What does Arctic amplification mean for the planet?

Sensemaking / What does Arctic amplification mean for the planet?

Timothy Mack, Past President of the World Future Society and present Managing Principal of AAI Foresight, explores the increasingly complex dynamic between the Arctic and our changing climate

By Timothy Mack / 28 Mar 2016

‘Arctic amplification’ is the phenomenon where changes in the net radiation balance (due to greenhouse gas levels, for instance) tend to produce a larger increase in temperature near the poles than the planetary average. What do we know about the impacts of this on our interwoven global systems?

It is quite a challenge to identify clear patterns in the enormous amount of information pouring out of the growing science of climate change. Although it has moved beyond its contentious beginnings, there is still enough ambiguity and incomplete data to fuel research rivalries over causes and leading strategies for mitigation.

Arctic Amplification drove down Arctic winter sea ice levels to 400,000 square miles less than past averages for January 2016 (and February 2016).  As well, new dynamics keep engaging our attention, including how interwoven climate shift factors are in a region such as the Arctic.  Accordingly, it seems worth looking at some of the collateral damage going on above the Arctic Circle, as well as changes we are likely to see in the decades ahead.

As the thicker and more ancient Arctic sea ice disappears, it is being replaced by thinner seasonal winter ice. One view that has gained currency is that the global extreme weather patterns are directly generated by Arctic changes. Challenging that view are observations of increased warming in Southern regions, which could also feed some of the volatile atmospheric currents, such as El Nino. As is most often the case, a more interactive change model is the most likely possibility, and some combination of those two is most credible.

In other words, how much might these Arctic changes affect the globe as a whole, and by what mechanisms? As opposed to the Antarctic, a freestanding continent, the Arctic has a number of shifting boundaries. And the shrinking range of winter sea ice is leaving the Arctic Ocean increasingly impacted by continents adjacent to it.

Not all aspects of accelerating climate change in the Arctic have been met with dismay. The changes affecting the Arctic have been a source of excitement for many in adjoining countries with regional Arctic land claims, as it becomes clearer that global warming is transforming that region at a rate higher than other regions of earth: Arctic Amplification is driving warming at double the global average. 

Both positive and negative feedback systems are proving more complex than previously understood. Accordingly, consensus on the full mechanics of global climate is slow in coming. The largest drivers of these mechanics, the global ocean and atmospheric currents, are highly complex systems, occasionally bordering on the chaotic. One factor is our still evolving understanding of the interactivity of the North and South Poles of the globe and how they temper and amplify one another.

Changes in ocean temperature and salt content influence global thermohaline circulation, resulting in less production of dense, saltier colder water. Accordingly, the decreased ability of these currents to carry along surface water carrying CO2 to the deep ocean has also reduced the supply of essential nutrients for marine life across the global ocean systems. And while regions such as Europe have long had a milder climate than otherwise, because of the Northward loop of this global ocean conveyer belt, this seems likely to change in coming decades.

Arctic reflectivity is reduced by less ice and darker land and water surfaces. Accordingly, the air is warmed in a feedback loop. And regional northward expansion of forests into former areas of tundra also increases warming (although increased CO2 absorption by these forests could offset some of this atmospheric warming). Interestingly, it is the winter periods that are showing the greatest gains in temperature.

The impact of human interest and activity

Non-geophysical factors are also influencing change in the Arctic. The political, economic and even epidemiological dynamics of the Arctic are proving to be additional drivers of change.

Countries adjacent to the Arctic region have been especially energized by the opportunities offered by Arctic transformation, including access to new resources and previously inaccessible territories through dramatically reduced summer blockage of potential shipping lanes has given a 21st Century ‘gold-rush’ feeling to the region. While the shipping industry is a clear beneficiary from the decline of summer ice, the thawing of permafrost is quite likely to make many Arctic lands a sea of impassable mud.

Like Iceland, which has struggled with maintaining a durable national highway system into the 21st century, there is much to be done. During my years there, I witnessed a constant battle between humans and intense nature (magnified by the volcanic nature of that region, much like in Alaska) which saw engineering projects washed away by storm, flood and slides not long after their construction.

While the potential for projected eight-meter sea level increases remains speculative, the threat of sea level change, which would first affect coastal low lands and port cities around the world, is likely to accelerate. And the view that human activity of all sorts has a role in accelerating climate change is now closer to being accepted. But, as with all things associated with the human behaviour, ‘it’s complicated,’ especially in a region that has not previously been open to high-level commercial and political endeavours.

Some of the more volatile political and economic dynamics have the look and feel of worldwide chess matches. One example is the development of new Arctic sea-power gambits, such as the rebuilt Zvezda shipyard in Primorsk Kray, which will be Russia’s largest shipyard when it is completed in 2020, capable of producing Arctic-capable oil tankers of up to 350 thousands tons and LNG carriers of 250,000 cubic meters.

In December 2015, St. Petersburg was the site of the 5th international forum, ‘Arctic: Today and the Future’. More than 1,300 delegates from Russia and abroad heard an opening plenary by Artur Chilingarov, President of the Association of Polar Explorers, entitled ‘The Russian Arctic – Land of Opportunities’, and a call for establishment of an Arctic Bank for Reconstruction and Development in St. Petersburg.

