If We Don’t Limit Global Warming To 2°C, This Is The Polar Regions' Depressing Future

Polar wildlife will suffer if global average temperatures continue to rise. Jeff Kerby/UC Davis

With the world’s temperature gauge slowly but surely creeping upwards, what’s in store for the polar regions, two of the most vulnerable and important ecosystems on our planet? As grimly highlighted by a new study, world-shaking changes are quickly heading towards the Arctic and Antarctic. 

New research has illustrated what we can expect to see in the polar regions as the planet edges toward 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels, a milestone that’s potentially foreseeable in the next few decades. Reporting in the journal Science Advances this week, an international team of scientists assessed the effects of a 2°C warmer Arctic and Antarctic on wildlife, human livelihoods, vegetation, methane release, and loss of sea- and land ice. 

“Many of the changes over the past decade are so dramatic they make you wonder what the next decade of warming will bring,” lead author Eric Post, UC Davis professor of climate change ecology, said in a statement.

“If we haven’t already entered a new Arctic, we are certainly on the threshold.” 

Baby muskox, an Arctic hoofed mammal. Eric Post/UC Davis

Global average temperatures have risen around 0.8°C since the mid-19th century. By comparison, the Arctic has heated up 0.75°C just in the past decade. This study anticipates that a 2°C rise globally could equate to 7°C (Arctic) and 3°C (Antarctic) winter warming, respectively. 

The effects of this will be widespread through the polar regions. For starters, the environmental changes are likely to have a catastrophic effect on the areas’ biodiversity, from caribou and muskox to polar bears and penguins. In the Arctic, loss of sea ice will mean polar bears will encounter more difficulty hunting and foraging, while spring sea-ice breakup will reduce the chances of survival for Arctic seal pup species.

The warming temperatures are also likely to draw an influx of sub-Arctic species into the area, resulting in increased competition with native Arctic species.

The Greenland Ice Sheet, pictured here in July 2008, seems particularly vulnerable to warming 1-4°C above pre-industrial levels. Since this photo was taken, the Arctic has warmed 0.75°C. Eric Post/UC Davis

Perhaps the most important lesson from this research is that the changes won’t stay isolated to the polar regions, they will send ripples throughout the wider world. Warming polar regions also hold the potential to release vast vats of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, stored inside permafrost, thereby contributing further to climate change.  

Beyond this, we can also expect sea-level rise from rapidly melting land ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, as well as increased instances of extreme weather in parts of the Northern Hemisphere.

“What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” explained study co-author Michael Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences at Penn State. “The dramatic warming and melting of Arctic ice is impacting the jet stream in a way that gives us more persistent and damaging weather extremes.”

 

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