Written by Alex Rose
When we look at the Arctic on a map or globe, it just appears as a cap on the top of the world occupied mostly by snow, ice, and frigid water. But in truth, this is a region that changes drastically from one season to the next. It is now being transformed at a much more rapid pace as a result of global climate change, a human-induced alteration of the composition of our world’s atmosphere through the excessive burning of fossil fuels causing shifts in climate, temperature, weather, and much more. We discussed climate change specifically in a different blog entry entitled “Our Changing Climate” so I won’t go over the same details here, but please read it if you’d like to know more about the basics of climate change.
Arctic sea ice is our planet’s air conditioning system and has been balancing Earth’s climate for millions of years. Not only does sea ice help to regulate the world’s weather patterns, but it provides important habitat for many marine creatures that depend on ice for their survival. There are over 1000 species of ice algae in the Arctic, not to mention the plankton, birds, fish, and marine mammals that all require a stable sea ice habitat to live. The fragile arctic food web is intrinsically tied to fluctuations in sea ice extent and volume and is consequently extremely vulnerable to collapse because of warming arctic temperatures caused by anthropogenic climate change.
The Arctic is now warming and acidifying faster than anywhere else on Earth and is heating up approximately twice as fast most regions. Arctic sea ice is melting so fast that scientists are having a difficult time keeping pace with its disappearance. We are also seeing vast reductions in the amount of multi-year ice, the incredibly thick ice that persists and builds on itself from one year to the next, as it is replaced by fragile first-year ice, which forms in winter and melts in summer. The Arctic Ocean is also particularly vulnerable to acidification, the process by which CO2 is absorbed by the ocean and combines with water to form carbonic acid. The constant uptake of excess carbon dioxide has caused ocean surface waters to become 30% more acidic since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
An Arctic Ocean that is ice-free during the summer months is a likely reality within the next few decades. This drastic alteration of our polar north will open up areas previously protected by sea ice to commercial development, oil and gas exploration, shipping traffic, luxury cruise liners, and all manner of human enterprise that will irrevocably alter this part of our planet. Easy access to the Arctic would have a detrimental effect on the overall health of the region, and would subject wildlife to many human-born stressors that they currently don’t experience.
While we cannot reverse the damage already done, we still have the capacity to reduce and mitigate further impacts on our planet by curbing our release of harmful greenhouse gases through the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and unsustainable agricultural practices. It is not too late to reimagine our future, but our window of opportunity to incite these critical changes is closing as rapidly as our arctic sea ice is melting.