Cruel Summer: Arctic Climate Change Reaches an Uncertain New Phase

Warming strips for the world, 1850-2020 [Image via ShowYourStripes, University of Reading, under Creative Commons]

by Marc Lanteigne

July 2021 has just been confirmed as the hottest month on record for the entire globe, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and to little surprise the Arctic has been taking the brunt of climate change effects since the summer began. As with last year, wildfires have again sprung up in many parts of the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, with evidence recently suggesting that smoke from massive forest fires in Siberia had reached the North Pole for the first time. 

Canada has also been battling wildfires over the past few months, and the Canadian northwest has experienced heat levels to the point where local permafrost in both the Yukon and the Northwest Territories has been affected. Parts of the Nordic region, including in northern Finland, are also experiencing near-record summer temperatures. While in Alaska, concerns have been raised about the effects of warmer conditions on local freshwater fish stocks. Many eyes will also be on the state of the Arctic ice cap, which reached its maximum coverage for 2021 on 21 March of this year, as even the most durable areas of summer seasonal ice in the Arctic, north of Greenland and amidst Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, are also starting to show signs of strain. In Greenland itself, researchers recorded a significant melt event at the end of July, suggesting ongoing stresses to the country’s vast ice sheet. 

After a difficult four years, when the previous government in the United States broke away from fellow members of the Arctic Council by refusing to acknowledge climate change in the far north, (and elsewhere), the organisation’s eight members unanimously signed the Reykjavík Declaration [pdf] in May this year which called for accelerated joint action on combatting black carbon deposits and greenhouse gases and promoting sustainable development initiatives. Russia, which as of this May assumed the Chair position of the Council, will be under a microscope in regards to low it will address regional climate change policies. The Putin government, which sees the Arctic as a major emerging driver of the Russian economy, is trying to balance its ambitions in Siberia and the Russian Far East with the potential costs of environmental damage to these plans. 

This past week, climate change discussion has been dominated by the publication of the latest report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report included the strongest statements yet about the urgency to push back the effects of anthropogenic (human-made) climate change, including warnings that some tipping points may already have been reached. Although the IPCC has been reporting on these issues since 1990, what has changed with this most recent study is that the specific effects of humans on the global climate have been reported on with greater levels of confidence in the evidence and findings. 

The IPCC report covers the Arctic at length, including statements that it is ‘very likely’ that human activities were responsible for significant erosions of both glaciers and the Arctic ice cap over the past four decades, with areas of Arctic ice coverage at their lowest point since the mid-nineteenth century, with trends suggesting that the Arctic will continue to heat up at more than twice the average global warming rates. This will have significant effects on maritime temperatures and permafrost levels, as well as overall Arctic sea ice levels. As one conclusion in the Report outlined: 

Additional warming is projected to further amplify permafrost thawing, and loss of seasonal snow cover, of land ice and of Arctic sea ice (high confidence). The Arctic is likely to be practically sea ice free in September at least once before 2050 under the five illustrative scenarios considered in this report, with more frequent occurrences for higher warming levels.’ [Section B.2.5 of the Summary for Policymakers

[Image by Joshua Earle via Unsplash]

The environmental, in addition to political, effects of an ice-free central Arctic are only beginning to be studied at length. However, some initial steps have been taken to anticipate the probability of open waters nearer to the North Pole in the coming decades. These include the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean (CAOFA), which was signed by ten governments, including the five Arctic Ocean littoral states (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States) as well as China, the European Union, Iceland, Japan, and South Korea, in October 2018. In May of this year, Beijing became the last of the ‘Arctic 5+5’ governments to ratify [in Chinese] the deal. China also agreed to coordinate with the United States, Russia and other Arctic 5+5 governments early next year to further clarify fishing quotas in the Arctic. 

The Central Arctic Ocean, often nicknamed ‘the doughnut hole’ given that it rests outside of a ring of exclusive economic zones (EEZs) overseen by the region’s littoral states, is de facto international waters, and remains at present extremely challenging to navigate. However, the possibility of significant ice loss in the near future has raised a spotlight on differences between Arctic nations on maritime boundaries, specifically the status of the Lomonosov Ridge (Хребет Ломоносова), an underwater feature which extends into the Central Arctic, and is claimed by Russia, Denmark/Greenland and Canada as part of their continental shelves. 

The warning signs of cataclysmic climate change effects continue to dot the Arctic as this summer draws to a close, and with the evidence growing in both width and depth, questions about reversing these effects, as well as difficult debates about regional adaptation, are becoming impossible to avoid.