In recent years, climate change has become a major concern for the peoples of the world. Rising temperatures and rising sea levels pose a threat to coastal populations, particularly in the developing world, where poverty is rampant and infrastructure is less developed. While concerns about the effects of climate change in the Arctic are somewhat known among the general public, the dangers of global warming go far beyond melting glaciers and stranded polar bears.
Climate change, regardless of its cause, is already inflicting major changes on the landscape of the Arctic Circle. Here’s a guide to how climate change will change the face of the Arctic in the years to come.
Climate Change and the Arctic Circle
Rising sea levels are a direct result of climate change’s effects on the Arctic. The melting of glaciers and icebergs in the Arctic Ocean has caused a global rise in ocean levels, eroding coastlines and flooding low-altitude locales. A positive side effect is that a decrease in Arctic Ocean ice has made the sea more navigable by ships.
Global warming has an outsized effect on the North Pole compared to the rest of the globe, a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification. Arctic amplification is created through ice-albedo feedback, an effect where melting Arctic ice exposes darker land or ocean underneath. Because darker materials absorb heat more quickly than lighter ones, this newly-exposed land or ocean absorbs more sunlight, causing more warming. Some scientists hypothesize that melting Arctic ice could result in a cascading global warming effect, accelerating heating to such a rate that humans cannot stop it.
The rapid decline of Arctic ice is a major concern for climate scientists. It is estimated that Arctic ice coverage decreased by three percent between 1979 and 1996. Moreover, summer sea ice in the Arctic has been rapidly vanishing over the past few decades. It is estimated that summer ice in the Arctic Ocean will completely disappear by 2100, though some estimates put the date as soon as 2030. Thawing of Arctic permafrost also releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accelerating warming.
Global warming has also brought changes to the Arctic ecosystem. Ordinarily, trees are unable to grow north of the tree line, the point at which permafrost and cold climate make it impossible for trees to take root. Scientists have observed that as the Arctic warms, the tree line is retreating northward, and areas previously defined by tundra grasses are now featuring tree growth. Boreal forests in the southern part of the Arctic have experienced “browning” related to climate change-related droughts and forest fires.
Arctic wildlife have also been affected by climate change. The warming of the Arctic Circle has allowed species from more southerly climates to migrate into the Arctic, potentially upsetting the ecological balance. Interbreeding has been observed between Arctic and subarctic species. Polar bears have been particularly hard hit by rising temperatures, as their natural habitats, ice floes, are shrinking. In 2007, the National Wildlife Federation petitioned the U.S. government to declare polar bears an endangered species.
From an economic perspective, the melting of Arctic Ocean ice has made it easier to exploit resources and ship goods through the now-open sea. The Northwest Passage, a sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, is now a reality due to the shrinkage of Arctic ice cover and improved naval technology. This has caused geopolitical rifts as countries with Arctic territory seek to defend their lands against foreign encroachment.
One major Northwest Passage project is the Arctic Bridge, a sea route that will link the port city of Murmansk in northwestern Russia to Churchill, Manitoba, in Canada. Canada has also sought to enforce its claims to the Arctic via declaring much of the Arctic Ocean to be its internal waters, allowing it to control access. The U.S. maintains that the Arctic Ocean is international waters and Canada’s actions are illegal under international law.
Finally, climate change has had a noticeable impact on the lives of indigenous peoples in the Arctic. Many peoples such as the Inuit are dependent on hunting, fishing, and other activities that are reliant on the Arctic’s unique ecological balance. Many Arctic species may become extinct in the future due to warming temperatures. Climate change has also disrupted transportation for many indigenous peoples, with ice roads and other traditional means of getting from place to place no longer usable.
National governments with territorial claims in the Arctic Circle have implemented a varying degree of remedies for climate change in an attempt to stem potential damage from rising temperatures. However, commercial interests stand to benefit from climate change due to declining sea ice making the Arctic Ocean a viable shipping route. Additionally, resources like oil and gas are believed to be plentiful in portions of the Arctic, and it is likely there will be a rush to claim them in the years to come.
Regardless of your opinion on climate change, it is clear that global warming is having a significant impact on the Arctic Circle. Rising sea levels caused by melting glaciers have already introduced a number of geographical, atmospheric, and ecological changes, and it is likely that these changes will accelerate if current climate trends continue. It is obvious that climate change will have drastic and long-lasting effects on the Arctic Circle.