Melting sea ice, plastic waste, biodiversity loss – the Arctic is facing unprecedented environmental pressure and will continue to change until 2050 even if we meet targets to limit global warming, according to Marianne Kroglund from the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum addressing the challenges faced by Arctic governments and indigenous peoples.
Sea ice in the central Arctic Ocean is at record lows and we’ve been seeing heatwaves in recent years. Is it too late to save the Arctic?
‘Even if we manage to stabilise the global average temperature in accordance to the Paris Agreement (where the world’s governments agreed to limit warming to well below 2˚C) there will still be substantial changes to the Arctic environment. These changes will happen until 2050 regardless of the emission reductions that we do today. What happens after that will depend on the (extent of the) emission cuts now, but no matter what we do today the Arctic will look very different in 2050.
‘There are different opinions whether or not Arctic tipping points (the moment of an unstoppable change) have been passed. I would say when it comes to the Greenland ice cap, I think we may look at irreversible loss.’
What kind of changes are we talking about?
‘The Arctic has already lost 75 percent of its summer sea ice volume, and we are likely to see an ice-free Arctic ocean at the end of summer by 2040. The annual duration of snow cover is decreasing by 2-4 days per decade, and the area of near-surface permafrost is projected to decrease by around 35% by mid-century. These changes will have fundamental consequences for marine, terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems.
‘Sea ice is the most important driver of ecosystem change because the decline of sea ice reduces its thickness and extent, along with changes of the timing of ice melt - they affect marine ecosystems and biodiversity. That will of course change the range of Arctic species, it will increase the occurrence of algae blooms and lead to changes in diet among marine mammals. That alters the predator-prey relationships. Of course, when sea ice disappears the habitat for sea-ice-dependent species disappears. For walruses and seals and those that prey on those species this melt will have fundamental impacts.
‘In some parts of the Arctic we have more (combined) rain and snow events which cause an ice cap over the vegetation, so grazing animals will have difficulty getting to their fodder (food source). So caribous, reindeer and muskox will be prevented from grazing because you’ll get the ice barrier over moss and lichens. We have also seen over the past 30 years the greening of tundra reflecting an increase of plant growth, but there is also browning in some areas showing a decrease in plant cover and productivity. The changes are huge and for those who actually live from the ecosystems, harvesting and fishing and agriculture, this will have large implications.’
Plastics have also been found in the Arctic, how much of a threat is this to life there?
‘It is true that there is a lot of marine litter, including microplastics, now found in the Arctic. They come from sea and land-based sources, some originate within the Arctic region, but most is transported to the Arctic region from other places in the world. It is always difficult to know if it is toxic or what the impact will be on species and ecosystems but that is something we are looking into within the Arctic Council, also within many other national and international organisations.
‘I think when it comes to marine litter, that is really something where more research is needed so we can actually understand the interaction with biota (animal and plant life of a particular region). There is also an issue with hazardous substances being absorbed through microplastics and that being a vector (way) into micro-organisms that are filter feeding.’
'No matter what we do today the Arctic will look very different in 2050.'
Marianne Kroglund, Chair, Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, Arctic Council
What other environmental pressures are there on the Arctic?
‘Contaminants are a persistent challenge. Even if we regulate many of the chemicals at the global scale there are still challenges of new chemicals being introduced on the market and some of them end up in the Arctic, adding to the pressure on biota and ecosystems.
‘And, of course, it is also a challenge that there are many ambitious development plans of economic opportunities in the Arctic because it fragments habitats for species and populations. There has not been that much activity now but it is increasing – we know shipping activities are increasing for instance and we know with that there is a risk of pollution.’
At the recent Arctic Circle assembly, you said that now is the time for solutions to save the Arctic. What are the priority actions you would like to see?
‘Much of the good work that has been going on regulating chemicals needs to continue. We need to also look at the new chemicals entering the market to make sure that those (with) the ability to end up in the Arctic and bioaccumulate and biomagnify in the food chain are regulated at a global level. That is important, but of course the biggest pressure in the near future is climate change. Mitigation actions will be absolutely necessary and, because we know that mitigation actions will only kick in mid-century, the need for action for adaptation now is even more important.’
What would be the scientific priorities to better protect the Arctic?
‘We have focused a lot within AMAP (the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme) and the Arctic Council on the need to improve our knowledge about feedbacks (changes that amplify or reduce the effect of climate change). That is linked to tipping points because there are a lot of unknowns within these systems. We don’t know how the loss of sea and land ice will feed back into the climate system and how that will contribute to more rapid warming. It is important to better understand how climate change interacts with ecosystems and also there is a need to improve the understanding of the connections of change in the Arctic and changes in mid-latitude weather, ocean circulation and sea level rise.
‘The science ministerial (conference) that was a few weeks ago was a very important meeting because there you could see how most of the actors in Arctic science are pushing in the same direction. There is an enthusiasm among the actors and a genuine concern for Arctic people and its processes. They have pinpointed the same issues we have done with the Arctic Council – that there is a need for strengthening access to data and sharing data, coordinating monitoring efforts and improving Arctic climate observing systems. This will help us understand dynamics of Arctic change and assess the vulnerability and the resilience of its environment and societies.’
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
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