We’ve all seen the pictures of a forlorn polar bear standing on an ice floe as a living testimony to this. The picture may be thought provoking, but is as easily forgotten as seen. For the bear, we feel sorry, for the Mother Earth, we don’t. Unfortunately, this isn’t even the ‘tip of the iceberg’, polar ice melting has implications that are multi-faceted and will impact every aspect of life on Earth. In this report, Himanshi Shukla explores reasons for the Arctic ice melting and what’s at stake for us…
The hottest temperature ever measured above the Arctic circle was recorded in Verkhoyansk, Siberia this past June. In fact, the + 38.6°C reading was just one of many highs that made June 2020 in Siberia five degrees warmer than any June from 1981 to 2010. But it isn’t just the Arctic that is warming, and it isn’t just the Arctic that will suffer the consequences of rising global temperatures. There will be potentially catastrophic global impacts on nature and people everywhere if temperatures continue to rise. That the polar ice is melting due to human intervention isn't news to most of us, and neither is the fact that it is being caused by human induced climate change.
What do we actually mean when we say Arctic ice is melting?
“It is in the Arctic that global warming presents its most dramatic face; the region is warming up twice as fast as the global average. The ice cap is shrinking fast — since 1980, the volume of Arctic Sea ice has declined by as much as 75 per cent,” comments Navtej Sarna, former Indian Ambassador to the USA.
Jeffrey Kargel, Geologist and Planetary Scientist, Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona- USA, explains: “There are two types of Arctic ice, both of which are changing, mostly melting. The kind that is melting most rapidly is sea ice, which is one to three meters thick, primarily, and is floating on the surface of the ocean. The other ice are the glaciers and massive Greenland Ice Sheets, which rest mostly on land. The floating sea ice will not raise sea level at all as it melts, but it exposes the ocean water to sunlight when the ice melts, and the lost ice cover then is much darker, absorbs more solar heat, and the ocean warms up above freezing for the period of the year when the sea ice has melted. This causes more humidity to go into the atmosphere, which can increase snowfall on the continents south of the Arctic. It also seriously disturbs the jet streams, and that affects people through most of the Northern Hemisphere by introducing wilder extreme weather. The “grounded” glaciers and ice sheet are also melting, and that is raising sea level. It will take several hundred years for most of the Arctic ice to empty into the ocean, but that is what appears to be happening, in progress as we write. When completed, it will raise sea level by about 7 meters. That full amount of melting and sea level rise may take 2000 years to reach completion. That 7 meters is in addition to the sea level rise from melting ice elsewhere in the world, and from the warming and expanding ocean water. The maximum pace of melting likely will hit around the middle and late part of this century, and at its peak, it may add somewhere around 4 cm to sea level each decade (in addition to other causes of sea level rise). Over the course of this century, it will flood the coastal nations, destroy coastal freshwater wetlands ecosystems, and cause many natural hazards in the Arctic communities. Both melting sea ice and melting grounded ice are emptying larger amounts of freshwater into the sea. The freshwater does not at first mix in with the ocean water, but floats on the surface and spreads out into the North Atlantic Ocean. The effect of this is to disturb the North Atlantic Ocean currents, and the climates of the North Atlantic countries, but there are global impacts on storm tracks as well, at least throughout the Northern Hemisphere, as far as the Karakoram and Himalaya. So, the consequences are far reaching, and accelerating.”
But haven’t these episodes of ice melting happened before? How does the current trend differ from the earlier ones?
