What is happening in the Arctic will not stay in the Arctic. In an ominous (though not hopeless) report published Friday, researchers warn that as many as 19 various ‘tipping points’ could be triggered by the increasingly warm temperatures in the world’s northern polar region.
“[These rapid Arctic] changes will destabilize the regional and global climate, with potentially major impacts.” —Johan Rockström, Stockholm Resilience Centre
The Arctic Resilience Report, produced under the auspices of the Arctic Council by an international team of researchers from multiple institutes and universities, is the first comprehensive assessment of its kind, looking at the unique region from a combined social and ecological perspective. By surveying and synthesizing a large body of previous research on how both communities and natural systems are responding to global warming, the report offers a worrying conclusion.
“The warning signals are getting louder,” Marcus Carson of the Stockholm Environment Institute and one of the lead authors of the new report, told the Guardian. “[These developments] also make the potential for triggering [tipping points] and feedback loops much larger.”
The signs of dramatic change, the researchers found, are everywhere in the Arctic. “Temperatures nearly 20°C above the seasonal average are being registered over the Arctic Ocean,” the report states. “Summer sea-ice cover has hit new record lows several times in the past decade. Infrastructure built on permafrost is sinking as the ground thaws underneath.”
The fear of tipping points—which occur when natural systems hit limits that force dramatic, cascading, and often irreversible changes—have long been held among scientists studying the dynamic impacts of human-caused global warming and climate change. Referred to as “regime shifts” in the report, the concept is the same.
“One of the study’s most important findings is that not only are regime shifts occurring, but there is a real risk that one regime shift could trigger others, or simultaneous regime shifts could have unexpected effects,” said Johan L. Kuylenstierna, executive director of the Stockholm Environment Institute, which contributed to the study.
Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and co-chair of the project, added: “How regime shifts interact with one another is poorly understood. If multiple regime shifts reinforce each other, the results could be potentially catastrophic. The variety of effects that we could see means that Arctic people and policies must prepare for surprise. We also expect that some of those changes will destabilize the regional and global climate, with potentially major impacts.”
What the scientists observed in their research, according to a summary of the report, were “large, persistent, often abrupt changes in the Arctic’s natural systems” which they came to classify as regime shifts. The report explains how “these shifts are having large impacts on wildlife, the stability of the climate, and on Arctic peoples’ sense of place and well-being.” The 19 specific shifts identified take many forms, including:
- Loss of Arctic sea ice
- Collapse of the Greenland ice sheet
- Ocean hypoxia
- Collapse of fisheries
- Transformation of landscapes: from bogs to peatlands; from tundra to boreal forest or steppe
- Shifting river channels
Citing these and other worrying trends, the report, like so many others coming from the scientific community in recent years, urges immediate action by both regional interests and the world community. “The potential effects of Arctic regime shifts [or tipping points] on the rest of the world are substantial, yet poorly understood,” the report states. “Human-driven climate change greatly increases the risk of Arctic regime shifts, so reducing global greenhouse gas emissions is crucial to reducing this risk.”
With a focus on resiliency and community-led response, the report says that reducing the risks of further destruction and destabilization in the Arctic, especially given the region’s crucial role in regulating the planet’s climate, depends on global action driven by local concerns and knowledge.
The hope, according to the scientists involved, is that efforts to stem the damage in the Arctic can also provide guidance for the rest of the world.
“How we manage and respond to the rapid changes in the Arctic,” the researchers suggest, “could be a blueprint for how we meet future climate challenges.”
The Arctic is experiencing extraordinarily hot sea surface and air temperatures, which are stopping ice forming and could lead to record lows of sea ice at the north pole next year, according to scientists.
Danish and US researchers monitoring satellites and Arctic weather stations are surprised and alarmed by air temperatures peaking at what they say is an unheard-of 20C higher than normal for the time of year. In addition, sea temperatures averaging nearly 4C higher than usual in October and November.
“It’s been about 20C warmer than normal over most of the Arctic Ocean, along with cold anomalies of about the same magnitude over north-central Asia. This is unprecedented for November,” said research professor Jennifer Francis of Rutgers university.
Temperatures have been only a few degrees above freezing when -25C should be expected, according to Francis. “These temperatures are literally off the charts for where they should be at this time of year. It is pretty shocking. The Arctic has been breaking records all year. It is exciting but also scary,” she said.
Francis said the near-record low sea ice extent this summer had led to a warmer than usual autumn. That in turn had reduced the temperature difference between the Arctic and mid-latitudes.
“This helped make the jet stream wavier and allowed more heat and moisture to be driven into Arctic latitudes and perpetuate the warmth. It’s a vicious circle,” she added.
Sea ice, which forms and melts each year, has declined more than 30% in the past 25 years. This week it has been at the lowest extent ever recorded for late November. According to the US government’s National Snow and Ice Data Centre, (NSIDC), around 2m square kilometres less ice has formed since September than average. The level is far below the same period in 2012, when sea ice went on to record its lowest ever annual level.
Francis said she was convinced that the cause of the high temperatures and ice loss was climate change. “It’s all expected. There is nothing but climate change that can cause these trends. This is all headed in the same direction and picking up speed.”
Rasmus Tonboe, a sea ice remote sensing expert at the Danish Meteorological Institute in Copenhagen, said: “Sea surface temperatures in the Kara and Barents seas are much warmer than usual. That makes it very difficult for sea ice to freeze.
“When we have large areas of open water, it also raises air temperatures, and it has been up to 10/15C warmer. Six months ago the sea ice was breaking up unusually early. This made more open water and allowed the sunlight to be absorbed, which is why the Arctic is warmer this year,” he said.
“What we are seeing is both surprising and alarming. This is faster than the models. It is alarming because it has consequences.”
Julienne Stroeve, the professor of polar observation at University College London said ice that should be growing at this time of year was retreating. “It’s been a crazy year. There is no ice at Svalbard yet. In the last few days there has been a decline in sea ice in the Bering sea. Very warm air has flooded into the Arctic from the south, pressing the ice northwards.
“Air temperature drives the formation of the ice. It has been really delayed this year so the ice is also much thinner than it usually is. The speed at which this is happening surprises me. In the Arctic the trend has been clear for years, but the speed at which it is happening is faster than anyone thought,” said Strove.
“Ice is very sensitive to weather. There is a huge high pressure over the Kara sea, and Eurasia and Canada. We are seeing very strong winds bringing warm air north.”
The significance of the ice forming late is that this affects its growth the following year, with consequences for climate. “Extreme wind and high air temperatures [now],” she said, “could see ice extent drop next year below the record 2012 year”.
She added: “The ice could be even thinner than it was at the start of 2012. This is definitely a strange year.”
Ed Blockley, the lead scientist of the UK Met Office’s polar climate group, said: “The sea ice is extremely low. It is freezing but very slowly. Last week the Barents sea reduced its ice cover. There was less ice at the end than the start.
“These temperature anomalies are not unprecedented but this is certainly extraordinary. We are seeing a continual decline in ice. It it likely to be a hiccup but it puts us in bad starting position for next year.”