Climate change is one of the most pressing challenges of the twenty-first century and these changes are very tangible in the Arctic. One of the biggest culprits behind climate change is global warming, which, beyond its economic and social implications, carries environmental risks, such as melting snow, ice, and permafrost, rising sea levels, ecosystem degradation, and further warming, amongst others.
Arctic air temperatures rose by an average of 3.1 degrees Celsius from 1971, while the average annual increase in surface temperature was three times higher in the Arctic than it was globally during the same period. Other concrete changes brought about by global warming in the Arctic include a 9+ percent increase in total annual precipitation (both rain and snow combined) from 1971, a 21 percent decline in Arctic snow cover in May-June from 1971 (the decrease was greater over Eurasia (25 percent) than it was in North America (17 percent)), and a 2-3 degree Celsius warming of Arctic permafrost since the 1970s. Annual average surface air temperature is expected to increase by 3.3-10.0 degrees Celsius above the 1985-2014 average by the end of the twenty-first century. If current trends continue, the Arctic may see its first ice-free September as early as 2040.
The impact of climate change on Arctic communities is wide-ranging, touching everything from the livelihoods and food security of indigenous communities to human health to the stability of infrastructure built on permafrost. Thawing permafrost does not constitute stable ground – up to 50 percent of buildings in the city of Pevek in Russia’s Chukotka Autonomous Okrug and nearly all the infrastructure on Russia’s Taymyr Peninsula have either been damaged or otherwise affected by thawing permafrost.
Thawing permafrost is expected to increase the cumulative maintenance costs of public infrastructure in Alaska by about 10 percent (5.5 billion US dollars) by 2100. It also poses epidemiological risks across the Arctic, as dangerous bacteria and viruses to which life forms currently living in the Arctic have little to no immunity can remain viable for thousands and even millions of years while frozen (e.g. the Yamal saw a serious outbreak of anthrax amongst reindeer in 2016). Finally, by releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases (namely carbon dioxide and methane), melting permafrost accelerates global warming.
The warming of the Arctic Ocean affects the lifecycles of marine species and, thereby, impacts food webs. While melting sea ice does not raise sea levels, melting ice sheets and glaciers do. Melting glaciers, in particular, were responsible for 30 percent of the rise in sea levels between 1992 and 2017. Melting sea ice, however, presents its own set of challenges for the environment, ice-dependant Arctic species, and indigenous populations.
As snow and ice reflect 80+ percent of sunlight, much more than bare land and water (which reflect less than 10 percent), less sea ice translates to further global warming in practice. In opening up greater access to Arctic sea routes and the Arctic’s natural resources, melting sea ice may bring economic opportunities (especially for Arctic countries), but any careless exploitation of these new opportunities carries risks to the ecosystem and the lifestyles and livelihoods of indigenous populations, which strongly depend on the environment and climatic conditions.
Global warming also increases the incidence of tundra and taiga wildfires (which too contribute to atmospheric emissions) across the Arctic, from Sweden to Siberia to Alaska. In 2018, an unprecedented drought and wildfires in Sweden destroyed the grazing lands of reindeer herded by members of the Sámi indigenous peoples. Other consequences of global warming include inland and coastal flooding and land erosion.
The success of sustainable development in the Arctic region will, therefore, depend on whether projects can be designed with environmentalism, carbon neutrality, wildlife and flora conservation, and the wellbeing of indigenous peoples in mind. It will also require responsible exploitation and constant monitoring of the state of the environment
All eight Arctic countries as well as numerous international organisations are involved in helping find ways to both mitigate climate change in the Arctic and address its numerous consequences. These include the Arctic Council, its Working Groups, and its Permanent Participants. Strategic priorities include transitioning to sustainable energy use, sustainable development, understanding how climate change impacts Arctic ecosystems, understanding how climate change impacts climate feedback loops, promoting the exchange of knowledge, offering support to Arctic communities, adopting a holistic approach to tackling wildfires, building resilience to climate change-induced changes, and facilitating efficient collaboration between governments, indigenous peoples, researchers, and corporations.
Amongst the Arctic Council’s numerous projects aimed to address climate change issues are: Understanding climate change impacts on Arctic ecosystems and associated climate feedbacks; Climate Issues: Cryosphere, meteorology, ecosystem impacts; Circumpolar Local Environmental Observer Network (CLEO).
Sadly, global warming has now become inevitable – humanity no longer has the means to lower global temperatures by 3 degrees Celsius back to their level in 1971. We can, nevertheless, use existing technology and create new technologies to prevent further warming or slow down the rate of warming. Amongst the tools at our disposal are clean energy sources that reduce greenhouse emissions, such as nuclear power, which is already enjoying widespread applications in some countries. Another tool, also used by a number of Arctic States, entails harnessing energy from renewable sources such as sunlight, water, and wind. For instance, Northern Norway gets 100 percent of its energy from renewable power sources (namely wind and hydropower) and Iceland’s electricity sector is also 99.98% renewable (it relies on hydropower, geothermal energy, and wind energy).