What’s happening to the Arctic?

A polar bear on the pack ice north of Svalbard, Norway. Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images
A polar bear on the pack ice north of Svalbard, Norway. Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Arctic is warming more rapidly than anywhere else on Earth. This is caused by a process called “Arctic amplification.” As sea ice, glaciers and snow cover disappear, their reflective white surfaces melt away to reveal darker waters and land. The resulting decrease in surface reflectivity, known as albedo, causes the Arctic region to absorb more radiative energy from the sun, warming it faster than parts of the world without as much ice.

Rapid warming has widespread effects on seemingly all aspects of the Arctic environment. The 2020 Arctic Report Card described northward shifts in the ranges of Arctic species both on land, including moose and beaver, and in the ocean, including fish and plankton associated with harmful algal blooms. Some plant species are growing larger and expanding their ranges, affecting migratory bird breeding grounds. Wildfires are on the rise. And permafrost thaw puts large pools of carbon stored in frozen soils at risk of being released into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change worldwide. These changes create a pervasive web of impacts that interact and feed back into one another.

The interconnected consequences of a warming Arctic affect people’s ways of life across northern latitudes and beyond. Thawing permafrost has damaged infrastructure and threatens to uproot communities that live near eroding coastlines. Changes in the jet stream alter weather patterns throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The melting of Greenland’s land ice contributes to sea level rise in more southerly coastal regions. Shifts in the Arctic Ocean affect not only local subsistence harvesting but also the global fish supply.

Jackie Richter-Menge, research affiliate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and founding editor of the Arctic Report Card, said, “This is more than just being concerned about the physical environment. You need to be concerned about [Arctic change] because this is impacting you.”

The environmental changes also have political implications, said Lillian Hussong, the communications coordinator at The Arctic Institute and a doctoral candidate in global affairs at Rutgers University. Although nations, including Russia, are increasing military, political and economic activity in the Arctic, she said, the potential for conflict is often overplayed. “There’s a lot of cooperation that happens in the Arctic that we aren’t necessarily going to see elsewhere,” she said. “It’s like a double-sided coin. There are such great concerns and yet at the same time, people and industries are still considering what kind of opportunities are there.”

While the changes are alarming, the extent of the damage is not set in stone, said Richter-Menge. “The fact that I could be witness to a change in the Earth’s physical system over the 35 to 40 years that I’ve worked is mind-blowing,” Richter-Menge said. But, she added, a lot of effort is going into understanding ways to mitigate Arctic warming. “We know that it’s going to take global action to change this. We just have to have the will to do it,” she said.

Haley Dunleavy

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