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Changed Arctic, changed world

 

The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on Earth, and it is likely that many people alive today will see the end of the Arctic as we know it. This is the latest word from scientists, revealed in a report released today.

The Arctic Council’s ‘Snow Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic’ (SWIPA) report, written by over 90 scientists, is the most complete assessment of the Arctic climate in six years.

Its stark conclusions confirm that over the past 50 years, the Arctic’s temperature has risen by more than twice the global average, and that the region is being forced to shift into a new state – one that may see an ice-free Arctic Ocean by as early as the late 2030s. The primary underlying cause is increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases.

WWF Climate Expert Martin Sommerkorn on implications for the Arctic and the world.

Changes of this scale in the Arctic have implications worldwide, even as far as the Southern Hemisphere.

New modelling pegs the minimum increase in sea levels at more than half a metre by 2100, much of it due to melting ice from Arctic glaciers. There is also increasing evidence that changes in the Arctic are interfering with established weather patterns elsewhere in the world, such as the Southeast Asian monsoon.

The report says that even before 2050, a 4-5 degree temperature rise above late 1900 levels is “locked in” by existing greenhouse gases and by heat held in oceans.

Rod Downie, WWF Polar Programme Manager, said, “The arctic is in meltdown and it’s clear that it will continue to change significantly within our lifetime. Sea ice decline and increased arctic temperatures are expected to have significant impacts on arctic wildlife such as polar bears, seals, whales as well as fish, and the people who rely on them. It’s bad news for people across the globe as sea levels rise and weather patterns change because of drastic changes in the arctic.”

Visualizing Greenland’s ice meltVisualizing Greenland’s ice melt

What does this mean for the Arctic now?

Shrinking sea ice mans a shrinking range for some seals, walrus and polar bears, while on land vast boreal forests will experience an increase in forest fires and insect pests, and permafrost will continue to thaw, making food more difficult to access for grazing animals such as caribou and muskoxen.

This news is a glaring alarm bell that must be heeded if we are to preserve not only the Arctic, but the global climate systems that we know and rely upon.

Yet there is some hope embedded in the report’s modelling. Despite the many changes already underway or projected, some of which appear irreversible (such as thawing permafrost and melting of the Greenland ice sheet), climate models show that a scenario roughly equivalent to that under the Paris Agreement would slow or stop some trends.

Hope for the future

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and stabilising concentrations in line with the Paris Agreement could stabilise the Arctic environment after mid-century, although this stable state would still make the Arctic a warmer, wetter, less icy place.

But even that degree of stabilisation would require much larger cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions than those planned under current nationally determined contributions.

Commenting on this, Downie said, “To stabilise the Arctic will require more emissions cuts than are currently pledged. We need to urgently tackle climate change head-on by drastically reducing carbon emissions and embracing clean energy solutions.”

The Arctic has already changed irreparably for the span of our lifetimes. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will make a difference, but only if we make the Paris Agreement the baseline of our collective ambitions, and build on and strengthen existing commitment. If we can achieve this, we may still be able to retrieve the Arctic for our children.

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