A frozen security blanket for the world
To most Canadians, the Arctic is a faraway and mysterious place. It’s a romantic piece of our history and identity. That wildness and cold is something we’re proud of, but we don’t know much about.
It should play a bigger role in our consciousness. The Arctic makes up almost 40 per cent of Canada’s landmass and two-thirds of our coastline. It is home to Inuit, who have lived there for thousands of years, and to remarkable species – like polar bears and narwhal, many of which live nowhere else on the planet.
With issues like climate change, offshore oil and gas development, and shipping, we often think of the Arctic as a sort of victim; as a place that needs saving. In reality, the frozen Arctic is a hero that provides countless benefits to Canadians and people around the world.
It’s true. A frozen arctic is like a security blanket for the planet. It moderates weather, presenting consistent and predictable weather patterns from year to year. By reflecting heat off the Earth, it has kept sea levels at a low and consistent level for thousands of years. It protects us from runaway climate change by reflecting heat (called the albedo effect) and by trapping carbon in sea ice and permafrost.
Unfortunately, climate change is altering those resilient features. This past summer was the hottest on record, and we saw the fourth lowest level of summer sea ice on record. (The top 10 lowest levels have all occurred in the last 10 years.) It’s not just in the summer, last winter the Arctic experienced the record low for maximum sea ice extent.
The Arctic is melting. And with that, global stability is no longer on steady ground.
Melting ice and glaciers are causing sea levels to rise. This will continue to accelerate over the next 100 years, and sea levels are likely to rise by more than half a meter by the year 2100, forcing millions of people to relocate.
Think of it this way: The frozen Arctic acts as an air conditioner, moderating global ocean and air temperatures. As the Arctic warms, it will stop cooling down the rest of the planet. And, a hotter ocean is expected to influence the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.
As permafrost melts, it amplifies global warming. Permafrost contains organic matter that rapidly breaks down when melted, releasing enough carbon to double the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere.
Rising sea levels, increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events, and unstoppable climate change feedback loops are the impacts of a melting Arctic, which will ultimately generate increasing instability around the world.
Of course, these global threats are in addition to the threats that face the people and species who live in the Arctic. They must adjust to less, and unpredictable, sea ice upon which they rely to hunt for food.
This is why saving the Arctic really means saving ourselves: The entire planet is, quite literally, depending on it.
We recently hosted a Twitter Chat to give you the opportunity to tweet your questions and thoughts about climate change, the melting Arctic, and the international negotiations to us. Check it out here as David Miller answers your questions.