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Dahr Jamail | From Rising Seas to Walruses, the Arctic’s Endangerment Affects Us All

As climate disruption advances, the fragile Arctic ecosystem is on the brink.

A ringed seal pup finds shelter on ice. Ringed seals, like many Arctic mammals, depend on sea ice to survive - ice that is swiftly disappearing. (Photo: Ringed Seal via Shutterstock)

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As world leaders meet at the COP21 climate conference in Paris, we would do well to turn our eyes northward. The impacts of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) are nowhere as evident as they are in the Arctic, where temperatures are rising at least twice as fast as the average global temperature increase.

The most obvious ramification of this has taken the form of dramatically milder winters in the far north, coupled with temperature increases in the waters of the Arctic Ocean – both of which are dramatically increasing the melting of the sea ice, which is leaving more of the water’s surface exposed, thus allowing more heat to reach the ocean during the summer. This process is likely the most well-known and most important feedback loop in ACD today – and because of it, land ice and permafrost in the Arctic are melting at a record pace.

Despite the remoteness of the Arctic, the region is deeply linked to the rest of the planet: Everything from our weather, to coastal flooding, to what we eat is tied to the Arctic and the events that are rapidly changing it.

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Since the cold waters of the Arctic absorb more carbon dioxide than the more temperate waters that fill most of the rest of the globe, the Arctic Ocean is far more sensitive to ocean acidification. Add to that the fact that declining summer sea ice is exposing even more of that ocean, which is allowing even more carbon dioxide from the air into the waters.

The Arctic Circle contains an area that is roughly 6 percent of the Earth’s surface, yet the dramatic evidence of its impact on the rest of the planet is mounting. Some of that evidence is now taking the form of melting land ice that is generating sea level rise.

The pace of global sea level rise is increasing, largely due to what is happening in the Arctic, according to the recently released report Arctic Matters: The Global Connection to Changes in the Arctic, a report by The National Research Council of the National Academies.

According to the report, sea levels have risen about 20.3 cm (about eight inches) since 1901, but the pace of sea level rise is increasing. Plus, “Over the past two decades, sea level has risen globally at a rate of 3.1 mm (0.12 inches) per year on average. Between 2003 and 2008, melting Arctic glaciers, ice caps, and the Greenland Ice Sheet contributed 1.3 mm (0.05 inches) – more than 40 percent – of the total global sea level rise observed each year.”

Additionally, for those of us living outside the Arctic Circle, it is easy to ignore the dramatic impacts ACD is having on creatures living in the Arctic.

A large number of these animals exist nowhere else on earth, and as the climate of the Arctic warms and changes, these species are in trouble. Many of them are facing the threat of extinction.

Loss of habitat and the drastic reduction of animals’ hunting ranges due to receding sea ice now threaten polar bears, walruses and several species of seals, among other animals.

The landscape is changing dramatically as well, and the implications are dire not only for animals in the Arctic, but for all of us.

Endangered Species on the Brink

Dr. David Klein is a professor emeritus of wildlife management in the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. His research currently focuses on “changes taking place in the natural and human environments at high latitudes and their relation to global climate change.”

Klein told Truthout that some of the impacts of rising temperatures on Arctic ecology include “lower biological productivity, through photosynthesis by phytoplankton, in the absence of sea ice when the sun is highest in spring and early summer.” Phytoplankton is a critical component of the ocean food chain, so dwindling amounts of it in seas is an extremely concerning phenomenon.

This means that native peoples who live at the edge of the sea – who have traditionally hunted and fished on, through, or within the sea ice for marine mammals, arctic cod and crabs – are now less able to do so for lack of this kind of sea life.

Additionally, many native villages are being eroded by rising sea levels, melting permafrost and increased duration of rough seas, all of which are attributed to ACD.

Also, according to Klein, since productivity in Arctic marine waters at the ice edge is much higher than when ice is absent, ice-inhabiting seals cannot breed without multi-year ice.

“These ringed seals are primary prey of polar bears, plus polar bears need sea ice in order to hunt the seals,” he said. “Walrus need broken sea ice upon which they have their young and where females nurse them. Walrus dive to the bottom to feed on benthic fauna so the ice from which the walrus dive for food must be over water shallow enough for the walrus to be able to dive to the bottom in order to feed.”

Hence, the lack of consistent sea ice provokes a negative chain reaction for polar bears, seals and walrus.

Dr. Steven Vavrus at the Center for Climatic Research at the University of Wisconsin, serves on the Science Steering Committee for the Study of Environmental Arctic Change, an interagency program designed to improve understanding of the processes and consequences surrounding changes in the Arctic.

Vavrus told Truthout that the Arctic is seeing “large ecological changes already.” Like Klein, Vavrus pointed out how the loss of sea ice is directly affecting the habitat of polar bears, walruses and seals.

“There has also been a ‘greening’ of the Arctic, with longer periods of frost-free conditions,” he said. “In addition, thawing permafrost has altered the landscape by creating lakes and wetlands in some places and draining existing water bodies in other places. These changes in surface water affect the ecology of the region.”