As per NASA’s Global Climate Change Portal, “Earth’s climate has changed throughout history. Just in the last 650,000 years there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat, with the abrupt end of the last ice age about 11,700 years ago marking the beginning of the modern climate era — and of human civilization. Most of these climate changes are attributed to very small variations in Earth’s orbit that change the amount of solar energy our planet receives. The current warming trend is of particular significance because it is unequivocally the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over millennia.1 It is undeniable that human activities have warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land and that widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, and biosphere have occurred. Earth-orbiting satellites and other technological advances have enabled scientists to see the big picture, collecting many different types of information about our planet and its climate on a global scale. This body of data, collected over many years, reveals the signals of a changing climate. The heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide and other gases was demonstrated in the mid-19th century.2 Their ability to affect the transfer of infrared energy through the atmosphere is the scientific basis of many instruments flown by NASA. There is no question that increased levels of greenhouse gases must cause Earth to warm in response. Ice cores drawn from Greenland, Antarctica, and tropical mountain glaciers show that Earth’s climate responds to changes in greenhouse gas levels. Ancient evidence can also be found in tree rings, ocean sediments, coral reefs, and layers of sedimentary rocks. This ancient, or paleoclimate, evidence reveals that current warming is occurring roughly ten times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming. Carbon dioxide from human activity is increasing more than 250 times faster than it did from natural sources after the last Ice Age.”
What is the role of human activity?
In its Fifth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of 1,300 independent scientific experts from countries all over the world under the auspices of the United Nations, concluded there’s a more than 95 percent probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet. The industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 280 parts per million to about 417 parts per million in the last 151 years. The panel also concluded there’s a better than 95 percent probability that human-produced greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have caused much of the observed increase in Earth’s temperatures over the past 50-plus years. NASA’s Climate Change Portal refutes the evidence of the changes to be Insolation, and with proper arguments: “It’s reasonable to assume that changes in the Sun’s energy output would cause the climate to change, since the Sun is the fundamental source of energy that drives our climate system. Indeed, studies show that solar variability has played a role in past climate changes. For example, a decrease in solar activity coupled with an increase in volcanic activity is thought to have helped trigger the Little Ice Age between approximately 1650 and 1850, when Greenland cooled from 1410 to the 1720s and glaciers advanced in the Alps. But several lines of evidence show that current global warming cannot be explained by changes in energy from the Sun. Since 1750, the average amount of energy coming from the Sun either remained constant or increased slightly. If the warming were caused by a more active Sun, then scientists would expect to see warmer temperatures in all layers of the atmosphere. Instead, they have observed a cooling in the upper atmosphere, and a warming at the surface and in the lower parts of the atmosphere. That’s because greenhouse gases are trapping heat in the lower atmosphere. Climate models that include solar irradiance changes can’t reproduce the observed temperature trend over the past century or more without including a rise in greenhouse gases.”
The Last Ice Melts: Grim Prospects
The ‘Last Ice Area' of the Arctic, which scientists believed to be most resilient to climate change, is also melting faster than expected. in a paper published in the journal “Communications Earth & Environment”, researchers note that in August 2020 the area where the Last Ice Area (LIA) is located, experienced a record low concentration of sea ice. Significantly, they point out that sea-ice has been thinning for years, a trend they think has been prevalent because of climate change. Through satellite images, researchers noted that the sea ice concentration was at a record low of 50 percent, as of August 14, 2020. The team also explored the reasons for the record low concentration of sea ice. They say that about 80 percent of thinning can be attributed to weather-related factors such as winds that break up and move the ice around. The remaining 20 percent can be attributed to longer-term thinning of the ice due to global warming. While this piece of ice above northern Canada and Greenland was expected to last the longest time, it is now showing signs of melting and which certainly is a cause of worry. The area is important because it was thought to be able to help ice-dependent species as ice in the surrounding areas melted away. The area is used by polar bears to hunt for seals who use ice to build dens for their offspring. Walruses too, use the surface of the ice for foraging.
What is the impact on Arctic species?
