An international group of Arctic experts are urging science ministers attending the first White House Arctic Science Ministerial meeting in Washington, DC to take immediate steps to prepare for a vastly different Arctic ecosystem in the next 20 to 30 years.
A new white paper, based on a recent workshop at Columbia University, reviews climate change impacts already underway in the Arctic and examines further expected changes even where the world meets the goals of the Paris Agreement. As nations work to implement the Paris deal, the authors find that Arctic temperatures could still increase by as much as five degrees Celsius (nine degrees Fahrenheit) if global temperatures rise by two degrees Celsius. These changes could further drive global consequences for people, weather systems, landscapes, and economies in the Arctic and beyond.
“The impacts from global climate change are most severe in the Arctic,” said director of the Columbia Climate Center and lead author Dr. Peter Schlosser. “While much of the planet will need to address at least a 1.5 or 2 degree temperature rise, local communities in the Arctic will see at least twice that. That level of warming will have far-reaching impacts on Arctic systems and on the rest of the planet.”
The scientists warn that as the Arctic continues to warm, it will experience substantial loss of ice covering oceans and land masses including glaciers, ice sheets, sea ice and permafrost for the next 20 to 30 years. And, these changes will continue much longer if immediate actions are not taken to drastically reduce greenhouse gases. The group also highlights accelerated warming in the Arctic may drive further planetary warming through loss of albedo, increased carbon and methane emissions from thawing permafrost, and rising sea levels.
“In essence, the Arctic is changing from a white, ice-covered, and stable environment toward a new state of instability with difficult-to-predict interactions, abrupt changes, and, importantly, global effects,” said Schlosser.
Optimistically, the scientists agree that immediate, dramatic action can moderate changes after the next two to three decades. Taking these steps now offers the best chance at mitigating current and future impacts.
The paper offers a number of recommendations, among them: accelerating decarbonization of the global energy system and immediately scaling up implementation of alternative energy production, and; ramping up technical and financial support for Arctic societies needing strategic adaptation solutions; and, developing an emerging Arctic Observing System, augmented by early warning components and enhanced Arctic system models to closely track key components of the changing region.
“The Arctic is unraveling on our watch, with serious ramifications regionally and globally,” said Brad Ack, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) senior vice president for oceans. “The most important thing is to dramatically reduce our collective carbon pollution by going farther faster on the transition to renewable energy. At the same time, the science community must ramp up research, assessment and governance for other methods to avert catastrophic change, such as atmospheric carbon capture. We need to know more about these options before uncontrolled experiments are conducted or critical thresholds are reached.”
The white paper is the product of a July 2016 workshop organized by the Columbia Climate Center, in collaboration with World Wildlife Fund and Arctic 21. The International Arctic Research Center (University of Alaska Fairbanks), the Arctic Institute of North America (Canada), the MEOPAR Network (Marine Environmental Observation, Prediction, and Response), the Future Ocean Excellence Cluster, University of Kiel, and the Woods Hole Research Center co-sponsored the event.
The paper, A 5C Arctic in a 2C World, is available at https://www.worldwildlife.org/publications/a-5-c-arctic-in-a-2-c-world.