These developments are impacting both marine and terrestrial life there, he said – including interactions between species. “Polar bears are being observed to spend more time on land now, in order to compensate for the shrinking ice pack, where they normally hunt,” Vavrus noted. “This will likely lead to more conflicts between bears and humans in Arctic towns and villages.”

Bad News for Plankton

How do these impacts on Arctic ecosystems stretch beyond the top of the world?

Dr. Jennifer Francis is a research professor at Rutgers University’s Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences whose research is focused on the Arctic. She emphasizes that any significant alterations in the Arctic environment will be felt globally.

“Arctic sea ice plays a critical role in the Arctic climate system and marine ecosystem, and as we’re learning, its disappearance is having broad effects well beyond the Arctic: from weather patterns to animal migrations to ocean current systems to food webs,” she told Truthout. “Its loss will be felt directly and indirectly by billions of people.”

For starters, the lost sea ice very directly impacts the base of the entire Arctic food chain: plankton.

As ice melts, more sunlight enters the ocean, which alters both the timing and species of plankton living there, she explained.

“Plankton are the base of the marine food web, so anything that affects them will affect the entire marine ecosystem,” Francis said. “Arctic species are adapted to a narrow range and specific annual cycle of (very cold) temperatures, so the rapid warming occurring the Arctic will challenge many endemic species. Sub-Arctic species are expected to advance northward, some of which are already being observed.”

She also explained that on land we are already seeing “substantial” impacts, since the active layer of the soil which thaws during the summer is thickening, which is allowing more shrubs to spread into tundra areas that once supported only low-growing plants.

“Changing vegetation affects the animals that eat it, and transition to shrubby growth also inhibits the movement of larger animals,” Francis explained.

It’s clear that ACD is having a dramatic impact on the region’s terrestrial life. To make things worse, the Arctic is witnessing the melting of the better part of its land mass: permafrost.

Melting Permafrost

Given what is happening in the Arctic, the term “permafrost” is likely to lose its meaning in the future.

“Defined as soil, rock, and any other subsurface earth material that exists at or below freezing for two or more consecutive years, permafrost thaws when ground temperatures increase,” Arctic Matters states. “Scientists have seen declines in permafrost over the past 30 years and predict that discontinuous permafrost will likely disappear across much of the Arctic, where ground temperatures are now within 1–2° C (1.8–3.6° F) of thawing.”

Trapped within the ice and permafrost of the Arctic are massive amounts of carbon that is in the forms of frozen plant matter or trapped within methane ice crystals. Melting is already releasing large amounts of this into the atmosphere, as Truthout has previously reported: another feedback loop of ACD.

Dr. Kevin Schaefer is an Arctic Research Scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. He specializes in permafrost dynamics and the carbon cycle of permafrost.

“Eight-hundred gigatons of carbon is frozen into the permafrost, like plant and tree roots, and if it thaws it would double the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere,” Schaefer told Truthout.

He added that while it could take hundreds of years for this to happen, it nevertheless comprises a feedback loop that amplifies warming that is already attributable to the burning of fossil fuels.

By the year 2100, Schaefer expects 120 gigatons of carbon will be added to the atmosphere by melting permafrost; an amount the National Snow and Ice Data Center estimates would increase global temperatures by 0.29C, which is an amount that is 7.8 percent of total planetary warming.

In other words, in the context of the politically agreed-upon goal of keeping global temperatures below a 2C increase, melting permafrost will add a little over 10 percent of that amount all by itself.

“We are seeing a particularly disturbingly high rate of warming in the permafrost,” Schaefer explained. “We put thermometers 20 meters into the permafrost, and it’s warming up a degree per decade which is a phenomenally fast rate for permafrost. It is disturbing to see this kind of rise, we’re seeing a rapid increase in temperature, and it’s driven entirely by climate change.”

As the permafrost thaws there will be a massive impact on the infrastructure of the Arctic and the people who live there. Ice in the permafrost is as solid as concrete, but as it thaws and melts, any infrastructure built on it will collapse, having a huge economic impact on the region – and the global economy.

Schaefer is the co-author of a study entitled “Economic impacts of carbon dioxide and methane released from thawing permafrost” that was recently published in Nature Climate Change.

“We estimated the cost impact on the global economy due to thawing permafrost to be $43 trillion,” Schaefer said.

This figure represents 13 percent of the total estimated economic impact of ACD, which is $300 trillion.

“We end our paper by saying this is just another factor that says we really need to address climate change now, and not wait,” Schaefer said.

His point is underscored by a study published in Geophysical Research Letters in April 2015, which showed that decaying permafrost is causing a “runaway effect,” in terms of methane and stored carbon being released into the atmosphere.

Another study published in the same journal later that same month said that carbon was already entering the atmosphere “at breakneck speed.”

Thus, as world leaders meet to engage in a political process around how to mitigate ACD impacts and negotiate terms around carbon dioxide emissions, the Arctic is already changing before our very eyes.

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