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.

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

the European Sting Milestones

Featured Stings

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

Migration crisis update: lack of solidarity not only among EU leaders but also EU officials

EU economy: Between recession and indiscernible growth

British PM May’s Brexit proposal remains obscure while her government unravels

Sweden has a plan to end all traffic accident deaths

Why quantum computing could make today’s cybersecurity obsolete

We must build resilience to face the future – but will we be fast enough?

7 key challenges for the future of ASEAN – and how to solve them

Natural gas: Parliament extends EU rules to pipelines from non-EU countries

Young health workforce – a core of effective primary healthcare?

EU budget: Making the EU fit for its role as strong global actor

EP President at the European Youth Event: “Your ideas are key in shaping EU’s future”

Germany to re-invent its security position in Europe and a chaotic world

EU and Amazon cut deal to end antitrust investigation over e-books deals

Trade in fake Italian goods costs economy billions of euros

Europe should make voice ‘more heard’ in today’s ‘dangerous world,’ says UN chief

UN calls for funds to ease ‘deteriorating’ humanitarian situation in Gaza and West Bank

After music and TV, where will the streaming revolution take us next?

Inclusion, empowerment and equality, must be ‘at the heart of our efforts’ to ensure sustainable development, says UN chief

An economist explains what happens if there’s another financial crisis

Is the European Banking Union an impossible task?

Towards a climate-neutral Europe: EU invests over €10bn in innovative clean technologies

With 10 million Yemenis ‘one step away from famine’, donors pledge $2.6 billion

EU budget: Regional Development and Cohesion Policy beyond 2020

My unlimited China

3 reasons we should all care about biodiversity

Barriers to trade: as protectionism rises, EU continues opening up export markets for European firms

Ethiopia planted 350 million trees in a day. And its fight against deforestation does not stop there

Eurozone: Subdued inflation can lead to more recession

EU-Turkey relations: EU considers imposing sanctions while Turkey keeps violating Cyprus’ sovereignty

The Impact of climates changes in health: a problem for all of us

Antitrust: Commission fines US chipmaker Qualcomm €242 million for engaging in predatory pricing

Trump’s self-centered politics unravels

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page

Why a global recession isn’t inevitable

Tsipras imposes more austerity on insolvent Greece; plans to win new early election soon

FROM THE FIELD: Changing world, changing families

Public Policies for LGBT in Brazil

Hiring is broken. Here’s how to fix it

UN refugee agency presses States to aid 49 refugees stranded on Mediterranean

OECD: Mind the financial gap that lies ahead

FROM THE FIELD: Murals help heal wounds of bloody conflict in Guatemala

Is Eurozone heading towards a long stagnation?

International Criminal Court acquits former president Gbagbo of war crimes in Côte d’Ivoire

Europe on the Move: Commission completes its agenda for safe, clean and connected mobility

The sustainable fashion revolution is well underway. These 5 trends prove it

Social inclusion: how much should young people hope from the EU? 

How Germany strives to mold ECB’s monetary policy to her interests

How will EU look after French, Dutch and German Elections and what will be the implications for Youth Entrepreneurship?

Brexit mission impossible: Theresa May was so desperate that had to appoint Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary

Libya: $202 million needed to bring life-saving aid to half a million people hit by humanitarian crisis

Chart of the day: When do young Europeans leave home?

Is your business model fit for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Use “blockchain” model to cut small firms’ costs and empower citizens, urge MEPs

UN Security Council urged to act against ‘worst-case scenario’ Syria’s war-battered Idlib

‘No safe way’ into battle-scarred Afghan city of Ghazni to deliver aid as traumatized children search for parents

“Leaked” TTIP document breaks post 8th negotiations round silence and opens door to critics

Dignified health for all who live here

Pharmaceuticals spend millions to push TTIP while consumer groups spend peanuts

Not faith, ‘but those who manipulate the faithful’ driving wedge between religions, UN-backed forum in Baku told

Reforms in the Western Balkans and Turkey: annual assessments and recommendations

More Stings?

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