Arctic Change = Global Change or, What Happens in the Arctic Doesn’t Stay in the Arctic

The climate system is an angry beast and we are poking it with sticks (Wally Broecker, Columbia University, 1998)

(Photo: Getty Images)(Photo: Getty Images)Change has been a constant in the Arctic for millennia. Ice ages have come and gone, sculpting the landscape, and raising and lowering sea levels around the planet. Human occupation of the Arctic began about 40,000 years ago in western Siberia and spread out from there. Everywhere they went, human beings exploited local resources and adapted to the conditions they met. Until colonization, the rate of change they faced was incremental.

Today's Arctic is a homeland to the Inuit, Athabaskan, Nenets, Saami and many other Indigenous Peoples. Most have been observing climate-induced environmental change for at least several decades. In Canada, many of these observations were recorded in "Voices from the Bay," published by the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee and the Community of Sanikiluaq in 1996. This study focused on the observations of the Inuit and Cree whose homelands lie in the vast watershed of Hudson Bay. Voices from the Bay showed that Indigenous Peoples had been noticing "highly variable" weather since the 1940s. 

(Photo: Getty Images)(Photo: Getty Images)

There used to be more clear, calm days, winters were colder, and low temperatures persisted longer. By the early 1990s, weather changes were quick, unexpected, and difficult to predict. Blizzards, for example, would occur on clear days in the Chesterfield Inlet area, but on days when environmental indicators suggested a blizzard, it would not materialize i.

While these changes were being observed within the Arctic, for the rest of the planet the Arctic remained as it always had been: a cold, remote, romanticized place. That the region is still often referred to as "pristine" is the product of centuries of imagining that the people of the Arctic were frozen in time, unaltered either by the intrusions of colonial contact or modern global economy.

While Arctic peoples are used to dealing with change, there is a limit to their ability to continue to adapt. As Inuit advocate and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sheila Watt Cloutier has repeatedly pointed out: "the culture, economy, and way of life of Inuit is under threat from human-induced climate change."ii

The global implications of Arctic climate change were first articulated in the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (2005). The ACIA was the first regional climate assessment and was a product of several years of work by the Arctic Council. Its main conclusion was that the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet. Successive studies have reinforced this conclusion.

The ACIA predicted that Arctic sea ice would disappear by the end of this century. Since its release, the decline of multi-year ice has accelerated and a number of papers over the last few years have produced varied estimates of the decline, some predicting summer sea ice disappearance by the end of this decade. Despite the difficulty of pinning down a date, the collective conclusion is that the ice is vanishing at an alarming rate.iii While ice reforms in the winter, the Arctic is still losing its enormous white, reflective cap, which means that increasing amounts of solar energy are absorbed into the open waters of the Arctic Ocean each summer. This warming creates conditions that further accelerate melting and so the cycle continues, year by year.

Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent.iv

Melting sea ice contributes to a warmer Arctic which in turn increases the rate of snow and ice decline in glaciers and, most significantly, the Greenland Ice Sheet. Three kilometres thick in places, the ice on Greenland holds enough fresh water to raise global sea levels by seven metres. In 2012, 97% of the Greenland Ice Sheet experienced surface melting, a reading that broke all previous records. In 2013, the melt area was smaller despite record temperature readings during the summer.v

While a total collapse of the ice sheet is not expected, it is currently responsible for 3 millimetres of sea level rise per year. This may not sound like a lot, but it represents billions of tonnes of fresh water entering the global ocean system every year. And this number represents a baseline from which we will be able to measure future sea level change. Even if greenhouse gas emissions were reduced dramatically today, the Earth would continue to warm for the next several decades. That's because CO2 remains in the atmosphere for up to 100 years. Eventually, as CO2 levels are stabilized and begin to decline, the warming potential of CO2 declines as well. Different greenhouse gases work in similar ways, over different time scales.

Sea level rise, however, will continue for centuries due to a number of factors, including the fact that as the ocean warms, it expands. This means coastal regions, and so-called vulnerable parts of the planet like the Arctic and Small Island Developing States, will need to commit resources to adaptation well into the future.

As the Arctic changes, there is evidence that these changes are already contributing to extreme weather events in lower latitudes and a slowing of the jet stream. This could lead to periods of rainfall and drought, summer heat waves and winter cold snaps. Among the weather events being pointed to are the deadly Russian heat wave of 2010, prolonged cold spells in Europe in 2012, and heavy snowfalls in parts of North America followed by drought in 2011 and

Other changes are taking place at the ecosystem level. Climate change is a major stressor on Arctic animal, bird and fish populations. Melting snow and ice is changing food cycles, which in turn affect the animals that depend on them. Polar bears, walrus and seals are vulnerable to the loss of summer sea ice. Algae growth is increasing in warmer Arctic waters and there has been a 20% increase in production of green plants on land since 1982.vii

Just as what happens in the Arctic affects the rest of the planet, the future of the Arctic lies in the hands of the rest of the world. The greenhouse gas emissions that are melting the Arctic are being generated outside of the region. The people of the Arctic have been calling on the major emitters to live up to their responsibilities. Deep emissions cuts are required if the planet is to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Arctic voices are echoed by leaders from the Small Island Developing States:

The impacts of climate change may be affecting small island states and remote Arctic communities with small populations, but they are also affecting hundreds of millions of people in the Ganges, Indus, Yangtze and other river systems dependent on glacial water for agriculture and drinking.... [M]ajor emitters and emerging economies cannot afford to continue with business as usual.viii

By John Crump 
Senior Advisor/Climate Change

1i. Voices from the Bay: Traditional Ecological Knowledge of the Inuit and Cree in the Hudson Bay Bioregion (Canadian Arctic Resources Committee 1997) pp 28–29.

2ii. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Climate Change and Human Rights Human Rights Dialogue: "Environmental Rights" Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs (Spring 2004)

3iii. United Nations Environment Programme 2013. UNEP Yearbook: Emerging Issues in our Global Environment. Nairobi, Kenya, p 23.

4iv. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2013. 5th Assessment Report, Working Group I, Approved Summary for Policymakers, p. 5.

5v. [5 Nov. 2013]

6vi. UNEP 2013, p. 23.

7vii. UNEP 2013, p. 25.

8viii. Sheila Watt-Cloutier and Ronald Jumeau. We Need Many Strong, United Voices to Combat Climate Change, posted 2 April 2012. [8 Nov. 2013]


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Online features on the project website are an online series of commentary articles discussing a variety of issues facing the Arctic today with the aim at engaging policy makers, stakeholders and the general public on Arctic issues in different countries. It is a venue for public interaction and communication between the public, scientific researchers, policy makers and stakeholders through online comments in order to enhance the transfer of knowledge into action.

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Each feature focuses on one of the different trends chosen for impact assessment in the methodology report from Work Package 2 of the project: Climate and environmental changes in the Arctic; Increase in maritime transport; Increase in mining and exploitation of hydrocarbons; Changing nature of Arctic fisheries; Turbulent modernization of Arctic societies and cultures; Increasing research in the Arctic


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