Changed Arctic, changed world

The icebreaker “Lance”, northeastern Svalbard. © Brutus Ostling / WWF-Canon

It is likely that many people alive today will see the end of the Arctic as we know it.

The vast expanses of summer sea ice trod by polar bears, the pods of narwhals coursing by, the day long herds of caribou crossing the tundra, all are threatened by current and future climate change. This change will have an impact on life in the Arctic, and in the rest of the world. This is the stark conclusion from the most complete assessment of Arctic climate in 6 years. The findings of the Arctic Council’s “Snow Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic” (SWIPA) report are released today.

The report, written by more than 90 scientists, brings together scientific data from the past six years. The data show “…the Arctic will not return to previous conditions this century…” according to the climate scenarios considered by the report. Those scenarios, set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are RCP 8.5 (broadly considered a “business as usual” approach with no major emissions cuts) and RCP 4.5 (considered to be the closest scenario to the commitments made under the Paris Agreement).

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

So what is the Arctic facing now? The report says that even before 2050, Autumn and winter temperatures will soar by 4-5 degrees above what they were in the late 1900s. It says these temperature increases are “locked in” by greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere and by heat held in the oceans. The report also advances the date at which the Arctic Ocean will be largely ice-free to some 20 years from now (although it says making precise dates for this event is difficult). On land, the vast boreal forests will experience an increase in forest fires and insect pests, and the icy ground will continue to thaw.

The impacts of the changes are already affecting Arctic wildlife and Arctic peoples, and that will intensify. The report concludes that “Arctic ecosystems will face significant stresses and disruptions”. Shrinking sea ice means a shrinking range for some seals, walrus, and polar bears. Changes on land can make food more difficult to access for grazing animals such as caribou/reindeer and muskoxen. When the animals are stressed, the people that rely on them, from Inuit hunters to Saami herders, will also feel the effects.

Visualize Greenland’s annual ice melt

What the Arctic changes mean for the rest of the world is still somewhat uncertain, but it is becoming more clear that changes in the Arctic will resonate globally. New figures from the Arctic almost double the IPCC’s minimum estimate for sea level rise. The SWIPA report 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, as distant as the southeast Asian monsoon.

There is some hope embedded in the report. It says that reducing greenhouse gas emissions and stabilizing concentrations under a scenario roughly consistent with the Paris Agreement could stabilize the Arctic environment after mid century, although it would be stabilized as a warmer, wetter, less icy place. Even that degree of stabilization would require “…much larger cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions than those planned under current nationally determined contributions…”. The Paris agreement must remain the floor of our collective ambitions, as this report shows that even the commitments already made will result in a radically different Arctic, and a radically different world. If we can continue building on that floor of commitment, we may be able to retrieve the Arctic for our children.