The shrinking Arctic ice protects us all. It’s time to act

artcic 2019

Jökulsárlón, Iceland (Unsplash, 2019)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Julienne Stroeve, Canada C-150 Chair, University of Manitoba, Canada & Gail Whiteman, Director, Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business, Lancaster University & Jeremy Wilkinson, Sea Ice Physicist, British Antarctic Survey


Each January many of us think about what old habits we can let go of and what new things can we bring into our world. Arctic scientists think about things in a different way: how can we hang on to the old and better understand the new?

We’re talking about sea ice, of course, rather than our smoking or drinking habits (well, sometimes we think about those too). The old ice in our world is of critical importance. Global society can’t maintain or protect the things we hold dear without it.

What do we mean? And why should you care?

Simply put, old ice is multi-year ice. It has been around in the Arctic Ocean for more than one year.

But the area of old ice is shrinking dramatically, and unless we reduce our emissions we are pretty much guaranteed to lose it all. An Arctic without sea ice is like your house without its roof. But in this case the house is very large; it covers the top of our world.

Multi-year ice is a key part of the Arctic system because it is thicker and stronger than younger ice. It not only controls the dynamics of all the rest of the ice in the Arctic, it also influences the Arctic ecosystem by limiting the amount of light entering the water column. Changing the distribution of light disrupts the breeding cycle of marine organisms such as phytoplankton and puts tremendous pressure on the regional food web, including fisheries.

Like anything old and grisly, multi-year ice used to be able to survive the summer melt. But the summers are getting warmer. The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the global average (known as Arctic amplification), and the old ice is melting. It is being replaced by younger ice (formed in the winter), which – being thinner – cannot survive the summer melt. The ongoing loss of multi-year ice is a key factor behind Arctic amplification. When the Arctic Ocean is covered in ice, 80% of the sunlight gets reflected back to space, but with open water, the ocean absorbs 80% of the sunlight.

The less multi-year ice there is, the less the Arctic is able to regulate the global climate by reflecting sunlight back into space. Without ice, or with very thin ice, the Arctic Ocean instead absorbs the sun’s heat, which inhibits ice formation the following winter – and the downward spiral continues. At the end of the winter the ice is thinner and more susceptible to melting, hence the massive retreats we are seeing.

So a good indicator of the resilience of the global climate system is to assess how much multi-year ice is left.

The trouble is, it’s disappearing fast. The Arctic is in crisis.

 The scale of Arctic ice loss is at crisis point

The scale of Arctic ice loss is at crisis point
Image: Arctic Basecamp

Without sea ice in summer, we lose much of the Arctic’s protective ability to reflect sunlight away from Earth. This could dramatically accelerate global climate change and the risks of impacts that can affect food and water security elsewhere, as well as increase rising sea levels and extreme weather events. We know that in 2018 alone, extreme weather events cost US$320 billion. We also know that the frequency and impact of extreme events increases as the world warms. In fact, research is revealing that many extreme events are indeed related to changes in the Arctic. So when global experts identify extreme weather as the number 1 global risk, they are implicitly talking about the dangers of Arctic change.

Why is the Arctic sea ice declining so significantly? Research shows a strong and direct correlation with CO2 emissions. In fact, for every metric ton of CO2 we add to the atmosphere, we lose another three square meters of sea ice. While this may not sound like a lot, it starts to add up. To put this into context, we can relate country level emissions. Countries like the US, Canada, Australia and Saudi Arabia are some of the largest contributors to sea ice loss per capita, with Qatar topping the list.

 Which countries' populations are responsible for the most summer sea ice loss?

Which countries’ populations are responsible for the most summer sea ice loss?
Image: Stroeve & Notz (2018)

Converting emissions from the top 4 emitters into Arctic sea ice loss for the year 2017:

USA: 5.3 Gt CO2 = 16,000 km2 sea ice loss (more than 90 times the size of Washington, D.C.)

The EU: 3.5 Gt CO2 = 10,500 km2 sea ice loss (100 times the size of Paris)

China: 10.0 Gt CO2 = 30,000 km2 sea ice loss (more than 10 times the size of Hong Kong or approximately the size of Belgium)

India: 2.5 Gt CO2 = 7,500 km2 sea ice loss (five times the size of Delhi)

As we now know, global emissions have continued to rise. The latest estimates from the Global Carbon Budget for 2018 show a global annual increase of over 2%. This will have physical consequences for Arctic ice.

Let’s take a closer look at the 2018 numbers. Last year, the world produced a total of 37.1 gigatonnes (Gt) of fossil-origin CO2 emissions. When converted to sea ice loss this equates to 111,000 km2, almost three times the size of Switzerland. Based on 2018 emissions by country, China’s contribution increased by 4.7%, the US’ by 2.5%, the EU’s declined by -0.7% and India’s increased by 6.3%.

We can also look at our responsibilities in another way. Take coal as an illustrative example. Blackrock, the world’s largest investor, holds 400 million tonnes of thermal coal. While the carbon content of coal differs quite widely, we can assume an average carbon content of 70 % for Blackrock’s coal. That is roughly 1 Gt of CO2. This amounts to 3000 km² sea-ice loss equivalent. This translates into a loss of ice roughly the size of Shanghai in one year – that is, 6,340 km2.

