What Climate Change in the Arctic Means For Us

March 31, 2023
Est. Reading: 4 minutes

A visit to the Arctic and some new research results

Picture taken by author at the Longyearbyen, Norway airport, March 10, 2023.
Picture taken by author at the Longyearbyen, Norway airport, March 10, 2023

Any serious discussion of climate change is likely to include the fact that the Arctic region has been warming nearly four times faster than the global average. What does this mean for humanity and the ecosystem?

To better understand the changing Arctic environment, I recently visited Longyearbyen, Norway, in one of the islands of the Svalbard archipelago. The trip was organized by the New Scientist and open to anyone but included one of their journalists and some focus on science relevant to the region, visits to museums, and local touring. The town of about 2500 hosts the northernmost commercial airport in the world, a three-hour flight from Oslo, over 500 miles inside the Arctic Circle — just over 800 miles from the North Pole.

Originally developed for coal mining, the town now mostly caters to tourists but also supports a satellite station crucial for Arctic research and the Global Seed Vault. Winter activities include dog sledding, snow mobile touring (some now electric), and visiting ice caves formed by summer melting in glaciers. Despite global warming, I can attest it’s bitterly cold in February — about 0°F or -18 °C daily, with frequent cold winds.

Most of the consequences of warming are seasonal and not immediately visible to the naked eye. One exception is the increased risk of avalanches from neighboring mountains. In December 2015, a mass of snow crashed into some townhouses, killing a two-year-old girl. In 2017 another avalanche destroyed two apartment buildings. Snow fences now line the mountainsides as protective measures.

Another change has been the decline of sea ice, in the past filling the town harbor and sometimes not melting until well into summer; cargo ships now reach the harbor year-round. Warmer weather has also meant more rain and less snow. Across the region, snow cover has declined by around 20 percent in recent decades.

The true impact of warming temperatures in the Arctic is increasingly evident from sophisticated instruments. Underwater radar systems can detect the volume of ice flowing overhead, while satellites and buoys track the movement of ice and the length of time it spends in the Arctic before escaping the pole. Using such methods, scientists have determined that the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice have steadily declined. The amount thicker than 4 meters has declined by about 50 percent since 2007. Because of the increasing presence of atmospheric rivers comprised of warm air and high water concentrations, the Arctic sea ice may effectively be beyond recovery.

The implications of thinner and flatter ice for human activity (particularly Indigenous communities) and the ecosystem are striking. The sea ice retreat forces hunters to travel as far as 100 miles from their homes to find walruses during the spring harvest, making seal hunting dangerous. The future of polar bears (so long celebrated in Coca-Cola advertisements) is also in question; with the sea ice platform they hunt on shrinking and the ice season shortening, the bears’ energy reserves are increasingly stretched thin. Forced to find new food sources, polar bears have been seen foraging bird eggs, rodents, human garbage, and recently reindeer. (Those wanting to learn more about the fate of polar bears may be interested in a podcast by the New Scientist journalist Rowan Hooper, a participant in the trip to Svalbard.)

Changes in the Arctic weather regime are also impacting larger weather systems, including those in the United States. The global climate system is increasingly linked to what happens within the Arctic Circle, in the past two very separate systems. Whereas winds used to blow in a predictable counterclockwise direction, a warming Arctic is changing air circulation such that cold winds are now reaching lower latitudes as far south as Texas, resulting in a total economic loss estimated between $80 and $130 billion. Climate-related changes in wind patterns may also cause warming in the Antarctic, where many glaciers were entirely snow-free at the end of February.

Changes in the Arctic ice cap may also be the source of extreme heat waves in Europe. A split in the jet stream in the upper atmosphere called a “double jet pattern” may have caused the extreme heat wave last year that killed over 40,000 people.

The most worrisome risk from Arctic warming may be the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from the oceans, glaciers, and tundra. This could dramatically accelerate warming and trigger tipping points with disastrous consequences. Scientists now acknowledge that they have consistently underestimated the speed and severity of climate changes in the Arctic and their implications for the global climate system. Thus, while far away, in a very real sense, the future of the Arctic is our future, and reducing warming there is critical for the planet.

Alan Miller is a former climate change officer in the International Finance Corporation (2003–13) and climate change team leader, Global Environment Facility (1997–2003). Besides other engagements, Alan is an active editor for Climate Conscious submissions on Medium.

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