We very rarely ever consider the importance of the Arctic; there’s no land, its extent isn’t often recognised on world maps and it seems almost entirely inhospitable. However, it is undergoing a dramatic transformation that will have critical consequences for all of us around the world.
Environmentally, the Arctic is a unique region. On the surface, there is little plant life due to the lack of soils available and a limited number of animal species that are specialised to live in one of the most extreme environments on this planet. There is a lot more life in the Arctic ocean that is able to thrive due to the lack of human influence.
However, as temperatures around the world rise, the Arctic environment will encounter a dramatic shift as the amount of ice cover begins to drop. Flora and fauna that have been typically found at lower latitudes will become increasingly common, forcing Arctic species to become better adapted to their new conditions.
But there is also a new and emerging economic and political importance to the Arctic region as sea ice melts away. Receding ice opens up opportunities for fishing, resource extraction and new trade routes that would otherwise not possible without being incredibly costly. Given that the Arctic is just an oceanic region with little land, countries are laying claims to areas with tensions beginning to rise.
The Changing Arctic Landscape
The Arctic region is the most rapidly warming regions in the world – at almost twice the global average. Since the 1970s, the average temperature of the Arctic has increased by 2.3℃ and peaked last year with temperatures in the Arctic Circle exceeding 30℃ on a number of occasions. Forest fires that were extremely rare before are becoming increasingly common in a region that should almost never reach temperatures to allow it.
Due to the rapidly rising temperatures, sea ice is also retreating quicker than it ever has done in the past. The current rate of melting is approximately six times faster than it was less than 40 years ago and by 2036, summers are expected to be warm enough to melt the majority of sea ice, creating an “ice-free” Arctic.
The reduction is also leading to a much greener Arctic region. As the northernmost regions of this planet become increasingly warm, different flora and fauna are able to survive and thrive at higher latitudes. It is thought that as shrubs spread north, growing taller and in greater abundance, large herbivores like moose will also move further north. Warmer waters in rivers and lakes will also encourage the establishment of aquatic habitats that were not previously possible. All these changes will give the Arctic region a dramatically different environment in the future.
Its Oceanic Importance
The Arctic Ocean and sea ice both play immensely important roles in climate regulation and ocean temperature regulation. At the end of September, I shared a video across ‘Think Sustainability’ social media pages looking at the role of global oceans in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and the effect that warming oceans have. As ocean temperatures rise, the ability of the ocean to absorb carbon dioxide reduces. We’ve long been saved by this ability – it’s one of the main reasons why temperatures aren’t even higher than they already are – but that ability is reducing and it has the potential to have a deadly impact on marine life.
As the sea and glacial ice melt, there’s also the problem of sea-level rise. Around 2 billion people live along coastlines around the world in anything from small villages to some of the planets biggest megacities like New York or Shanghai at major risk from sea-level rise. A number of islands in the Pacific Ocean are already disappearing due to rising sea levels and a number of Pacific Island Nations are making contingency plans should sea level rise have a significant impact on some of the more populated islands.
During the record-breaking summer of 2018, temperatures reached more than 30℃ and forest fires became burned at an alarming rate. Many years ago, forest fires were very rare and were often started by humans. Now, forest fires are becoming increasingly common in these Arctic regions and only speeding up the rate of melting of ice and soils in the northernmost regions of our planet.
Permafrost is soil that has been permanently frozen for at least two consecutive years. Within that soil, carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases are often trapped below, stored away and out of the atmosphere. However, as this permafrost melts, these gases are released and compound the climate emergency we face. If you’ve ever seen the videos of people burning gases coming from the ground, that’s the melting of permafrost releasing methane.
This also has dramatic impacts on those that live in the Arctic region and the environment surrounding them. As temperatures rise and seasons becoming increasingly warmer, new plants and animals move north which will likely have a negative effect on animals and plants typically found in the region. The ice melt will also create flooding in many areas – those that have lived on the usually solid ground are seeing their homes and livelihoods destroyed as towns and villages begin to sink and become flooded.
Opening up the Frozen Waters
There are a number of countries with access to the Arctic Ocean. Historically, the majority of these countries have had little or no access to waters within the Arctic Circle with sea ice leaving the region beyond nautical boundaries unclaimed. However, the melting and retracting of sea ice is opening up areas of the Arctic that were previously impossible to navigate.
This new access provides an opportunity for expansion in fishing, oil, gas and mineral exploration, and the development of trade routes in a region of the earth that isn’t governed by any one nation. Whilst the United Nations deals with any claims or disputes over national borders in the Arctic regions, many of the countries bordering the Arctic have made claims and have increased their presence in the Arctic region.
Back in 2007, Russia planted a flag on the seabed at the North Pole in what was seen as a power move to claim the vast oil and mineral reserves below the Arctic seabed. The move was not recognised by the UN given that Denmark and Canada also have claims on the land under the North Pole but the bold move by the Russians should have been taken as a sign that they mean business in the Arctic.
It’s not just land claims that Russia has been making, their military presence in or near the Arctic Circle has increased dramatically in recent years and they now have a much greater number of icebreakers than any other country. Canada, the USA, Finland and Sweden all have a small number of ships to maintain a presence in the region but are dwarfed by the Russian dominance. Even China that has no claim to are investing heavily in ice breakers and working with Russia to claim some of the resources available in the Arctic Circle.
As temperatures rise in the Arctic, so do the tensions over land claims. The rise in the number of military bases in and near to the Arctic Circle are raising tensions and stoking fears of another Cold War as countries push for dominance in the Arctic region. Russia has long seen the Arctic as a region full of opportunity, whilst the USA and Canada have ignored that potential setting them well behind their Russian counterparts.
The Melting of the Arctic will be Bad for Us All
Whilst some may look at the economic benefits of new trade routes and better access to oil and minerals, the melting of Arctic ice will be a catastrophe for us all. The impact like permafrost melt and increased forest fires that also rise with the increasing average temperature will dramatically outweigh the benefits. And that’s before the impact of sea-level rise is even considered.
It doesn’t seem to make sense that an area so sparsely populated and almost entirely oceanic will have such a critical role in the future, both environmentally and economically, but what happens to the Arctic has the potential to negatively affect every single one of us. I’m no expert but the human, economic and environmental cost of allowing the Arctic ice to recede and melt away will likely far outweigh any benefits that will come from this newfound access to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.