With major overall loss in sea ice cover over the last several decades, and with a climate that is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, the Arctic is “Ground Zero” of climate change [1,2]. At the rate of warming that is currently taking place, some scientists now believe that the Arctic could be ice-free during the summer months by the year 2030 .
Such changes in the Arctic will have major impacts on the climate, weather, sea levels, ecosystems, and species in the rest of the world.
How arctic climate affects the rest of the world?
Global sea level rise
As the sea ice in the Arctic melts due to climate change, the expansion of the water as it warms leads to an overall increase in sea level.
It is estimated that if all of the ice sheet in Greenland alone melted, sea levels around the world have the potential to rise to as high as 23 feet .
Melting arctic permafrost releases greenhouse gases
As the temperature in the Arctic warms, the permafrost is beginning to melt.
The permafrost layer holds an estimated 1.7 trillion tons of carbon in the form of undecomposed organic matter that could begin to decay and release the potent greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane if temperatures get warm enough .
The global jet stream is stalling
As the Arctic has warmed, the differences in temperatures between the cold Arctic and the southern regions have decreased, and this has been impacting the speed of the jet stream and slowing it down.
The result is that the jet stream “stalls” for longer periods, and creates extreme snowfalls, droughts, and heat waves.
The swing of the jet stream is also increasing, facilitating the cooler Arctic air to reach further south and warm air to reach further north. The result is the record-breaking temperatures that we are seeing so commonly today .
Large freshwater influxes
Influxes of freshwater into the channels and currents in the Arctic Ocean greatly influence the climate and how the ocean circulates. As Arctic glaciers, sea ice, and Greenland’s ice sheet melt, larger amounts of freshwater are entering the Arctic Ocean than what occurs under natural conditions.
Such increased amounts of freshwater could theoretically negatively impact the thermohaline circulation, the ocean “conveyor belt” that brings warmer water from the equator north to the poles, brings cold dense polar water south to the equator, and maintains temperature balances around the world .
Wildlife, marine life and global songbird impacts, phytoplankton blooms
As the permafrost and Arctic Sea Ice melts, the Arctic habitat is changing, with less ice, less grasses and moss, and more shrubs in the tundra.
Among many other changes in habitat for local Arctic wildlife such as caribou, polar bears, walruses, seals and Arctic Foxes, increased snow on shrubs may delay the uncovering of seeds that migratory birds need as a food source when they arrive there at the end of their long migrations.
If the migrating songbirds are negatively impacted in the Arctic, their populations will decline around the rest of the world during the rest of the year. This would have a major impact on many different ecosystems worldwide, as these songbirds play a vital role in insect control, seed dispersal and pollination, and are an important food source for a variety of predators .
As Arctic water warms, the phytoplankton is blooming earlier during the year than it used to . Such blooms are likely to have impacts throughout the food chain. The ocean waters are absorbing more CO2, making the ocean more acidic, negatively impacting marine organisms that have calcium carbonate-based shells and skeletons.
Warmer ocean waters are bringing marine life such as killer whales, humpbacks, blue and gray whales further north than they were once able to due to the previously presence of sea ice .
Migratory invasive species are also beginning to invade the region, displacing some Arctic species .
Potential positive effects of a warming arctic
The absence of sea ice and thawing permafrost in the Arctic could potentially lead to an increase in agriculture, a longer growing season, increased trade routes, tourism in the region, and potential possibilities of new fisheries as some fish species such as cod and herring move further north.
However, the opening up of travel routes and passage in the Arctic is also likely to increase oil and gas exploration in the region.
This could discourage the development and use of alternative energy sources and increase the greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere even more, as well as presenting an increased risk of oceanic pollution from oil spills.