One term for the process now underway might be the gentrification of the Arctic. Those native cultures that have lived in balance with their ecosystems will be less able to do so with expanding development, resource exploration and exploitation. A new class of immigrants are likely to accompany these changes, attracted by greater accessibility, economic opportunity and what is likely to be cheap (for awhile) land. This is an age-old pattern in newly settled lands, and significant and focused efforts would be required to mitigate negative impacts.

The question of who might accept responsibility for such mitigation is an interesting one. While countries like Russia are quick to commit resources to petrochemical transport and other resource opportunities, the ‘gold rush’ mentality seldom involves decent social services and healthcare; let alone public safety and adequate infrastructure.

In addition, the pressures on the fragile Tundra from increased economic activity, human occupation and development will continue to intensify impacts on resident wildlife and native human cultures. Many species of birds migrate to the Arctic in summer for breeding and feeding from other parts of the world, and as much as 50% of these breeding regions could be lost over the 21st century, due to development.

Geo-biological impacts and the spread of disease

But while these endeavours represent the economic development aspect of Arctic change, geo-biological aspects also drive global warming. This involves more than gases like methane bound up in the permafrost, but as well the related action of the microorganisms that reside there. Microbe communities respond to changes in soil temperature, especially in the amount of carbon they produce. This decomposition process generates additional carbon dioxide and methane, in some cases increases of as much as 38% (partially offset by increased plant carbon fixing and absorption of up to 30%).

Warming could also increase methane escape from cold ocean bottom sediment. Although this is a slower process, its long-term effect could be very large. The rate of melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet continues to increase and water expands as it warms (contributing to sea-level rise and further enhancing melting). The most moderate projections of sea-level rise are between 4 and 36 inches (10-90cm) by 2100.

Beyond the insect-borne maladies discussed below is the already increasing activity of animal parasites. Although sulfuric acid cannot faze it, Toxoplasmosis can be arrested by boiling or freezing. So as the open water cycles expand, its range of infection is expanding northward, including animals in the Arctic food chain, such as seals. In humans, pregnant mothers can suffer miscarriages and infected infants can be inflicted with blindness, and possible mental retardation.

Insects, in addition to being cold-blooded and thus very sensitive to temperature change, also are heavily tied to the changes in flora that rising temperatures are shaping, including shortening of the length of the flowering season (due to more intense growth) and a decreasing interface with insect maturation and feeding patterns. Over a 14-year period, Greenland has become 2.5 degrees C warmer, while the insect population dropped by 50%, very possibly because of less opportunity to feed off flower nectar. The point here is that rising temperatures in the Arctic are likely to result in ecosystems shifts, not always in expected directions. 

Mosquitos can carry the northern migration of disease, and that insect has prospered in a warming Arctic. The projections are that a +2 degree temperature increase would yield a 53% growth in new mosquito production. While they do pollenate plants and provide food for many species of birds they also infect caribou populations.  Other insects (such as beetles, who eat mosquito larva) are also beginning to migrate northward, but much more slowly.

Unresolved challenges, disparate interests

The immensity of this dynamic often works against the development of successful solutions. Much as climate change itself, consensus on cause and effect is just a first step. Cooperative action, financial responsibility and political agreement can only come when the jigsaw puzzle is seen more clearly. And the shifting realities of overt and covert agendas show no signs of lessening. Which mechanisms might increase cultural and ecological mitigation remains unclear, but these mechanisms must be determined and agreed upon soon, if they are to be effective.

Two of the greatest challenges at present are understanding: 1) how the myriad pieces fit and work together; and 2) how the regional and global players might find common ground to proceed along constructive paths. The potentials for digital deep learning systems to sort out the vast amounts of data in a near-chaotic system seem promising. Prototypes like Google Deep Mind’s Deep Q offer the possibility to craft strategies for working in conditions where there are so many involved players, all looking and acting in a range of directions.

And as we have seen, there are many viewpoints and interests being brought to bear on the future of the Arctic, but others are noticeably missing. Indigenous communities, wildlife, even ecosystems do not seem to have as many defenders as might be present in other parts of the world, perhaps because of their remoteness. But now is certainly the time to consider how to best understand and express those interests, before it becomes too late to do so effectively.

Image Credit: NASA image by Robert Simmon


‘Arctic Climate Change’, Green Facts, 24 November 2015 [Cogeneris sprl.]

Dartmouth College, ‘Arctic mosquitos thriving under climate change, study finds’, Science Daily, 15 September 2015.

Harvey, Chelsea, “These tiny creatures could cause huge trouble in the Arctic” TheWashington Post, 22 February 2016.

Hasemyer, David, In the Arctic, Even Climate Change’s Tiniest Victims Have Big Impacts, Inside Climate News, March 6, 2016.

Hornung, Lise, “Climate change eats up Artic insect life,” ScienceNordic, June 6, 2013.

Mooney Chris, “Scientists are floored by what’s happening in the Arctic right now,” The Washington Post, February 18, 2016.

The Maritime Executive, “New Mega –Shipyard for Russia,” 6 March 2016.

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