warm periods now cause significant meltdown and cool periods simply pause it. That makes it difficult for the ice sheet to regenerate what it's losing.
In 2020, Reuters reported: “Greenland's ice sheet may have shrunk past the point of return, with the ice likely to melt away no matter how quickly the world reduces climate-warming emissions, new research suggests. Scientists studied data on 234 glaciers across the Arctic territory spanning 34 years through 2018 and found that annual snowfall was no longer enough to replenish glaciers of the snow and ice being lost to summertime melting.[Source: Cassandra Garrison, Reuters, August 15, 2020]
“That melting is already causing global seas to rise about a millimeter on average per year. If all of Greenland's ice goes, the water released would push sea levels up by an average of 6 meters — enough to swamp many coastal cities around the world. This process, however, would take decades. “Greenland is going to be the canary in the coal mine, and the canary is already pretty much dead at this point," said glaciologist Ian Howat at Ohio State University. He and his colleagues published the study Thursday in the Nature Communications Earth & Environment journal.
“Scientists, however, have long worried about Greenland's fate, given the amount of water locked into the ice. The new study suggests the territory's ice sheet will now gain mass only once every 100 years — a grim indicator of how difficult it is to re-grow glaciers once they hemorrhage ice. In studying satellite images of the glaciers, the researchers noted that the glaciers had a 50 percent chance of regaining mass before 2000, with the odds declining since. “We are still draining more ice now than what was gained through snow accumulation in 'good' years," said lead author Michalea King, a glaciologist at Ohio State University.
Greenland's Ice Is Melting at the Rate Not Expected Until 2070
A July heatwave in Europe in 2019 caused Greenland's ice to melt at a rate that scientists didn't expect to see until 2070. Greenland's ice sheet lost 55 billion tons of water over five days in July and August — enough to cover the state of Florida in almost 5 inches of water. Unprecedented wildfires in Greenland, Alaska, and Siberia, contributing to ice melt as their soot and smoke traveled across the Arctic.[Source: Morgan McFall-Johnsen, Business Insider, August 14, 2019]
According to to Business Insider: “On August 1, Greenland's ice sheet lost 12.5 billions tons of ice, more than any day since researchers started recording ice loss in 1950, The Washington Post reported. The dramatic melt suggests that Greenland's ice sheet is approaching a tipping point that could set it on an irreversible course towards disappearing entirely. If that happens, catastrophic sea-level rise would swallow coastal cities across the globe. As ice melt continues to outpace scientists' expectations, some fear that could happen more quickly than they thought.
“The Arctic's melting season starts each year in June and ends in August, with peak melting in July. However, the scale of ice loss in Greenland this year was extraordinary. From July 30 to August 3, melting occurred across 90 percent of the continent's surface, dumping 55 billion tons of water over 5 days. The melting mirrored the record-breaking ice loss seen in 2012, when almost all of Greenland's ice sheet was exposed to melting for the first time in documented history. This year, the ice started to melt even earlier than in 2012 and three weeks earlier than average, CNN reported.
“This extreme melting came during the hottest month ever recorded, as an intense heat wave washed over Europe then wafted over to Greenland. Low-elevation ice began to melt and form pools across the ice sheet, and those pools' dark colors absorbed more sunlight, which further melted the glacier around them and exposed more ice to hot air.
“All that melting exposes more permafrost: frozen soil that releases powerful greenhouse gases when it thaws. That's happening faster than scientists predicted. The release of those gases leads the planet to warm even more, which accelerates more ice melt. The melting was an anomaly for Greenland, but it could be the new normal by 2070 if humans don't curb greenhouse-gas emissions, according to climate models simulated by Xavier Fettweis, a climate researcher at the University of Liège in Belgium. "By mid to end of the century is when we should be seeing these melt levels — not right now,"Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute, told Inside Climate News. "[The models] are clearly not able to capture some of these important processes."
In Greenland, Some Don’t Mind Climate Change
Reporting from Nuuk, Greenland, during a visit there by U.S. Secretary of State of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Joby Warrick wrote in the Washington Post, “Few places on Earth have seen starker changes in weather than this icebound island straddling the Arctic Circle. With that in mind, America’s top diplomat arrived here this week intent on calling attention to the perils of climate change.The problem was that Greenlanders aren’t exactly complaining. [Source: Joby Warrick, Washington Post, May 12, 2011]
Rather than questioning climate change, many of this island’s 60,000 inhabitants seem to be racing to cash in. The tiny capital of Nuuk is bracing for record numbers of visitors this year; the retreating sea ice means a longer tourist season and more cruise ships from the United States. Hunters are boasting of more and bigger caribou, and the annual cod migration is starting earlier and lasting longer.In the far south, farmers are trying their hand at an exotic form of agriculture: growing vegetables. “Before, the growing season was too short for vegetables,” said Noah Melgaard, a local journalist. “Now it is getting longer each year.”
For Clinton, who was visiting Greenland for a meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council, it was one of several jarring contradictions that threatened at times to distract from the messages she traveled 2,000 miles to deliver... Clinton was able to point to fresh progress on climate change, as members of the Arctic Council agreed to take unilateral action to curb a type of pollution known as “black carbon,” which scientists say is a major contributor to the rapid warming of the Arctic.
Most Greenlanders seemed to have personal stories about the climactic transformation that has brought record warmth to the Arctic, far out of proportion to the changes elsewhere in the globe. In the past decade, the ice sheets that cover much of the Arctic basin have grown thinner and smaller, and glaciers have visibly shrunk, local residents say. The weather is generally milder, with shorter, drier winters, but is also more unpredictable, they say.
At the Godthab Bryghus, a popular pub in this ethnically mixed town of 15,000, outdoorsmen talked of growing herds of caribou on the hills above the town, their numbers swelling due to milder winters and more plentiful forage until local officials finally had to ease restrictions on killing them. But one avid hunter, a scruffy-bearded Nuuk native who identified himself only as Louis, complained that the summer caribou season had grown oppressively hot, with temperatures climbing into the mid-70s. “The heat is terrible,” he said.
Seasonal extent of Arctic Ice from 1900-2008
Gorm Vold, 33, a lifelong Greenlander who escorted Clinton’s entourage on the boat tour, acknowledged misgivings about weather changes that, while favorable today for most of his countrymen, pointed to a shifting order in the natural world, the consequences of which are not known. “The cold weather now doesn’t come until much later, yet we get big snowstorms in May,” Vold said. “The whole ecosystem is moving north, and we can no longer say what’s going to happen. “Things seem to be tipping,” he said. “Exactly how, I don’t know.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last Updated April 2022