Arctic will face rapid, devastating change: new reports

“Put the whole earth in the refrigerator to cool it off”


Summer Arctic sea ice may be gone within 40 years, says a new report from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment program. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Summer Arctic sea ice may be gone within 40 years, says a new report from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment program. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

COPENHAGEN — The Arctic Council, the international body which unites eight Arctic nations, meets next week in Nuuk.

But at this May 12 gathering, top government officials from Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Finland won’t hear how intensely climate change is affecting the Arctic today and may in the future damage the world’s food supply and flood its major cities.

Three separate reports prepared by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, a working group of the Arctic Council, on snow and ice, mercury, and contaminants, which are not yet on the Arctic Council’s agenda, Nunatsiaq News has learned.

Unless these reports are tabled, Canada’s foreign ministers and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will not necessarily see or consider these reports’ compelling new evidence about how the Arctic of tomorrow will look startlingly different than that remembered by Inuit elders.

“It’s crazy,” said Bob Corell, the chairman of the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, who reviewed the more recent reports on climate change in the Arctic.

In the future, there will be less snow, less ice and a changed environment for all living things, says 2011 AMAP report, Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic, to be released May 4 in Copenhagen at a conference on Arctic climate change and pollution.

The report paints yet another bleak picture what the Arctic will be like by 2100, when temperatures will rise from 4 C to 11 C — or more.

The past six years have been the warmest ever in the Arctic, the executive summary of the SWIPA report says.

In the future, scientists see the Arctic Ocean continuing to absorb more of the sun’s energy during the summer due to the loss of ice — in a kind of “vicious circle,” according to one of its authors, Jim Overland of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Travelling on land will become more difficult in the Arctic, the region’s buildings and other infrastructure will suffer more stress, and some Arctic communities will face relocations.

For Corell, the two scariest changes outlined in the report include the continuing acidification of the Arctic Ocean, which could eventually destroy sea life, and the melting of permafrost, which may release large amounts of the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere.

“When methane burps, put the whole earth in the refrigerator to cool it off,” Corell said — adding that “of course” this is impossible.

Some changes will create “opportunities and challenges for Arctic residents,” like more tourism, says the SWIPA report.

But they’ll be faced with “rapid rates of change” that may “outpace adaptation capacity.”

To date, 7,700 square kilometres of freshwater from glacial melt on land has been added to Arctic Ocean.

But as this melt increases, “there is a risk that this could alter large-scale ocean currents that affect climate on a continental scale,” the SWIPA report says.

Sea level rise could produce “serious societal impacts,” it says.

“Higher average sea level and more damaging storm surges will directly affect millions of people,” it says.

Sea level is expected to rise from .9 to 1.6 metres by 2100. “Arctic ice melt will make a substantial contribution to this.”

Much uncertainty remains, such as what will happen to the Arctic Ocean and its ecosystems, how quickly the Greenland ice sheet will melt, how changes in snow and ice will affect global climate, and how this will affect Arctic society.

“More robust observational networks” are needed to keep an eye on these changes, says SWIPA’s executive summary.

The report also notes:

• The extent and duration of snow cover and sea ice have decreased in the Arctic have decreased;

• Permafrost temperatures have risen by 2 C;

• Ice bodies in the Arctic, like glaciers, have declined faster since 2000 than in the previous 10 years;

• Maximum snow depth in the Arctic is expected to increase by 2050, but snow duration will decline by up to 20 per cent; and,

• The Arctic Ocean will become nearly ice-free in summer by 2100, “likely within the next 30 to 40 years.”

The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program plans to tackle a report on ocean acidification in 2013, and, for 2017, complete a global, comprehensive Arctic change assessment, looking at social and economic changes as well.

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