The catastrophic impact on the Arctic species is well documented in the IPCC Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere, released in 2019. As per the report, the impacts range from biodiversity loss to range shifts and species invasions. Many are facing habitat loss and fragmentation. For instance, many walruses use the sea ice as a platform for resting, and a place to leave young calves while they’re diving for food. But loss of their sea ice habitat is forcing larger numbers ashore. On land, they’re highly susceptible to disturbance from people, aircraft and predators such as polar bears, which can spook them and cause crushing stampedes. Reindeer numbers across the Arctic have fallen by more than half in the past two decades. They survive by migrating to find food, using their hooves to dig through the snow to eat the nutritious lichen buried underneath. But climate change means herds must swim across previously frozen rivers and many young calves drown – and rising temperatures mean more rain, covering plants with ice instead of snow, making grazing harder. Polar bears depend on sea ice to travel, hunt seals, and find mates. As sea-ice decreases, many will be forced to travel further for food and spend more time on land. Less access to food will affect survival, particularly of cubs and young bears, and longer periods fasting on land will increase the likelihood of encounters with people. We could lose more than 30% of the world’s polar bears by 2050 if we don’t urgently tackle climate change.
Climate change is extending the range of red foxes – the tree line is moving further north as the tundra retreats – so they’re increasingly crossing paths with their tundra dwelling relatives, Arctic foxes. Red foxes are twice the size of Arctic foxes and not only compete for prey, but can take their dens by killing or chasing them away. Predators such as Arctic foxes and skuas may also be hunting birds and their nests, if loss of snow cover is causing other prey (like lemmings) to be scarcer. Expansion of subarctic terrestrial species and biological communities into the Arctic and displacing native species is considered a major threat, since unique Arctic species may be less competitive than encroaching subarctic species favored by changing climatic conditions Similar displacements may take place within zones of the Arctic when low- and mid-Arctic species expand northward. Here, the most vulnerable species and communities may be in the species-poor, but unique, northernmost sub-zone of the Arctic because species cannot migrate northward as southern species encroach. This ‘Arctic squeeze’ is a combined effect of the fact that the area of the globe increasingly shrinks when moving poleward and that there is nowhere further north on land to go for terrestrial biota at the northern coast. The expected overall result of these shifts and limits will be a loss of biodiversity.
What happens at the Arctic, doesn’t stay at the Arctic
According to IPCC Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere, “Climate change in the Arctic and Antarctic affect people outside of the polar regions in two key ways. First, physical and ecosystem changes in the polar regions have socioeconomic impacts that extend across the globe. Second, physical changes in the Arctic and Antarctic influence processes that are important for global climate and sea level. Among the risks to societies and economies, aspects of food provision, transport and access to non-renewable resources are of great importance. Fisheries in the polar oceans support regional and global food security and are important for the economies of many countries around the world, but climate change alters Arctic and Antarctic marine habitats and affects the ability of polar species and ecosystems to withstand or adapt to physical changes. The polar regions influence the global climate through a number of processes. As spring snow and summer sea ice cover decrease, more heat is absorbed at the surface. There is growing evidence that ongoing changes in the Arctic, primarily sea ice loss, can potentially influence mid-latitude weather. As temperatures increase in the Arctic, permafrost soils in northern regions store less carbon. The release of carbon dioxide and methane from the land to the atmosphere further contributes to global warming.”
As per Gail Whiteman, Director of the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business, and founder of Arctic Basecamp: “The Arctic is an incredibly important system in the global climate system. So just like the Amazon is the lungs of the world, the Arctic is like our circulation system and feeds in to global climate change everywhere. The Arctic used to be white but now it’s turning blue, and absorbing more heat in a feedback loop. Now, why would we care? Well, we care because of the ‘albedo effect’. As the Arctic Ocean and the glaciers have melted, we see that dark blue is absorbing more and more heat which is feeding through the rest of the system. Since the 1970s, we have lost 75% of the volume of Arctic summer sea ice. If you think of that as the insurance policy for the rest of the world to prevent catastrophic runaway climate change, we are in trouble. And that is the thing in climate science where if something is white, it bounces off sunlight back out into the atmosphere and it doesn’t absorb. The permafrost is thawing. Permafrost releases methane which is a greenhouse gas. And if all the permafrost in the Arctic is released that is like adding in the CO2 emissions of all EU countries. If we take a look at extreme weather, we can see that the Arctic plays a key point. Now, certainly the Arctic had its own fires. We saw that in Siberia. We see that in various parts. But on top of that because of the way the Arctic affects the jet stream, it affects crazy weather all throughout the middle latitudes. The Sonoma fires of last year are then related to the Arctic change because of how it affects the jet stream. If we take a look at Australia the Arctic does not have a direct correlation with those fires. But indirectly, because we are driving global climate change because of the loss of the albedo effect that will affect things like severe weather and fires everywhere. It’s not just fires. It’s also the hurricanes. It’s the polar vortex coming down through Europe and North America. On top of that, though, we can see that with the Greenland ice sheet, we are accelerating sea level rise. If we get to a 2-degree warmer world we can see from some of the major cities around the world including Tokyo and New York, that they will indeed be flooded. If we stay at the 1.5 Paris aspirational target, we will save the Arctic summer sea ice. Two degrees is not safe; 1.5 definitely is. So, from a scientific perspective, the Arctic is a barometer of global risk. What happens in the Arctic does not stay there. And what’s at stake is not a geopolitical question alone or the short-term economic benefits from shipping or extraction. What’s at stake in the Arctic is actually the future of humanity itself.”
