© Andrew S. Wright/WWF-Canada

The meltdown we can’t afford

20 September 2019

Arctic Climate Change Pan-Arctic Wildlife Communities

By Dr. Peter Winsor, Director of the WWF Arctic Programme

Next week’s release of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): The Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) coincides with another bad year for the Arctic. This summer saw record heatwaves across the region, unprecedented wildfires and reports of marine ecosystem collapse. And the Greenland ice sheet saw a record-high amount of ice melt in July/August.

So, what is the cryosphere and what do we expect the SROCC report to tell us about the current state and future of our frozen places?

The Cryosphere

The cryosphere is the collective name for all the frozen components on earth and includes glaciers, all types of ice, snow, permafrost and seasonally frozen ground. One component of the frozen world is sea ice - the rainforest of the polar regions. Sea ice is a critical part of the Arctic food chain, providing a unique biome for under-ice algae, polar cod, all the way up to baleen whales, and functions as a platform for ice-dependent species such as seals, walrus, narwhal and polar bears.

Apart from these important ecosystem services, sea ice acts as a “sunbrella” for the earth, reflecting solar radiation back into space and thus moderating the climate.

Permafrost has many functions but its most important is the responsibility of storing old carbon. Although the current flux of greenhouse gases from the thawing permafrost is uncertain, there is more carbon stored in the north than what the entire atmosphere is currently holding.

Arctic People

About 4 million people currently call the Arctic home. Coastal communities around the Arctic have lived with the reliable presence of frozen snow-covered ground and sea ice since the last ice age. Arctic Peoples are in many ways an ice-dependent species too. Ice and permafrost allow for safe travel, access to hunting grounds and protection from storms and coastal erosion. All this change leaves coastal communities struggling to adapt – the pace of ice loss and resulting coastal erosion often overruns the ability to build sea walls or try to move entire villages.

Polar regions and global sea-level rise

While melting sea ice does not contribute to sea-level rise, other parts of the cryosphere do with a vengeance. Global sea-level rise is currently attributed to three main drivers – melting of polar ice sheets and glaciers, and thermal expansion (oceans expanding due to soaking up heat from a warming atmosphere). The accelerated melting of ice sheets and glaciers has now become the dominant cause of sea-level rise and directly connects the polar regions to the future of hundreds of million people that live and depend on the coastal areas of the world.

Sustainable development and adaptation

The climate crisis in the north is huge, right now, today. With longer ice-free periods comes increased access and shipping, and interest in industrial development opportunities in the Arctic from nations near and afar, including extractive industries. This adds another unwanted burden on the polar ecosystem – from increased underwater noise, disturbance of migratory species, pollution and the potential of catastrophic spills.

We depend on nature and must consider ecosystems and their services in current and future development. A nature-based solution such as restoring and creating networks of protected natural areas that act as carbon sinks and refugia (salt marshes, wetlands, tundra, and boreal forests) are increasingly important to mitigate the climate crisis. Giving people and nature elbow room has proven effective in the past, and might be one solution to avoid the possible reality of extinction of polar species and unsustainable conditions for Arctic people and their cultures.

The future path

Do we depend on healthy cold regions on Earth? The answer is a clear YES. The upcoming release of the SROCC report is expected to clearly show that the future of the cryosphere is critically dependent on achieving the Paris agreement goal of a global 1.5°C warming.

Through immediate cross-cutting action, we can choose just how much of the cryosphere will remain at the end of this century. The polar regions are already locked into increased warming due to the greenhouse gases that currently reside in the atmosphere. The future trajectory we take can be vastly different depending on our ability, or inability, for action today. This will require a certain level of sacrifice and discomfort for each and every one of us. Feel like having a meltdown? This is the one meltdown we can’t afford.

Dr. Peter Winsor is the director of WWF’s Arctic Program. He’s been studying the polar regions and their climate and ecosystems for the past 25 years as an oceanography professor. Follow him and the Arctic Programme on Twitter @ArcticPeterW and @WWF_Arctic