The Arctic is a remote wilderness that is home to some of the most iconic, and threatened, wildlife on Earth, including polar bears, narwhal and Arctic foxes. Few of us have been lucky enough to explore the expanses of sea ice, glaciers or ice-sheets, yet we are inextricably linked to this vast region and it plays an integral role in our global climate system. Rising temperatures in the Arctic region appear to be influencing weather systems in other areas of the world, though the details of the complex processes involved are unclear.
The Arctic region is warming at more than twice the rate of other areas of the world in a phenomenon known as ‘Arctic amplification’. The sea ice is melting earlier and the total area of summer sea ice has, on average, fallen markedly over the last 30 years. The receding sea ice results in more heat being exchanged between the ocean and the atmosphere. The whole Arctic region has become visibly darker with a lack of ice and snow, and this has affected the surface albedo (reflective properties) so that more energy is absorbed into the environment. An unstoppable positive feedback mechanism may have been set in motion that will further contribute to climate change across the globe.
Together with natural variability in solar cycles, Arctic amplification appears to be changing global-scale atmospheric circulations. There have been notable alterations in storm tracks, the jet-stream, as well as northern oceanic circulations. Blocked atmospheric planetary waves are leading to ‘stuck’ weather patterns that cause more persistent weather at a given location, i.e. longer periods of low, or high pressure. These changes appear to be influencing the weather across mid-latitudes with profound effects on our daily lives.
A series of unprecedented weather extremes have been recorded throughout the last decade–’super-storms’, droughts, heat waves, floods and record breaking snowy winters. Climate modelling suggests that these extreme weather events will become even more common in the future, causing heavy human and economic losses. Already many lives have been lost, homes flooded, grain harvests spoiled and forests burned with grave consequences for biological systems and human livelihoods. Research is still in its infancy and scientists are trying to understand better how the complex atmospheric processes of the poles are influencing mid-latitude weather patterns. There is still much debate. However, there seems no doubt that warming of the Arctic region is a major contributory factor.
The region within the Arctic Circle makes up around 6% of Earth’s surface area, yet this fragile, and critically important, area is currently afforded no legally binding international protection. Greenpeace is urgently working towards the creation of a network of Arctic ecosystem-based protected areas that will provide some protection for these vulnerable species and habitats during a time of global change and allow for effective, precautionary and adaptive management of any future human activities across the region.
What can you do?
Add your voice – tell politicians why it is worth protecting the Arctic. We are just days away from a decision that could mark the real beginning of the Arctic Sanctuary. What is your reason for protecting the Arctic? Write it here and we’ll make sure it reaches the Arctic.
Kirsten Thompson is a scientist specialising in conservation ecology and biodiversity. She had been involved in research for more than 20 years, working with both universities and non-government organisations. Currently working as a consultant scientist at the Greenpeace Research Laboratories, University of Exeter.
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