The Arctic is the poster child for the importance of the +1.5C target agreed at the 2015 UN Climate Conference in Paris (COP21). Simply put, if the world can maintain a ceiling of a +1.5C warmer world we can save the Arctic summer sea ice, and likely prevent some of the most serious climate impacts around the world. But once global temperatures go beyond this limit we will probably lose the summer ice, triggering serious consequences for our economies and societies worldwide, including increases in extreme weather in the mid-latitudes.

People often ask scientists when will the Arctic ice disappear. It’s not a matter of time, however, but rather how much more CO2 we put into the atmosphere. Just 800 Gt more of CO2, and it’s gone. At current rates of annual emissions of 35 to 40 Gt per year, the window of tim we have to preserve the Arctic summer sea ice is closing very rapidly.

 

At the 2018 climate conference – COP24Christiana Figueres, a former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and over 100 co-authors and co-signatories outlined a detailed plan on what needs to happen next. Ramping up ambitions under the Paris Agreement is the only way forward. From an Arctic sea-ice perspective, the Paris Agreement means the difference between having sea ice or not.

Luckily, all this makes good financial sense. Economic studies suggest that the “acceleration of climate change driven by thawing Arctic permafrost and melting sea ice could cause up to $130 trillion of extra economic losses globally under the current business-as-usual trajectory over the next three centuries. If global warming is limited to 1.5C, the additional cost will be reduced to under $10 trillion.”

Arctic summer sea ice has been around for at least thousands of years, if not longer. It may be soon gone, unless we start to bend the CO2 emissions curve soon. Arctic scientists can bring the facts and robust projections on Arctic change and global risks. Solutions must come from politics, business and civil society.

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Trade in digital services is booming. Here’s how we can unleash its full potential

German stock market is not affected by the Greek debt revolution while Athens is running out of time

Cyber attacks are shutting down countries, cities and companies. Here’s how to stop them

EU budget: Commission proposes to increase funding to support the environment and climate action

EC v Samsung: A whole year to compile a case

Compensation for damages by the State for infringement of EU law: the European Commission refers Spain to the Court of Justice for its rules on the compensation for damages incurred by private parties

Coronavirus Global Response: WHO and Commission launch the Facilitation Council to strengthen global collaboration

Why integrated planning is key to truly transformative electrification

‘Provocative actions and inflammatory rhetoric’ destabilizing Middle East, warns top UN official

Global leaders and companies pledge to reduce the gender pay gap by 2030

Syria: Civilians caught in crossfire, UN refugee chief urges Jordan to open its border

It’s not just the protests. Here’s how young people are helping the planet

The sad plight of fledging doctors

Manufacturers Get Smarter for Industry 4.0

Deal on tightening the rules to stop terrorists from using homemade explosives

Europe’s forests are booming. Here’s why.

Lack of involvement, or lack of opportunities?

European values must prevail, even in a state of public emergency, MEPs say

China, forever new adventures

As Saudi women take the wheel, UN chief hopes end of driving ban creates more opportunities for kingdom’s women and girls

How COVID-19 has changed what we search for online

Haiti stands ‘at the crossroads’ between peacekeeping, development – Bachelet urges strengthened ‘human rights protection’

What is inclusive capitalism, and why does it matter?

UN chief urges Hamas and Israel to ‘step back from the brink of another devastating conflict’ in Gaza

Climate emergency: City mayors are ‘world’s first responders’, says UN chief

Bringing justice to the people: how the UN is helping communities deal with disputes in remote and dangerous areas

COVID-19 has ushered in the age of the ‘intangible company’. Here are 4 ways it will change business

This US city put an algorithm in charge of its school bus routes and saved $5 million

This one small change could transform education for millions

Aid spending fell in 2018, for the second year in a row

Berlin’s governing elite leads Eurozone to recession to win the September election in Germany

Mergers: Commission clears Vodafone’s acquisition of Liberty Global’s cable business in Czechia, Germany, Hungary and Romania, subject to conditions

These countries have some of the highest voter turnout in the world

Next time you fly, could you be boarding a train instead of a plane?

Violence in North and West Africa increasingly targeting civilian and border areas – OECD/SWAC

Trump’s denial of Paris climate agreement; the US Republicans lash out against the world

The punishment gap: how workplace mistakes hurt women and minorities most

Political solution ‘long overdue’ to protect the children of eastern Ukraine

We won’t win the online security war without people power

ECOFIN: Choosing between the re-unification of Eurozone and a stalemate

3 ways Africa can improve the health of women and children

Why informal networks will be key to the COVID-19 recovery

UN chief condemns deadly terrorist attack on church in southern Philippines

The EU heads of State and Government about the result of the European Elections 2019

We need to protect 30% of the planet by 2030. This is how we can do it

‘Concerted effort’ must be made to help 600 million-plus adolescent girls realize full potential: Guterres

DR Congo President and UN chief meet at a ‘historic moment’ for democracy in the country

Generalist practicing: is it worth it?

Illness in health workers: when the caregiver becomes the patient

Global migration, by the numbers: who migrates, where they go and why

6 things to know about press freedom around the world

Venezuela: Competing US, Russia resolutions fail to pass in Security Council

Entrepreneurship’s key to success showcased by a serial young entrepreneur

Data capture, not disclosure, is the way to meet our climate goals

OECD: Rising employment overshadowed by unprecedented wage stagnation

The world needs a grand coalition to tackle climate change

MEPs propose more transparent legislative drafting and use of allowances

Millions of Afghans have ‘voted not just for a president, but also for democracy’, UN Assembly told

How the world can ‘reset’ itself after COVID-19 – according to these experts

More Stings?

Advertising

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s