Lloyd Pikok / Arctic Council Secretariat

Life in one of the fastest-warming places on Earth

A dive into the societal impacts of Arctic warming, written by Glaciologist Dr. Heïdi Sevestre.

For the past 30 years, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) has been taking the pulse of an Arctic environment severely affected by man-made climate change. Through four climate assessments, and a fifth one released in 2021, AMAP has clearly painted the picture of one of the fastest-warming inhabited regions on Earth. And the numbers speak for themselves: trillions of tonnes of ice lost by the Greenland Ice Sheet in two decades, permafrost thawing deeper every year, millions of square kilometres of sea ice lost into a warming Arctic Ocean in 40 years. Sometimes numbers can be so astronomical that they make us forget what they actually mean on the ground. The changes taking place in the region are climatic but also health-related, cultural and economic. Let us dive into the societal impacts of Arctic warming.

The Arctic plays a crucial role in regulating and stabilizing the Earth’s climate. If climate change persists at the rates expected in the Arctic, it will continue to affect the world’s ecosystems, economies, political stability and human health and well-being.

It’s official, the Arctic is now warming three times faster than the rest of the world. This is certainly no cause for celebration. The ever-increasing CO2 levels combined with short-lived climate forcers (air pollutants with a relatively short atmospheric lifetime) catalyse the rate of Arctic warming. The air and the ocean are getting warmer. Precipitation rates are disturbed with rain gradually gaining on snow. Today, we have already committed the region to long-term warming, with potential temperature increase from 3.3 to 10°C by the end of the century, depending on the course of future emissions. With such rapid and widespread changes taking place around them, Arctic populations are at the forefront of climate change. For them, every tenth of degree gained makes the weather more unpredictable and generates dangerous extreme weather events directly impacting their daily lives and livelihoods.

The response of Arctic environments to these changes is as expected: fast, extensive, and in some cases, already irreversible. The cold, frozen and white Arctic is transitioning away from landscapes dominated by snow and ice. But the footprint of Arctic warming goes even further, changing the way we think of pollution in the Arctic. There, climate change has the potential to alter the sources, transport and fate of man-made contaminants. Earlier predictions of climate change impacts on such chemicals are actually occurring. Sea ice loss, glacier retreat and reduced snow cover remobilizes previously deposited contaminants. In some parts of the Arctic, levels of particular Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), including PCBs, are no longer declining to the extent that would be expected given known decreases in their primary source emissions. Climate change might be part of the reason behind these changing trends.

The Arctic physical environments are changing, and with them come significant alterations of ecological communities and food-webs. Shifts in the abundance, seasonal migrations and distribution of species due to warmer temperatures may change their exposure to contaminants such as mercury, POPs and other pollutants. Contaminants accumulated in subsistence species may be transmitted to local human populations who consume a meat- and fat-rich diet. Today, most local wild foods found in the Arctic continue to be the main source of exposure to contaminants for Arctic populations. However, these same foods also provide a rich source of healthy nutrients. Contaminants can become more concentrated as they move up through the food chains, reaching their highest levels in top predators, particularly some species of marine mammals, that are such important components of local diets in the Arctic. Many of these chemicals are known to have a negative impact on human health.

Photo: John Pohl

New threats further catalyse Arctic warming and with that, its societal impacts. Every summer, wildfires blaze north of the Arctic Circle with increasing intensity, releasing CO2 and huge quantities of fine particles of black carbon impacting warming and air quality. Climate change is also expected to exacerbate the amount of plastic debris in the Arctic, calling for a more coordinated and comprehensive monitoring strategy across the Arctic regions. Finally, a warmer Arctic enables the intensification of human activities such as fisheries, tourism, extraction of resources and the use of chemicals. While decades ago, contaminants had to travel via air and ocean pathways to make it to the Arctic, now contaminants are released right at the heart of these vulnerable polar ecosystems, endangering environments, wildlife and populations alike.

Arctic populations face the impacts of man-made climate change every day of their lives; through the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat, the landscapes they maintain. Further South, consequences of a warming Arctic might look pale in comparison. You may think that below 66.30° North, climate change is only a distant threat, only impacting the most extreme regions of our planet. But think again. The Arctic plays a crucial role in regulating and stabilizing the Earth’s climate. If climate change persists at the rates expected in the Arctic, it will continue to affect the world’s ecosystems, economies, political stability and human health and well-being. Sea level rise from the melt of the Greenland Ice Sheet alone will redefine borders and coastlines around the world. Decreasing Arctic sea ice will allow Arctic shipping to flourish, as well as increasing the potential risk of accidents. Greenhouse gases emitted by thawing permafrost will also add to the carbon load in the atmosphere, further emphasizing the urgency for effective and ambitious action by Arctic nations and the rest of world to limit Arctic warming and hasten the transformation toward a more resilient state. As the Arctic is becoming warmer, wilder and more complex, the need for continued and improved monitoring of the region and of the societal implications of these changes is stronger than ever. No one is immune to the consequences of Arctic warming.

There's been considerable Interest for two scientific papers arising from the Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA) 2017 AMAP report.

Key Indicators of Arctic Climate Change: 1971-2017
Jason Box and co-authors, Environment Research Letters, 2019

Based on observations over the previous 47 years, it describes fundamental changes among key elements of the Arctic physical and biological systems and highlights the Arctic’s transition away from its 20th century state, with implications further South. This paper was downloaded more than 71,000 times and has received 94 citations.

The urgency of Arctic change
James Overland and co-authors, Polar Science, 2019

This paper anticipates that current levels of climate change in the Arctic will require major adaptation as ecosystem reorganizations, sea ice-free shipping routes and social disruption are expected, leaving the Arctic a much different environment by mid-century. This paper was awarded NOAA’s Outstanding Paper of 2020, and has so far received 64 citations.

Both papers have also received excellent coverage in social media.