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© Sylvia Rubli / WWF
Our time to act is running out

Guest blog by: Pam Pearson, Director, International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI)

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"We know all this already.”

Over the past few years, scientists and ex-diplomats with the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative -- a science-policy network that works to bring Arctic science into the climate debate – have started hearing this phrase. When cryosphere scientists asked for a spot on the COP-26 agenda, one senior negotiator put it dismissively, “That battle has been won.”

Except we don’t think the battle has been won.

Aerial view of mountains and glacier, Brooks Range, Alaska, United States.
© Monte HUMMEL / WWF-Canada

If the battle were won, governments would be racing to put in place the transition needed: measures that will reduce global CO2 emissions 50% by 2030. Instead, emissions continue to rise, barely paused by Covid-19. And rather than use the current crisis in global gas prices as a reason to transition faster, some governments are pressing for more fossil fuel production subsidies instead.

Scientists who study the cryosphere – the world’s snow and ice regions, ranging from the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, to mountain glaciers, to Arctic permafrost and sea ice – have watched these rising emissions with increasing alarm; as they see growing evidence that in the end, the battle to save a reasonably habitable planet will be won or lost in the Arctic and other cryosphere.

This is because of three key findings that have emerged in the past 20 years of intensive cryosphere research:

  • Many changes in the Arctic and other cryosphere caused by warming are permanent. By permanent, we mean that these changes are irreversible on human timescales. Once melted, a glacier or an ice sheet is essentially gone on human timescales: restoration is a matter of centuries, if not thousands of years.
  • 2°C is much too high. Advances in understanding the Earth’s past have shown just how sensitive Arctic and global ice is to even slight global temperature rise. Many of these permanent changes would be triggered by 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
  • The global impacts from projected cryosphere loss with current as-implemented national pledges for emissions reductions (NDCs ), let alone continued high emissions makes adaptation difficult. Places like the American West, reliant on meltwater from glaciers and seasonal snowpack will be severely impacted; and nearly everywhere reached by weather extremes exacerbated in part by Arctic warming and changes in ocean currents.
Panoramic view of glacier and ice at sea edge, Spitsbergen, Norway.
© Wim van Passel / WWF

The good news is that these essentially permanent impacts can be averted, or at least slowed to a crawl if we instead stay close to the Paris Agreement’s aspirational 1.5°C goal. This is still within our reach, if we act in time and at scale: 50% reductions globally by 2030, reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.

Nevertheless, this reality of permanent global impacts from cryosphere has yet to penetrate the highest levels of government and industry, let alone reach the general public. A false sense of security prevails: that it’s OK to allow temperatures to rise for just a bit longer. And that today’s economic concerns outweigh future extreme and -- more to the point -- permanent economic loss and damage. The Arctic may respond slowly at first, but as carbon dioxide concentrations rise, passing 420ppm twice this year, such essentially permanent impacts from Arctic and global cryosphere melt become more obvious and unavoidable:

  • Greenland, Antarctica and Sea-level rise: Humanity will see an ultimate 15-20 meters rise in sea level should temperatures peak between 2-3°C. Recovery would take more than 10,000 years: ice sheets only grow back in ice age conditions.
  • Mountain glaciers: Few glaciers outside the poles and Himalayas will remain by 2200 should temperatures reach 2°C; and 90% of even Himalayan ice is gone at 3°C. A glacier takes several hundred, to over a thousand years to re-grow completely.
  • Arctic sea ice: Shipping companies may consider sea ice loss good news; but catastrophic impacts on weather and drought, Greenland melt and permafrost emissions will dwarf any economic gain. Recovery takes decades to centuries.
  • Arctic Ocean acidification: The Arctic and Southern Oceans absorb more CO2, more quickly than all other oceans combined. Above 450ppm – which at current emissions, we will reach in less than 15 years -- valuable Arctic fisheries may largely cease to exist. Recovery to less corrosive conditions will take 50,000-70,000 years.

These permanent impacts -- which will grow worse with each successive rise in temperature -- are not only of concern for Arctic and mountain peoples. If caused to occur by continued, irresponsible CO2 emissions – especially, continued extraction and use of fossil fuels -- the scale of loss and damage will occur everywhere on the planet.

We didn’t know all this already – but we know now. And time is growing very short for our leaders to understand the meaning of the irrefutable, non-negotiable melting point of ice.

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To learn more about the cyrosphere, read the recently released: The State of the Cryosphere Report 2021

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) walking across ice floe. Svalbard, Norway.
© Richard Barrett / WWF-UK