I’m heading to the arctic this summer as part of an expedition to raise awareness about the impacts of climate change in the area (www.sednaepic.com). What my research on this to date has uncovered is a sobering picture of how the fragile arctic ecosystem is changing at a rapid rate and how that is going to influence the world. When people ask me why the arctic and not the usual kiwi sojourn south to Antarctica to quell my curiosity for the poles, to me the response is simple: We are all interconnected. The impacts that we have from our pollution in New Zealand in the southern ocean affect communities in the north. The results of the changing seascape of the arctic are going to eventually affect every single one of us, not just the communities living there. Here’s a bigger explanation of why the arctic is so important in global climate regulation.
Globally, the arctic is crucial to the temperature of the planet. It is a sort of refrigerator for the rest of us. There are a number of critical arctic feedbacks that affect the whole planet and if global warming throws them out, then there are even more challenges for the planet. Importantly, sea ice melt in the arctic affects atmospheric and oceanic currents with global implications of those changes. Arctic ice is found in three forms: sea ice, permafrost and glacial ice.
Let’s start with permafrost, soil that is at or below the freezing level of water. As warming in the arctic continues, soils will increasingly thaw and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane, at significantly increased rates. Higher levels of atmospheric methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, have been attributed to the warming of arctic tundra, which releases methane as it thaws out. See more from the Scientific American: Canada struggles with melting permafrost
Crucially, the arctic’s frozen soils and wetlands store twice as much carbon as is held in the atmosphere. The Pew Environment Group predict:
In 2010, the loss of Arctic snow, ice and permafrost is projected to cause warming equivalent to 3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, equal to 40 percent of total annual U.S. emissions. By the end of the century, this warming equivalent is projected to double.
Arctic Treasure: Global Assets Melting Away. Summary of Technical Paper: An Initial Estimate of the Cost of Lost Climate Regulation Services Due to Changes in the Arctic Cryosphere. Dr. Eban Goodstein, Dr. Henry Huntington, Dr. Eugenie Euskirchen: http://oceansnorth.org/climate-change
There will also be other unforseen flow on effects of the melt. For example, for Canada a side effect of melting permafrost is the risk of seepage from industrial tailings ponds, which were previously sealed by the frozen soil in these remote and often pristine environments. Read more about Canada’s climate assessment.
As for sea ice, some scientists predict that at the rate of warming, we could see a loss of sea ice in the arctic as soon as 2030. I’ll be 47. (Mental note to come back and check what it’s like then.)Arctic air temperatures have risen at almost twice the rate of the global average rise over the past few decades. This is largely a result of reduced surface reflectivity associated with the loss of snow and ice, especially sea ice.
Image credit: Scientific Visualization Studio, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
“This visualization shows the extent of Arctic sea ice on Aug. 26, 2012, the day the sea ice dipped to its smallest extent ever recorded in more than three decades of satellite measurements, according to scientists from NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center. The data is from the U.S. Defense Meteorological Satellite Program’s Special Sensor Microwave/Imager.” Read more about Nasa’s data and maps
The line on the image shows the average minimum extent from the period covering 1979-2010, as measured by satellites. Every summer the arctic ice cap melts down to what scientists call its “minimum” before colder weather builds the ice cover back up. The size of this minimum remains in a long-term decline. July is the month of peak ice melt and this will be telling for the 2014 season. This year’s ice melt rate is equal to that which occured at the beginning of the 2012 summer. See the Alaska Dispatch: Sea ice melt in June 2014
Over the past 20 years, ice has retreated so much, that the National Geographic have called the reduction in multiyear ice (commonly defined as ice that has survived for two summers) in the arctic as the biggest change to their Atlas since the break up of the former USSR! We are reshaping the world and redrawing the boundaries of what our earth looks like. Even the maps are changing. Full article on National Geographic News: Arctic Maps Atlas 10th Edition.
With the reshaping comes new activities. Last year the bulk carrier ship the Nordic Orion passed through the North West Passage, becoming the first bulk carrier to travel through the frozen ocean. Icebreakers, tugs, small ships, sail boats and the odd rower had passed through. No snorkelers that we are aware of yet have made the distance. The point being, that with the dawn of the bulk carrier frieght ship comes huge economic change to these areas. Ironically, the Nordic Orion was carrying coal. See the full article: The Globe and Mail BC Bulk carrier becomes first to traverse North West Passage.
An ancillary effect of this increased traffic is noise. WWF (2014) have called for immediate action on reducing noise from ship traffic in the arctic waters, given the effect this has on cetaceans, leading to challenges finding mates and food and even forcing the animals to leave their ecosystem. We’ll have to try and keep it down on the expedition as we don’t want to deter these beautiful creatures! Read more about Reducing the impact of industrial noise on whales, WWF 2014.
Human-induced climate change has affected the arctic sooner than scientists predicted. Climate change is already destabilising important arctic systems including sea ice, the Greenland Ice Sheet, mountain glaciers. The impact of these changes on the arctic’s physical and biological systems, and communities that live there is huge and only just beginning. By submersing myself in this issue on the expedition I am literally going to get a feel for the topic and experience first hand what that change means for our oceans. Bring it on!