What we do in the next 5 years will determine the fate of the melting Arctic

Global warming has pushed the Arctic into a new state unprecedented in human history, with thinning and retreating sea ice, skyrocketing air and sea temperatures, melting permafrost, and glaciers that are shedding ice at increasing rates. 

All of these impacts and more may seem remote at first — after all, few of us live in Nunavut — but if you’re a coastal resident anywhere in the world, from New York City to Dhaka, Bangladesh, what happens in the Arctic will affect you during the next several decades and beyond, primarily through sea level rise. 

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The economic effects of all Arctic warming impacts may be enough to dent the gross domestic product of some countries, with cost estimates ranging from $7 trillion to $90 trillion by the end of this century.

These are the conclusions of a new, comprehensive assessment of the Arctic climate by a division of the Arctic Council — a cooperative, governing body that helps oversee development in the Far North. 

Sea ice (TOP) meets land as seen from NASA’s Operation IceBridge research aircraft above Greenland.

Image: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The scientific report, released on Tuesday, is known as Snow, Water, Ice, and Permafrost in the Arctic, or SWIPA. About 90 scientists helped produce the report, while more than two-dozen experts peer-reviewed the results. 

The document contains two key findings that anyone concerned about the future of not just the Arctic, but the entire globe, should take note of. 

The first is that the Arctic Ocean could be free of summer sea ice starting as early as the late 2030s, which is earlier than other estimates have shown. The second is that rapid Arctic warming is driving greater melting of land ice in the region, which led scientists to conclude that consensus projections of global sea level rise made in 2013 are too conservative.

Compared to the previous SWIPA report, which was produced in 2011, the new assessment paints a far more dire picture of an Arctic climate in overdrive. 

It also offers hope that action can be taken now to slow down and eventually stabilize Arctic warming after about the year 2050.

But time is running out.

Even with rapid action to curb global warming pollutants like carbon dioxide and methane, the Arctic most of us grew up with — featuring thick sea ice making the region virtually impenetrable year-round — is gone, and is not likely to return anytime in the next century. 

Sea ice thickness trends, showing the thinning trend in recent years.

Image: zack labe

“… The Arctic of today is different in many respects from the Arctic of the past century, or even the Arctic of 20 years ago,” the report states. “Many of the changes underway are due to a simple fact: Ice, snow, and frozen ground — the components of the Arctic cryosphere — are sensitive to heat.” 

Based on computer model projections, the report states that average fall and winter…

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