Arctic's 'big melt' has begun

Posted: 2 November 2004

Author: Maya Pastakia

The most comprehensive report on the impact of climate change on the Arctic shows that the 'big melt' has begun and that it will get worse more quickly unless emissions of carbon dioxide are cut without delay.

The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) was produced by more than 250 scientists for Arctic governments. It provides incontrovertible proof that climate change is happening in the Arctic and spells out the damaging effect this will have on Arctic wildlife and fisheries. It says that a warmer Arctic will have impacts around the world, contributing to global warming and sea level rise.

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) threatened by climate change. © WWF-Canon / Kevin Schafer
Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) threatened by climate change. © WWF-Canon / Kevin Schafer
There is concern that global warming could drive Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) into extinction, as they rely on floating sea ice to seek out their prey. © WWF-Canon / Kevin Schafer
Today, Arctic ice is half as thick as it was 30 years ago and the area covered by the ice cap has shrunk by 10 per cent. If the melting continues, there could be no ice in the summer by 2070.

"The big melt has begun," said Jennifer Morgan, director of WWF's global climate change campaign. "Industrialised countries are carrying out an uncontrolled experiment to study the effects of climate change and the Arctic is their first guinea pig. This is unethical and wrong. They must cut emissions of CO2 now."

WWF welcomes the report but highlights "the hypocrisy of those governments which sponsored it because they have failed to cut emissions of carbon dioxide." The eight arctic countries emit more than 30 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Key findings

Key findings in the report are:

  • Human-induced changes in arctic climates are among the largest on earth. Warming in the Arctic will be around two or three times greater than the rest of the world.

  • Polar bears could become extinct by the end of this century. They are very unlikely to survive as a species if there is an almost complete loss of summer sea ice cover, which is projected to occur before the end of this century by some climate models.

  • Some arctic fisheries will disappear.

  • New health hazards for both animals and humans are set to appear as the climate warms.

  • A warmer climate is also likely to see more forest fires and storm damage to coastal communities in the Arctic.

  • Glaciers, sea ice and tundra will melt, contributing to global sea level rise. By the end of the century, sea levels could rise by nearly one metre. A warmer Arctic will contribute up to 15 per cent of this rise. Today there are 17 million people living less than one metre above sea level in Bangladesh, while places like Florida and Louisiana in the United States, Bangkok, Calcutta, Dhaka and Manila are also are risk from sea level rise.

  • The area of the Greenland Ice Sheet that experiences some melting has increased by about 16 per cent from 1979 to 2002. The area of melting in 2002 broke all previous records. Global warming could eventually lead to a complete melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and a resulting sea-level rise globally of seven metres although this will take several hundred years.

  • A melting Arctic will also accelerate the rate of global climate change. As arctic snow and ice melt, the ability of the Arctic to reflect heat back to space is reduced, accelerating the overall rate of global warming.

  • A warmer Arctic could possibly halt the Gulf Stream, which brings warmer water and weather to north-western Europe.
"Polar bears are walking on thin ice," said Samantha Smith, director of the WWF International Arctic Programme. "If we can secure their future by cutting carbon dioxide emissions, we can secure the future of thousands of other species around the world."

'Great danger'

These concerns were echoed by the Natural Resources Defence Council in the United States. The science director of the NRDC Climate Center, Dr Daniel Lashof, said that "President Bush needs to change his approach to global warming in light of the damage already being seen in the Artic.

"It is now clear we have to cut the pollution that causes global warming to prevent dangerous changes in the climate. The purely voluntary approach taken in the President's first term will leave the nations and the world in great danger from the threat of global warming."

Related links:

The report, Impacts of a Warming Arctic, is available from WWF from November 8, 2004.

From our website, see:

Arctic sea ice decline accelerates

Greenland ice-sheet melting fast