The winter of 2017-2018 has seen extreme Arctic heat events. Over the last few days, temperatures have been as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit above normal (about 17 degrees Celsius above normal), and the sea ice has taken a corresponding dip. The sea ice has taken a huge descent in the last couple days, while sea ice melts due to Arctic warming, ice loss itself can cause additional warming near the surface and be responsible for most of the Arctic amplification (a phenomenon used to characterize the strong Arctic warming compared to lower latitudes). The physics behind this is that sea ice acts as a barrier for the heat transport from the ocean to the atmosphere.
According to the Arctic Biodiversity Trends 2018 report, all types of habitats sea ice, tundra, permafrost peatlands, ponds and lakes formed by melting permafrost are changing and impacting biodiversity. There is less ice for species that depend on sea ice for hunting, breeding or sheltering their young, such as polar bears, walruses, and certain kinds of seals. As the permafrost thaws, the Arctic tundra is gradually becoming shrubbier. The ice loss has real consequences for the people in the region. The low sea ice is already impacting the lives and livelihoods of people in Western Alaska coastal communities by restricting hunting and fishing which are the mainstays of the economies of these communities.
As the ice loss continues, more areas might be able to support agriculture, and an earlier spring could boost plant growth and allow for a longer growing season. Arctic residents could benefit as more fish species like cod and herring move north because of warming oceans further south. The growth in phytoplankton might also support new fisheries, and less ice cover could provide access to different fish species.
The U.S. Geological Survey projects that 22 percent of the world’s untapped oil, natural gas and natural gas liquid reserves lie in the Arctic, as well as abundant deposits of minerals, including rare earth metals essential for modern technology. Various countries are scrambling for position in anticipation of the newly accessible riches, as oil and gas licenses for exploration are being issued. Local communities will benefit from these new economic opportunities, as will oil companies. Though mining may bring economic opportunity, however, more oil and gas exploitation will also mean more fossil fuel burning, and greenhouse gas emissions. The Arctic’s new accessibility will bring more trade, tourism and scientific research, but it will also mean more risk of pollution and invasive species, manmade disasters like oil spills and shipping accidents, and illegal activity. The challenge will be to find a balance between the threats to the Arctic that warming represents and the many opportunities it provides.
We can learn a lot about what is going to happen down here from looking at what is happening up there. As Arctic sea ice loss continues, we will see stronger warming in the Arctic. It is not happening slowly, it is happening fast and right now, climate change is real.