Obama, Kerry and Ministers Meet in Alaska: Why the Arctic Matters

August 26, 2015
Brenda Ekwurzel
Senior Climate Scientist, Director of Climate Science

President Obama plans to address ministers and experts from 20 nations at the U.S. State Department conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement, and Resilience (GLACIER) at the end of August. According to a White House official, President Obama is the first sitting U.S. President to visit Alaska’s Arctic. In a video about his upcoming trip to Alaska, the President pronounced, “As long as I am President, America will lead the world to meet this threat before it’s too late.”

The U.S. took over the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council in April 2015. This council promotes cooperation, coordination, and interaction among Arctic states, indigenous communities, and interested parties to achieve sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic. The Chairmanship rotates every two years among eight Arctic Council Member States. The council also includes Permanent Participants that represent the more than half a million indigenous people’s living in the Arctic. Twelve non-arctic countries, including the UK, Germany, China and India, are official Observers. The top three priorities the U.S. has set for its Chairmanship period are Improving Economic & Living Conditions for Arctic Communities; Arctic Ocean Safety, Security & Stewardship; and  Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change.

There are many reasons why the Arctic is the focus of attention by U.S. leaders, ministers, and policy experts from 20 nations at this time.  I’ll focus on just two of them here.  First, self-reinforcing cycles also known as feedback loops. Some cycles lead to enhanced ice shrinkage.  Other cycles lead even more heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Many combine together to significantly amplify environmental change in the Arctic over the past several decades.  Second, what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic: impacts in the high North have major knock-on effects in the rest of rest of the world, and that matters for all of us.

Self-reinforcing cycles that amplify Arctic environmental change

There is no doubt that the Arctic is responding to the overload of carbon in the atmosphere in a big way.  To see why, I’ll examine one example of the many self-reinforcing cycles that are occurring in the Arctic. Let’s start with the iconic change in Arctic sea ice, which has logged declining trends in volume and summer sea ice extent.  Between the 1870s and 1960s Arctic sea ice extent remained relatively similar until a precipitous decline began and continued over the period of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gas buildup in the atmosphere.

June sea ice extent 1979-2015.

Northern Hemisphere June sea ice extent with an overall declining trend. Data source: National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

During the season when the sun appears above the horizon, the bright white, snow-covered, sea-ice reflects most of the sunlight back out to space. This helps keep the Arctic Ocean region cold. However, when the snow melts and meltwater ponds appear on the ice, the sea-ice can melt even faster. Ultimately the ice retreats back to expose dark open ocean water that absorbs most of the sun’s energy and heats up. The warmer ocean in turn melts more sea ice and so on, leading to amplified warming in the Arctic Ocean. Many Arctic summer sea ice extent records have been repeatedly broken over the last decade.

Albedo change in the Arctic Ocean

I took this photograph the day before we reached the North Pole on this icebreaker. It was near the traditional time of low Arctic sea ice extent in early September. As you can see there is a lot of open water that can absorb most of the energy coming from the sun. Photo by Brenda Ekwurzel.

Periods of rapid Arctic sea ice loss  accelerate land warming and places permafrost at further risk of degradation. Much of this ground has been permanently frozen storing carbon for thousands of years. Not all of this stored carbon would be released right away with unabated climate change. Depending on the presence or absence of oxygen and how much water exists, some of it is released as methane and some is released as carbon dioxide. To use an analogy, it is not boiling, but the surface portion is percolating and that is a major concern.  Keeping a lid on this frozen carbon is important. The northern permafrost region is about half the global estimate for the belowground organic carbon. There is around twice as much carbon in the Arctic Permafrost as the current carbon in Earth’s atmosphere. Permafrost degradation can mean more of the old carbon goes out into the atmosphere than goes into the vegetation and soils of the tundra regions each year. This means more overload of heat-trapping carbon in the atmosphere leading to a plethora of consequences around the world. For example, more heat-trapping in the atmosphere leads to even more shrinking of land ice. And when ice or meltwater from land ice such as glaciers and ice caps reaches the ocean it directly contributes to sea level rise.

Rapid ice loss periods lead to warmer land temperatures.

Land warming trend per decade compared during periods of less ice loss (left map) with rapid ice loss periods (right map). Maps from Lawrence et al., 2008 GRL.

What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic

What I’ve described above is only one example of the many self-reinforcing cycles in the Arctic.  The question is, how do these add up and are the magnitudes significant enough to matter? The answer in short is yes: ‘what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,’ but in fact leads to cascading consequences for the rest of world.

Permafrost

Adapted after last panel in U.S. National Science Foundation image.

Earth’s thin atmosphere

Earth’s atmosphere image source: NASA

Calving Glacier

Fig caption: Land ice calving from Alaskan glacier. Photo by Brenda Ekwurzel

Land Ice loss contributes to sea level rise

Land ice directly deposited in the ocean raises sea level. Photo by Brenda Ekwurzel

Figure by Union of Concerned Scientists adapted from data in Church and White 2011

Data from Church and White 2011.

Let’s take the case of historic sea level rise. Between 1972 and 2008, shrinking land ice was more than half the contribution to global sea level rise. Glaciers and ice caps (i.e. land ice not including the major ice sheets) comprised 60% of the total land ice contribution. Greenland and Antarctica Ice sheets made up the rest of the balance. For near-term sea level rise potential, the glaciers are likely to continue to contribute as warming continues. The Arctic dominates  the total area of glaciers monitored around the world.  Going forward all eyes are on the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet contributions to sea level. There are over 7.3 meters (24 feet) sea level equivalent stored in the Greenland ice sheet. Around a third of the U.S. population lives in coastal counties and many live less than 1 meter (3.3 feet) above mean high water. By 2045, the timespan of home mortgages purchased today, many communities can expect a 10-fold increase in the frequency of tidal floods, according to a 2014 UCS analysis, Encroaching Tides. The fate of the Arctic land ice is in large part the fate of coastlines this century.

To learn more about other aspects of how amplification of Arctic change matters, check out the UCS Science Network webinar for August 25, 2015. Jennifer Francis (Rutgers University) explains the latest research into how a wavier jet stream can influence extreme weather events. Here is the quick overview.  Recent data indicate the jet stream is weakening and becoming wavier in response to rapid Arctic warming. This can set up patterns of persistent colder regions and persistent warmer regions than normal. Such persistence can contribute to the severity of mid-latitude weather patterns.

Arctic opportunities

The upcoming State Department conference (GLACIER) in Alaska will bring ministers and experts together to tackle the challenges the Arctic presents and to seek collaborative opportunities. These are likely to align with what the Secretary of State, John Kerry, has already expressed as some of the priorities of the U.S. Chairmanship:

“So we have to implement the framework that we have developed to reduce emissions of black carbon and methane in the Arctic, and at the same time we have to foster economic development that will raise living standards and help make renewable energy sources the choice for everybody.”

Black carbon deposition on snow or ice can lead to substantially accelerated ice melt when the sun is above the horizon. This was dramatically demonstrated in July 2012 when the combination of warm temperatures and forest fire deposition of black carbon led to the largest surface melt on Greenland in over a century. The top sources for global black carbon emissions globally are domestic burning, including heating and cooking (40%) and natural sources including wildfires and wetlands (28%). The Arctic Council Member States are accountable for 30% of the black carbon induced warming in the Arctic.

At the GLACIER conference the Arctic will get the attention it deserves at the highest levels. This is a great relief to many of us who have seen first-hand the dramatic changes happening above the Arctic Circle.