Often, when we talk about climate change, it seems like a far-off scenario. We talk in terms of saving the planet for future generations and predict disruptive sea level rise within the century. But the effects of climate change are already felt around the world; future changes will only intensify them.
A few days before Christmas, temperatures near the North Pole reached a melting point of around 32 degrees Fahrenheit—more than 40 degrees above average.
Andrew King, a researcher at the University of Melbourne who has examined the links between Arctic melt and climate change, called the warm bout a “roughly one in a 200 year event.” Translation: the intensity is extremely rare, and very unlikely to have occurred without human-induced climate change. Yet these extremely rare events, scientists say, are becoming the new normal. Some even predict that the ice around the North Pole will disappear in the next two years.
The unprecedented temperatures are a bellwether for how climate change will affect the rest of the world in the next few decades. But they’re also an indication that these changes are happening right now, and affecting weather all over the globe.
The Arctic is a key battleground in climate change research for a number of reasons. One is something called the albedo effect. It’s the same logic behind wearing a white t-shirt on a hot day instead of a black one. Dark colors absorb the sun’s rays, making you hotter when you’re wearing black; lighter colors reflect the rays, keeping you cool. It’s the same with the earth. If swaths of it are covered in light colors—because of ice formations in Antarctica or glaciers in Peru—the rays bounce back into the atmosphere. But when that ice melts, revealing darker earth beneath, the heat is instead absorbed.
So the absence of ice, even without other problems that ice melt causes, will expose the earth to even more heat.
Scientists also worry about Arctic melt because of what exactly is trapped in all of those ice layers. NASA estimates that there are 1.7 trillion metric tons of carbon locked into permafrost (or the permanently frozen ground) in the far North—”more than twice the carbon currently in the atmosphere”—and that permafrost is melting away, releasing its stored carbon.
But perhaps the biggest effect—and the easiest for us non-Arctic dwellers to see—is how the ice melt affects extreme weather events.
A recent report from the experts participating in the Arctic Council found as many as 19 “tipping points,” or triggers for change, that begin in the Arctic and spread around the globe—from an increase in the albedo effect to changed climate patterns in the monsoon seasons of Asia.
As the saying up north goes, “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.” If the Arctic is the earth’s air conditioner, climate change is pulling the plug—and the whole world will feel the heat.
Of course, sometimes that’s an imperfect metaphor. For instance, Arctic melt may mean even chillier weather in other places on the planet. (That’s one of the reasons why “global warming” was abandoned in favor of the term “climate change.”) The cold expected in the Arctic this year swung instead to Siberia, where temperatures sank a stunning 60 degrees lower than normal.
This unprecedented warmth could also affect the Gulf Stream, which keeps northwestern Europe comparatively warm during the winter. The Gulf Stream is a jet of warmer water that delivers tropical temperatures to northern Europe; without it, the continent might look more like the high North. But when the Stream is inundated with chilly meltwater, its temperatures drop and its patterns change—plunging the UK and other countries into low temperatures.
Many countries in Europe and North America can also expect more “snowpocalypses”—extreme winter stormspolar vortices brought on by unusual weather in the Arctic.
Image: Melody Schreiber
We can expect colder weather snaps in winter—but we can also expect longer droughts in summer. This summer, a devastating drought affected an estimated 330 million people in India alone, wreaking havoc upon farms and causing water shortages around the country.
Not having enough water is a huge problem—but having too much water is another problem that climate change will exacerbate. Islands and coastlines around the world are already seeing an increase in floods; the UK now predicts major flooding every year.
If all of Greenland’s ice were to to melt, sea levels would rise a whopping 23 feet. Even at current temperatures, that’s unlikely to happen—but as its ice sheets continue to slide into the ocean, it has already begun contributing to sea level rise. The only question will be how much.
A melting North Pole won’t just affect our image of Santa and his elves. Although most people will never see the Arctic, it affects the lives of everyone on the planet. As it melts, it introduces interconnected changes that ripple in a domino effect. And once the ice is gone, it would require massive changes in our environment to form once more.
Top photo by Melody Schreiber
Melody Schreiber is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC.