Global warming’s transformation of the Arctic is having a cascading effect, with some changes to the region worsening others.
The loss of sea ice is the most visible, and temperatures almost 40 degrees above normal certainly garner attention. However, there are other important changes such as the loss of permafrost, the collapse of certain species in the food chain and the damage to fisheries caused by higher sea temperatures.
Perhaps more troubling is that those changes are often interlinked, and one shift can trigger a series of others, a new report has found.
The Arctic Resilience Report, released Friday, is a five-year scientific and sociological effort to understand the changes now occurring in the region, as well as an examination on how local communities can be more resilient. Produced by a consortium of research groups under the auspices of the Arctic Council, it documents some of the changes observed in recent decades and looks at how some communities have successfully responded.
Those cascading effects are reorganizing the Arctic ecosystem in a way that is increasingly painting a dire picture, said Marcus Carson, a researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute.
Some changes, such as the loss of sea ice, are widely understood, but there are many other areas where the Arctic has been fundamentally transformed and too little is understood about what changes are occurring, the report found.
“It’s a little bit like firing your cue ball into the rest of the balls on the pool table, you don’t know where things are going to go, and the potential feedback in that system is the most unsettling given the pace of the changes that we understand fairly well,” he said.
Immediate Arctic challenges for Trump
Scientists have long viewed global warming’s transformation of the Arctic as a bellwether for the rest of the planet. The new study shows that effects seen in other parts of the globe, such as record-breaking warmth, are often amplified in the Arctic.
As with all issues currently surrounding climate science, the effects of the incoming Trump administration’s policies on the Arctic could lead to further shifts in the region. Carson said the effects of climate change in the Arctic already transcend partisan politics because there is no arguing about the transformation.
“What we see happening in the Arctic takes it beyond arguments about models, and what predictions are, because the extent of change is beyond anything we’ve seen before,” he said. “I think you would be very hard-pressed to find anyone in the Arctic, regardless of party identification, who doesn’t believe that climate change is taking place.”
One of the key Arctic issues that will immediately confront President-elect Donald Trump is the newly accessible oil and gas reserves that climate change has unlocked as sea ice shrinks, Carson said. In addition to the risk in accessing those fossil fuels, it will only encourage more consumption, he said. That, in turn, will lead to more melting in the Arctic.
The changes in the Arctic affect the entire planet, through rising sea levels, shifts in the polar vortex and warming ocean currents that change weather patterns. But they are particularly difficult for people who live in the region. Already, there are dozens of communities threatened by climate change, including some that will have to be relocated within the next few decades.
Others have adapted resilience strategies that can be applied more broadly to other communities in the area. It will take efforts in countries throughout the world to limit carbon emissions.
“Living in one of the world’s most variable biomes means that people of the Arctic, and in particular the Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic, know a great deal about resilience,” the authors wrote. “But the current scope and pace of change means they cannot do it alone. The resilience of Arctic communities and ecosystems depends not only on the commitment and imagination of Arctic people, but also on the active support of Arctic countries’ governments and other partners.”
A call for cooperation
Some communities have already adapted to transformations in the environment.
Nomadic hunters in the Nunavut region of Canada have become internationally recognized artists. Communities in Iceland once reliant on fishing have instead turned to whale-watching as an income source as those stocks were depleted. Others have found a way to maintain traditions, such as whaling and reindeer herding, as the climate warms.
But further changes, particularly if global carbon emissions are not curbed, mean further work is necessary, the report found.
And preserving the ecological health of the region will require more cooperation among the Arctic nations, including Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Canada, Denmark and the United States, the report concludes.
“The variety of effects that we could see means that Arctic people and policies must prepare for surprise,” said Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. “We also expect that some of those changes will destabilize the regional and global climate, with potentially major impacts.”
Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.