If you’ve ever spun a globe and used your finger to stop at a random location, notice where you’ve landed. Maybe Russia? Brazil? Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean? It’s more or less based on chance -- besides the occasional user bias -- but how often would you say that you’ve landed near the “North Pole”? The likelihood is probably pretty low and I imagine that if you’ve used this exercise to plan a trip, you’d be more inclined to spin again… unless you want your holiday on ice.
How much ice are we talking about? As of the 25th October 2020, approximately 5.6 million square kilometres of artic sea ice was recorded by the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC). However, this is the lowest recorded value for that date, which falls after having been listed as the second lowest ice extent in the 41-year satellite record in August 2020.
So, what’s going on? Global temperatures have warmed by nearly 0.8ºC over the past 137 years but the Arctic has warmed by 0.75ºC in the last decade alone. This is drastic and rapid warming. The rate at which northern sea ice is melting is quicker than the annual snowfall and ice accumulation needed to replenish the ice lost during summer melting. It is expected that if emissions continue under a “business-as-usual” scenario, the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free within 20 years.
This is a big deal for numerous reasons. One in particular is related to something called the albedo effect, which (if you’re not familiar with the term) simply means lighter surfaces reflect more heat than dark surfaces. The ice currently in the Arctic Ocean acts as a way to reflect solar radiation and facilitates the maintenance of cooler temperatures in this region. When the ice melts, this exposes the dark ocean to those solar rays and more heat gets absorbed than what was once reflected, leading to further ice melt. And thus, this begins a positive feedback loop which will increase arctic warming as the impacts of climate change continue.
Some of the consequences that this has led to are quite profound. Among habitat loss, permafrost melt and sea level rise, the rapid warming in the Arctic has impacted the jet stream and associated weather systems in the Northern Hemisphere. As the Arctic warms, the temperature contrast between the mid- and high-latitudes is reduced, which causes the jet stream to slow down and vary in amplitude. This not only slows the movement of lingering weather systems that could lead to extended periods of flooding or drought, but it can also lead to more anomalous weather systems (ie. hurricanes reaching further up the eastern coast of the United States).
One of the impacts from this that you might be familiar with is the “Polar Vortex.” In 2014, the jet stream above North America extended further south than normal bringing a blast of cold weather to Canada and the United States (where some locations saw wind chills of up to -51ºC). Because of these cold temperatures along with quite a bit of snow and ice, the U.S. economy took a $5 billion hit relating to a drop in consumer spending, lost productivity and higher heating bills amongst other physical damages. Flight cancellations alone added up to $1.4 billion and the U.S. GDP shrunk by ~2% in the first quarter of that year related to the impacts from the Polar Vortex. Although $5 billion is a drop in the bucket for the multi-trillion dollar U.S. economy, this is still a cost that has to be paid.
But before I wrap things up, it is important to mention one more thing if this topic is ever brought up in your thrilling day-to-day conversations. Yes, the extent of ice in the Arctic Ocean is decreasing over time on average. However, if you look at the numbers, the ice extent in the winter of 2020 reached 114% of the 2004-2019 average. So, does this mean the ice sheet is recovering? In the long term, unfortunately no… at least not yet. What happened this past year is a disruption to a weather circulation pattern called the Arctic Oscillation (AO) which created a short-term weather event causing the Arctic to hold onto its cold temperatures. So, although ice extent had a positive recording, we’re likely to see further decreases in the future.
In my next post, I’ll be talking more about weather and climate context before moving down the list of topics I included in my first opening post. I’m hoping for this to aid in a deeper understanding of the processes happening in the atmosphere and in climate projections you’ve heard about, but jury’s out if I succeed!
Wishing you all a very happy holiday season and looking forward to gracing you with some climate knowledge in the new year.
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