Joseph Cook, Vice President of the UK Polar Network (UKPN) Committee argues that we all foot the bill for a warmer Arctic in the fight against climate change
2019 is shaping up to be a watershed year in the fight against climate change. Coordinated international school strikes – whose figurehead Greta Thunberg has already been nominated for a Nobel Prize – and national movements such as the Extinction Rebellion have highlighted the urgent need for climate action. Major “scientainment” programmes such as the BBC’s “Climate Change: The Facts” and Netflix’s “One Planet” demonstrate that climate consciousness is rapidly becoming mainstream.
The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has recently made the economic dangers of climate change clear to bankers, warning the City to “take climate change seriously or lose money”, indicating that the message is finally permeating into influential institutions.
Nevertheless, in a system where several degrees of warming are already “baked-in”, policy still severely lags environmental urgency and governments are distracted by various national crises, it remains to be seen whether this positive rhetoric translates into meaningful action and whether it does so rapidly enough to mitigate the worst effects of future climate change.
Immediate, meaningful action is critical to avoid further exacerbating the social, economic and environmental stresses that we will now inevitably face as our climate warms. While we often report climate change in terms of global averages, the effects of climate warming are felt more strongly in some places than others. The Arctic, in particular, is warming at more than twice the global average rate because the sensitive sea ice, glaciers and snow that cover large parts of the Arctic amplify warming trends.
This happens because snow and ice are highly reflective and act like a mirror bouncing solar energy back into space. When temperatures rise that snow and ice become less reflective and when it melts away completely, it reveals dark land or ocean. This makes the planet less reflective, meaning more heat is available for warming the planet. The effects of this are felt acutely in the Arctic but also ripple through global weather systems, economies, infrastructures and human societies.
The Arctic is a sensitive victim of climatic change but at the same time a powerful accelerator of climate impacts worldwide, meaning we all pay the price for a warmer Arctic.
The Arctic is where most of the ice and snow in the northern hemisphere are concentrated. It is where most of our glaciers rest in mountain valleys and where the continent-sized Greenland Ice Sheet sits high atop the ancient continental crust. Both the glaciers and the ice sheet are shrinking, losing billions of tonnes of ice each year due to warming temperatures. This is a major issue because it adds water to the oceans, rising sea levels. This is not a localised problem.
Higher sea levels mean coastal areas and flood plains becoming uninhabitable, increased coastal and riverbank erosion, loss of land for agriculture, housing, utilities and businesses as well as storm surges that penetrate further inland causing more damage. It has been estimated that sea level rise alone could wipe $14 trillion from the global economy every year by the year 2100 if we continue on our current rate of carbon emission (Jevrejeva et al. 2014).
It has recently been estimated that by the end of the century Arctic warming will contribute $66.9 trillion to the global economic costs of climate change under emissions scenarios expected under current national pledges (Yumashev et al. 2019).
Almost four million people live in the Arctic region with cultures, traditions and livelihoods finely tuned to the cold environment that are threatened by climate warming. At the same time, warmer temperatures provide some opportunities, for example, retreating glaciers, ice caps and ice sheets will enable access to new areas for mineral, oil and gas prospecting and new shipping routes. However, while beneficial for local economies, extracting these resources will be environmentally damaging and exacerbate a global climate crisis, raising sensitive geopolitical issues.
Changes to Arctic ice influence the weather locally and at lower latitudes, including over major population centres in northern Europe and North America. Because ice is cold, it influences the pressure of air masses above it, controlling the shape, position and strength of the jetstream and polar vortex. Extreme weather events will continue to increase in frequency and magnitude as the Arctic ice continues to retreat, exacerbating both floods and droughts and associated phenomena, such as wildfires and landslides, with the inevitable loss of life and damage to homes, businesses and infrastructures.
This is not only happening in distant, uninhabited Arctic icescape but it is already happening to all of us, the world over. Even those who do not directly suffer the direct impacts of these environmental hazards will suffer through rising costs of insurance, living costs and a weaker global economy.
The ecological costs of a warming Arctic are also high, with indigenous, cold-adapted species pushed ever closer to extinction by a rapidly changing environment and a northwards shift of invasive species. Grizzly bears have been observed migrating north into areas previously occupied only by polar bears and Arctic foxes. A further ecological cost is that cold oceans acidify more rapidly than warmer ones, threatening marine wildlife, especially those species that rely upon low acidity, carbonate-rich water for building shells. The rapidly declining Arctic sea ice is fundamental to the survival of seal and polar bear.
Furthermore, as the polar bear habitat shrinks, these animals are forced into more frequent human contact. Melting glaciers are also releasing contaminants into rivers, oceans, lakes and soils to be taken up by plants and consumed by animals, concentrating up the food chain meaning amplified doses are ultimately consumed by humans.
Arctic warming costs us all dearly. The Arctic itself is a threatened landscape, sensitive and vulnerable to the stresses we place upon it by burning fossil fuels. Strong connections exist between the Arctic and the lower latitudes. Through temperature rise, the Arctic is vulnerable to distant carbon emissions, but at the same time, humans at lower latitudes are vulnerable to environmental hazards amplified in the Arctic.
These strong mutual connections mean protection and stewardship of the threatened Arctic begins with environmentally responsible behaviour at home. The costs of a warming Arctic are financial, humanitarian and ecological and are borne by everyone on the planet. Costs will increase as temperatures continue to rise.
There must be a global movement towards leaving fossil fuels underground and relying upon renewable energy, while also generating less waste and adopting climate-conscious behaviours. There are still uncertainties in the feedbacks amplifying Arctic warming and the sensitivity of glaciers and ice sheets to climatic change that must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Understanding and monitoring how the Arctic is changing is key to accurately forecasting the timescales of change enabling proper management and mitigation measures to be put in place in a timely fashion. Because of the fundamental importance of Arctic processes to human societies globally, Arctic research must remain an international priority.
Joseph Cook is a postdoctoral researcher that has been studying albedo feedbacks on glaciers and ice sheets for over a decade. He is vice-president of the UK Polar Network and director of the polar science communication organisation “Ice Alive”. He is supported by National Geographic and Microsoft through the AI for Earth program. More information about his work can be found at http://tothepoles.wordpress.com and www.icealive.org or @tothepoles (https://twitter.com/tothepoles) on Twitter/Instagram. More information about the UK Polar Network is available at www.polarnetwork.org
1. Jevrejeva et al (2018): doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/aacc76
2. Yumashev et al. 2019: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-09863-x#Sec14
3. Climate policy implications of nonlinear decline of Arctic land permafrost and other cryosphere elements https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-09863-x
Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Sheffield, UK