10 Effects of Climate Change on Arctic Health

Unlike local weather patterns, which are subject to change based upon seasonal differences and other temporary factors, the world’s climate is the result of a carefully balanced long-term cycle. It involves both the Earth’s oceans and our atmosphere, and repeats itself over thousands of years; it is usually not subject to ongoing disruption from temporary short-term factors.

Over the last century and a half of human activity, however, greenhouse emissions have become much larger than what our atmosphere and oceans could adapt to handle as quickly. The result has been a trickle-down effect of global warming, increasing ocean acidity, and other effects serving to alter our environment in measurable ways.

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One of the most pristine environments left on Earth is the Arctic, where human activity is relatively low. Here, the long-term effects of climate change are perhaps most readily visible. The following list includes ten easily detectable effects of climate change on the health and stability of the Arctic ecosystem.

The Arctic Region is Warming Rapidly

Records of global temperatures going back to the mid-1800s, when we first started keeping reliable records on an ongoing basis, show a gradual increase in average annual temperature from the late 1800s on. However, the rate at which Arctic temperatures are increasing has itself increased over the last few decades, with the last 15-20 years showing the most dramatic rise in temperature ever experienced. Climatologists study Arctic temperatures to determine how this change compares to historical changes in temperature. In addition to studying historical records, they can take ice samples to analyze the chemical content of the historical atmosphere and seawater, and observe the rate at which Arctic ice is melting.

Sea Ice is Melting

The Arctic region includes both land and ocean. Worldwide, its southernmost reaches include northern parts of Alaska and Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and parts of Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Russia. Further north, the Arctic is mostly ocean, but most of that open expanse was previously covered in sea ice. Sea ice consists of large, thick sheets of ice that provide a de-facto landmass, which serves as a habitat for seals, polar bears, and other Arctic animals. These are distinct from glaciers, which form over land, and from icebergs, which are small portions of sea ice that break free — sometimes drifting far to the south. Recent measurements show that sea ice is melting at record rates, sufficient to allow for unprecedentedly large portions of it to break loose, and to open up a northern waterway that was previously inaccessible to boat traffic.

Arctic Warming Cycles Into More Global Warming

One of the less commonly understood effects of climate change is that, once it has been set into motion, it can self-perpetuate. This is what is termed a “runaway greenhouse effect.” One of the mechanisms behind this is the reduction in large sheets of sea ice. Arctic ice reflects a great deal of the Sun’s energy back into space, for the same reason that staring at a fresh bank of snow can cause discomfort and “snow blindness” for a human being. With increasing temperatures, Arctic ice melts, reducing its surface area, and reflecting less of the Sun’s radiation back into space. That radiation gets absorbed by the ocean instead, further increasing the rate of global warming.

Reduced Habitat for Arctic Land Animals

Sea ice is the primary habitat for a range of Arctic animals, such as polar bears and seals. Scientists have already observed that climate change is quickly reducing the amount of sea ice that is available adjacent to land masses, reducing the habitat of such animals, and potentially driving them far afield in search of food. For the extimated four million people who live in Arctic areas across the world, encounters with polar bears and other animals are likely to increase, as they seek new places to live and new food sources. Conversely, seagoing predators like orcas have already been observed to be taking

Change in Land-Based Ecosystems

South of what is known as the “polar desert,” we have the Arctic tundra region, which is typified by low-growth vegetation and shallow permafrost. South of the Arctic tundra, there are the boreal forests. Rising temperatures are likely to push the boundaries of these respective ecosystems northward wordlwide, expanding the range of the boreal forests and moving the tundra north into what was previously polar desert (or causing it to essentially “disappear” over the ocean). This will disrupt many animals’ habitats, and have profound effects on global climate due to a series of changes, such as a darkening of the landscape.

Increasing Global Insect Populations

The boreal forests, worldwide, are home to thousands of insect species. Some of these spread southward into warmer, more densely populated regions, while others affect only their local environment. These insects are a part of the balanced food chain in their native environments. An expansion of boreal forest growth will cause insect populations to expand beyond what their existing predator base can cope with, resulting in large-scale damage throughout forested areas. Insect population expanding beyond what its predator population can cope with may lead to the insects moving further south in greater numbers, causing damage in areas of human habitation.

Increase in Forest Fires

Forest fires are a natural part of the forest ecology. They serve to clear out dead wood and other debris, and allow for neew forest growth; they also help to ensure that trees don’t grow too closely together. With an increase in insect damage, however, expanded boreal forests will see a much higher amount of both fallen debris and standing dead trees. Forests fires will be much more common, spreading further and faster, thanks to the abundant supply of readily ignitable fuel. With the boreal forests covering parts of Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia and other inhabited regions, this would be a serious problem for humans living in relatively remote areas — as well as for industry based in these regions.

Widespread Effects on Global Ocean Currents

Ocean currents are like rivers within the ocean itself. They are based on differences in temperature. Temperature changes in the Arctic act like something of a thermostat for the rest of the planet’s oceans: as the Arctic waters heat up, the ocean currents will distribute this change in temperature elsewhere, encouraging a gradual warmup of the entire ocean. This will affect well-established currents, triggering changes in weather patterns and atmospheric temperatures over land, and affecting a wide range of vital industries — from farming, to shipping, to tourism.

Increased Acidity in the Oceans

Rising temperatures are in part attributed to increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. This leads to the ocean absorbing more carbon dioxide than at any other point in recorded history, resulting in heightened acidity in the water. This kind of chemical change will, over time, make the ocean less hospitable to certain forms of life, with the microscopic life forms on which all other life depends being one of the first to be affected. Not only do other forms of aquatic life depend upon these tiny plants and animals for sustenance, but they are themselves significantly responsible for taking in carbon dioxide and putting out oxygen.

Expanded Farming

Humans do grow crops in the Arctic region, and it is believed that the rise in global temperatures will increase the range of crops that can be grown there. It will also make the growing season longer. This, however, is not without its drawbacks; increasing insect damage in this region, as well as the likely necessity of clearing forested land to free up additional Arctic farmland, will each introduce an uncertain variable to the equation. At this time, it is impossible to predict exactly how these changes will conspire to take shape.

More Information

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a government organization which tracks and studies long-term effects of climate change, monitoring the health of some of the most fragile and vital parts of our air and oceans. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also monitors the signs and progress of global climate change.

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