What commercial avenues does the Arctic promise and what are its environmental costs?
Navtej Sarna comments: “The opening of the Arctic presents huge commercial and economic opportunities, particularly in shipping, energy, fisheries and mineral resources. Commercial navigation through the Northern Sea Route is the most tempting: The Northern Sea Route (NSR) which would connect the North Atlantic to the North Pacific through a short polar arc was once the stuff of fantasy. The melting ice has now made it a reality and a trickle of commercial cargo vessels has been going through every summer since the last decade. Models predict that this route could be ice free in summer by 2050, if not earlier. The distance from Rotterdam to Yokohama will be cut by 40 per cent compared to the Suez route. Oil and natural gas deposits, estimated to be 22 per cent of the world’s unexplored resources, mostly in the Arctic Ocean, will be open to access along with mineral deposits including 25 per cent of the global reserves of rare earths, buried in Greenland. Fortunately, none of this is easy. Navigation conditions are dangerous and restricted to the summer. Lack of deep-water ports, a need for ice-breakers, shortage of workers trained for polar conditions, and high insurance costs add to the difficulties. Mining and deep-sea drilling carry massive costs and environmental risks. These difficulties may provide the crucial window to work out norms that are focused on balanced and sustainable development, before human greed overtakes everything. The complication is that, unlike Antarctica, the Arctic is not a global common and there is no overarching treaty that governs it, only the UN Convention of Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Large parts of it are under the sovereignty of the five littoral states — Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark (Greenland) and the US — and exploitation of the new resources is well within their rights.”
In a study entitled: ‘Towards a balanced view of Arctic shipping: estimating economic impacts of emissions from increased traffic on the Northern Sea Route’ by Professor Gail Whiteman and others, it is argued about the economic and environmental costs of such a sea route, especially on developing regions of Africa and India and how they should be given monetary compensation for the same. The abstract of the study states: “The extensive melting of Arctic Sea ice driven by climate change provides opportunities for commercial shipping due to shorter travel distances of up to 40% between Asia and Europe. It has been estimated that around 5% of the world’s trade could be shipped through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in the Arctic alone under year-round and unhampered navigability, generating additional income for many European and East Asian countries. Our analysis shows that for Arctic Sea ice conditions under the RCP8.5 emissions scenario and business restrictions facing shipping companies, NSR traffic will increase steadily from the mid-2030s onwards, although it will take over a century to reach the full capacity expected for ice-free conditions. However, in order to achieve a balanced view of Arctic shipping, it is important to include its detrimental environmental impacts, most notably emissions of short-lived pollutants such as black carbon, as well as CO2 and non-CO2 emissions associated with the additional economic growth enabled by NSR. The total climate feedback of NSR could contribute 0.05% (0.04%) to global mean temperature rise by 2100 under RCP8.5 (RCP4.5), adding $2.15 trillion ($0.44 trillion) to the Net Present Value of total impacts of climate change over the period until 2200 for the SSP2 socio-economic scenario. The climatic losses offset 33% (24.7%) of the total economic gains from NSR under RCP8.5 (RCP4.5), with the biggest losses set to occur in Africa and India. These findings call for policy instruments aimed at reducing emissions from Arctic shipping and providing compensation to the affected regions.”
Geopolitics at play, environment at bay
Navtej Sarna comments: “Inevitably, given the high stakes, strategic games are afoot. Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark have put in overlapping claims for extended continental shelves, and the right to sea-bed resources; in 2007, Russia embedded a flag on the seabed below the North Pole to bolster its claim. The US, not a party to UNCLOS, is unable to put in a formal claim but is under pressure to strengthen its Arctic presence. For the present, Russia is the dominant power, with the longest Arctic coastline, half the Arctic population, and a full-fledged strategic policy. Claiming that the NSR falls within its territorial waters (the US believes the passage lies in international waters), Russia anticipates huge dividends from commercial traffic including through the use of its ports, pilots and ice-breakers. Russia has also activated its northern military bases, refurbished its nuclear armed submarine fleet and demonstrated its capabilities, including through an exercise with China in the eastern Arctic. China, playing for economic advantage, has moved in fast, projecting the Polar Silk Road as an extension of the BRI, and has invested heavily in ports, energy, undersea infrastructure and mining projects. This limbering up of strategic postures is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.”
Commenting on the Indian interests in the region and what should be the way forward for India, Navtej Sarna suggests: “India’s interests in these developments, though distant, are not peripheral. Our extensive coastline makes us vulnerable to the impact of Arctic warming on ocean currents, weather patterns, fisheries and most importantly, our monsoon. Scientific research in Arctic developments, in which India has a good record, will contribute to our understanding of climatic changes in the Third Pole — the Himalayas. The strategic implications of an active China in the Arctic and its growing economic and strategic relationship with Russia are self-evident and need close monitoring. Only the Arctic Council, focused on environment protection and sustainability, regulates cooperation in the region. India became an observer to the council in 2013 after an intensive campaign, its credentials burnished by creditable scientific work in Antarctica. Interest in trade and resources was played down. Our contribution to the council, however, has been less than substantial. Scarce resources and competing priorities result in only token appearances at its meetings in remote destinations like Yellowknife and Whitehorse. Himadri, India’s research station on Svalbard, 1,200km short of the North Pole, remains the sole bright spot. It is high time that our presence on the Arctic Council was underpinned by a strategic policy that encompassed economic, environmental, scientific and political aspects.”
What ‘scientific’ missions have been sent so far and with what intent?
There have been many isolated attempts by various individuals from time to time, but even countries are not far behind. Beginning with Russia’s Arktika 2007 mission in which Russia sent a first of its kind submersible that descended below the ocean floor to conduct research. In 2015, interdisciplinary Arctic Expedition “Kartesh” – complex arctic expedition, organized by the Polar Expedition Gallery project (later rebranded as Polar Expedition "Kartesh") in collaboration with the LMSU Marine Research Center. Research tasks included assessing the Arctic coastline vulnerability towards human impact; marine and coastal ecosystem and Arctic seas landform condition monitoring; West Arctic biodiversity research; oil oxidizing microorganism activity research; testing new methods of water areas remote sensing. But none of these matches the ambition or scale of the recently held MOSAIC Expedition from 2019-2020. It was held under the direction of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research with 300 scientists from 20 nations on board the German ice-breaker Polarstern to collect data about the ocean, the ice, the atmosphere and life in the Arctic in order to understand climate change. As per the website of the expedition: “The goal of the MOSAiC expedition is to take the closest look ever at the Arctic as the epicenter of global warming and to gain fundamental insights that are key to a better understanding of global climate change. Hundreds of researchers from 20 countries are involved in these exceptional endeavors. Following in the footsteps of Fridtjof Nansens ground-breaking expedition with his wooden sailing ship Farm in 1893-1896, the MOSAiC expedition will bring a modern research icebreaker close to the north pole for the first time in polar winter. The data gathered will be used by scientists around the globe to take climate and ecosystem research to a completely new level.” The outcome remains for all of us to see.
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