Video: What happens in the Arctic doesn't really matter, right?
The Arctic has warmed about twice as fast as the rest of the world. In some places, winter temperatures are as much as 7°F, or almost 4°C warmer than they were just 50 years ago.
The top of the world is the canary in the climate coal mine. It's warning us what's going to happen to us if we don't change our ways. Aside from its value as an early warming system though, does what happens in the Arctic really matter?
Yes it does.
There are plenty of reasons, but let's start with this one. Some 4 million people call the Arctic home. Ten percent of that population are indigenous people whose cultural heritage depends on their environment. From the Sami people in Finland, to the Chuckchi in Russia, to the Inuit in Alaska. And both the Arctic and Antarctic are home to so many unique ecosystems and species. Not just the polar bears and the penguins, but the southern elephant seals, walruses, and the Antarctic skewa, that don't and can't exist anywhere else on the planet. Preserving their home should be reason enough to care.
As Josef Motzfeldt, an Inuit and former minister of foreign affairs for Greenland said, "We are actually people living in the Arctic. And we have to deal with the consequences of the effects on the Arctic environment caused by the climate changes. It's not just a holiday trip for us. We are living in the Arctic our whole life! In our Inuit langauge we have the same word for weather/climate and the human mind. It says Sila'. So if you're not taking care of the climate it might mean you are out of your mind."
I wish everyone would listen to Josef. But if you're still not convinced here are three more reasons why what happens at the ends of the Earth matters so much to us, whoever we are and wherever we live on this planet.
Reason number two is sea level rise. The poles are home to the largest ice sheets, Greenland and Antarctica. They're over a mile thick in some places. That is a lot of water. And today, they're melting. The Greenland Ice Sheet covers an area equivalent to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California all put together. According to NASA's GRACE satellite, it's shedding nearly 300 gigatons of meltwater into the ocean every year at an increasing rate.
Antarctica is shrinking by about 120 gigatons per year. That's about 70 percent faster than just a decade ago. In June 2017, a more than 2000 mile square mile iceberg the size of Delaware cast of the Larsen C ice shelf. This iceberg was already floating, so it didn't contribute to sea level rise, but scientists worry that the land ice it was holding back could now be destabilized and break off itself.
How does this affect us?
Because of where the water goes: into the ocean. About half of the sea level rise we've witnessed over teh past century was due to thermal expansion. Warmer water takes up more space and the ocean's temperature has been rising, just like air temperature. But half of the rise has been due to melting ice. And that is why sea level rise is accelerating. Future sea level rise will depend mostly on how fast these massive ice sheets melt. So yes, what happens at the poles matters a lot.
Here's reason number three. What happens in the Arctic affects our weather patterns too. It's pretty complicated though, so we have to back up a step to understand why. One of the main reasons the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the globe is because it's covered in shiny white sea ice that reflects much of the Sun's heat back out to space. But as the Arctic warms, that sea ice is melting, leaving dark open water in its place. This dark water absorbs more of the Sun's heat making the Arctic warm even faster.
So how does this connect to our weather systems? Through the jet stream -- a narrow band of strong winds high up in the atmosphere that often pushes our weather systems along. The jet stream is powered by the temperature difference between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes where most of us live. But the more the Arctic warms, the smaller the temperature difference between the Arctic and mid-latitudes. And we scientists suspect this may be making the jet stream slow down and meander, rather than speeding around the planet as it usually does.
Why does this matter? Because a slower jet stream makes weather systems in the US less predictable. In recent years we've seen weather patterns camp out over us for weeks instead of passing by in a couple of days. With the wavier jet stream there's also concern that the polar vortexes could be pushed further south in the winter bringing occasional extreme conditions to the mid-latitudes, even while our winters are still getting warmer on average. Crazy, right?
And finally, reason four, which may be the biggest reason why the Arctic matters. It's estimated that the permafrost, or permanently frozen ground of the Arctic tundra, holds enormous amounts of trapped carbon and methane from decayed organic material. The equivalent of about a 1000 years worth of greenhouse gas emissions at today's levels.
There's even more trapped in the continental shelves under the Arctic ocean. Though despite what you may have heard, there is no solid evidence to date that the methane leaking from those hydrates, as they're called in the ocean, is increasing as a result of a warming ocean, yet.
As the permafrost on land thaws, though, large burps of methane have been sighted bubbling out of lakes and bogs in Siberia and northern Canada. If the warming continues, as much as 10 percent of that trapped methane could be released by the end of the century. This is what's called a positive feedback, or more accurately a vicious cycle, as it would effectively double the consequences of human emissions over the same time period.
So, yes, the Arctic and Antarctica do matter, a lot. Why? Because they're the wild cards in the climate deck. As the world warms, how will the giant ice sheets respond? And how much will the massive amounts of carbon and methane trapped in the Arctic will leak out into the atmosphere? The answers to these questions are what keep us scientists up at night.