There is something seriously wrong with the Arctic, the cold region around the North Pole. High temperatures are causing this frozen region to lose a lot of ice, year after year. Things have come to such a pass that scientists now say that the melting Arctic could change planet Earth forever in some not so good ways. What’s going on? Let’s find out in this Special Report.
The Arctic is the region around the North Pole, the imaginary point at the top of the globe. It is an area of ocean surrounded by land. In geographic terms, it includes the region north (or above) the Arctic Circle. The Arctic Circle is the latitude of 66 1/2°N. As you know latitudes are imaginary circles drawn on the Earth above and below the Equator, which itself is the greatest latitude.
Ringing the Arctic Ocean are the northernmost parts of the United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark and Norway. These countries have ownership of the Arctic Ocean up to 371 kilometres from their shore. The rest of the Arctic, including the North Pole, is not owned by any one country.
What’s the Arctic like?
It is a cold region with long, cold winters and short, warm summers. Though winter temperatures can fall to levels as low as -50°C in winter, parts of the region can be surprisingly warm in summer. The Arctic has a massive sheet of ice in the middle called the Polar Ice Cap, and much of this remains frozen throughout the year, at least until now.
What is happening in the Arctic?
The North Pole is a place that sees six months of darkness and six months of daylight each year. The sun set at the North Pole in October as usual, but despite the darkness, sea ice in the Arctic continued to melt. Even when it stopped melting, it refused to grow as fast as it normally does. In a normal year, once the sun sets on the North Pole, sea ice starts to spread-the cold water, weather and absence of sunlight all help the water freeze and harden. Not so this year.
Temperatures in the Arctic are now 20°C above what would be expected for the time of year. Sea ice is at the lowest extent (quantity) ever recorded for the time of year. Arctic Ocean waters are also much warmer than usual and this is preventing ice from forming faster.
Shrinking Ice Cap
The sheet of ice at the North Pole has been shrinking little by little over the last 60-70 years. Just compare the two images to see the situation in 2014 as compared to 1944.
What is causing this?
The Arctic is getting warmer due to the larger problem of global warming. Global warming is the rise in temperatures on Earth due to human activity. We are now experiencing hotter summers than ever before while winters aren’t as cold.
Human activity such as the use of petrol and oil to run cars and airplanes, the cutting down of forests to cultivate crops and the huge increase in factories to produce the goods we use has increased the levels of Carbon Di-oxide (CO₂) in the` air. This CO₂ gas acts as a blanket trapping heat around Earth. The more CO₂ we pump into the air, the warmer it gets on Earth.
Regime shifts are happening
The lower levels of ice in the Arctic is causing some massive changes on Earth warns a new report called the ‘Arctic Resilience Report’ published by the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Such changes are massive in nature cannot be reversed (you cannot return to the old state of things) and are called ‘Regime Shifts’.
Here are some of the regime shifts or massive changes that are underway. These could change planet Earth as we know it, forever.
An ice free Arctic
Before the end of this century (2099), the Arctic Ocean could become completely ice free in the summer months. White ice can reflect the sun’s heat, thus preventing melting of the pack ice. But as the ice cap melts, the open ocean replaces it and water has a higher ability to absorb heat. Warmer water will melt the remaining ice faster.
Impact: The greatest impact will be on the native people and animals of the Arctic. They will suddenly see their land (ice is part of their ‘land’) becoming much smaller. The same will happen to the polar bears and other animals that live on the ice.
Collapse of the Greenland ice sheet
Have you seen the size of Greenland which lies close to the Arctic? Much of it is covered by ice and this ice too is in danger of collapsing due to the increase in temperature.
Impact: The Greenland ice sheet is 1.7 million square kilometres in size (that’s massive!). If its melts completely, sea levels would rise by about seven metres. Coasts of all countries would get flooded and many cities, towns and villages would be destroyed.
From tundra to steppe and forest
The cold of the Arctic creates a special habitat called the ‘tundra’ where vegetation is mainly grasses, moss and small shrubs. As the climate gets warmer, other plants and even trees that are found in boreal forests (a kind of forests found to the south of the Arctic) may creep their way up further north.
Impact: This will lead to a loss of habitat for tundra species such as polar bears, arctic foxes and caribou. On the other hand birds and animals of the forests will get some space and may increase in number. Either way, wildlife populations will change.
Climate pattern change
The smaller ice cap will change wind flow and seasonal weather in many parts of the world. For us living in India, the life giving monsoon could be affected.
Impact: If the monsoon fails, farmers will not be able to grow crops and food will be in short supply and become costly.