THE ARCTIC MELTDOWN
Global warming is a direct threat to biodiversity in all corners of the world, but nowhere are its effects more visible than in the Arctic, where the impacts of the climate crisis are hitting earlier and with greater intensity than anywhere else. Winter temperatures have increased by almost 10 degrees Fahrenheit since 1949; by the end of this century, the Far North’s annual average temperatures are expected to rise 9 degrees or more over land and up to 13 degrees over water.
A DEATH SENTENCE FOR SPECIES
With its unforgiving winds, tremendous cold, winters that never see the sun, and summers that never see the end of it, the Arctic seems like a hard place to eke out a living. Yet it’s home to highly specialized species that have evolved to make the most of their harsh environment, including vast expanses of sea ice. Without enough sea ice, the entire Arctic ecosystem will unravel, and its species will die.
OIL EXPLORATION: ANOTHER ARCTIC AFFLICTION
Our society’s fossil-fuel addiction is undermining the health of the far North in more ways than one. Like beachgoers chasing receding ocean waves to gather seafood before a tsunami, oil companies are rushing to drill in the Arctic, with the single goal of developing more of the fuel that drives global warming in the first place. Making matters worse, the Arctic’s increasingly ice-free waters are plagued with a proliferation of routes for ships — which contribute a significant 3 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Oil development and shipping are not only a threat to polar bears and ice seals, but also to the highly endangered North Pacific right whale and bowhead whale that frequent the Arctic’s icy waters. And introducing new black-carbon emissions from ships into the Arctic would accelerate melting and take away our last chance to save this region.
It’s hard to fathom, but there’s even more at stake in the far North than saving imperiled Arctic animals and their ecosystem. That’s because as sea ice, whose light color reflects sunlight away from the Earth, is replaced by expanses of dark water — which absorbs the sun’s heat — one of the Earth’s natural cooling mechanisms breaks down and both the Arctic and the entire globe warm even faster. And recent science indicates that vast stores of methane are locked up in the Arctic, which — if released by warming — could dwarf previous global emissions and may already be being released by sea-ice decline. There was a sharp rise in atmospheric methane beginning in 2007. Methane is 25 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2.
Polar bear photo © Jenny E. Ross/ www.jennyross.com
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