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5 impacts of Arctic climate change

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Ann Daniels (in red)  and Pen Hadow (in blue), consider how best to cross an open lead in the ice. Catlin Arctic Survey, Feb 28th - May 13th 2009, high on the Arctic Ocean.Ann Daniels (in red) and Pen Hadow (in blue), consider how best to cross an open lead in the ice. Catlin Arctic Survey, Feb 28th – May 13th 2009, high on the Arctic Ocean.

Arctic sea ice is anything but static. Each year, the sea ice grows throughout the dark northern winter, reaches its peak extent and March, and melts again under the midnight sun until September. This year, like the year before, the spring extent of Arctic ice is the lowest on record. Sadly, it’s not surprising – 2016 was the warmest year on record, and the Arctic is warming at a rate of twice the global average.

Vital role of Arctic sea ice

We know that sea ice is vital part of Arctic marine ecosystems and it’s projected to almost disappear in the summer within a generation. This seismic change is caused mainly by the Earth’s surface temperatures warming at an unprecedented rate through high emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere – in short, climate change.

A recent study suggested that 50-70 per cent of the Arctic ice disappearance is caused by people. This means people can, and must, take action to limit the disappearance of the ice.

But this is not just about the effects on Arctic animals; it is also about the people who rely on those animals. If the sea ice goes, it will impact the lives and livelihoods of billions of people and cause untold damage to sensitive ecosystems.

Momentum for addressing this crisis is increasing, but as nature persistently reminds us, we must pick up the pace. We must leverage the global Paris Agreement on climate change through increased scale and speed of implementation.

We have no choice because the impacts are becoming more and more clear every day. For example, did you know about these surprising impacts of sea ice loss?

1. The fish you eat are on the move

Female Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) before spawning, Lofoten, Norway, November 2008Female Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) before spawning, Lofoten, Norway, November 2008

Sub-arctic species such as Atlantic cod, salmon and mackerel are pushing north with unknown effects on Arctic ecosystems. This will likely also affect both commercial and subsistence fisheries.

2. Arctic travel is more dangerous

An Inuk hunter on a snowmobile observing an icebreaker ship, Admiralty Inlet, Nunavut, Canada.An Inuk hunter on a snowmobile observing an icebreaker ship, Admiralty Inlet, Nunavut, Canada.

Many people in the Arctic rely on traditional travel routes across the sea ice – but as the climate warms, these routes are no longer safe.

3. Polar bears and people are coming into conflict

Polar bear patrol member in Russia.( c ) M.Deminov WWF Russia

WWF supports work in many parts of the polar bears’ range to reduce conflict between the bears and people, to reduce the numbers of people and bears injured or killed.

4.  Orcas change narwhal behaviour

Orcinus orca Killer whale In pack ice Bering Sea near Kamchatka, Russian FederationOrcinus orca Killer whale In pack ice Bering Sea near Kamchatka, Russian Federation

Unlike Arctic whales such as narwhals and belugas, orcas have a large dorsal fin that makes it difficult to navigate in heavy ice. As sea ice melts, orcas are moving north. A recent study found that when orcas are present, narwhals head to shore where they’ll be less vulnerable to the new predators.

5.  Acidic oceans threaten Arctic life

Acidic oceans eat away at the shells of marine life. © NOAA

Due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the world’s oceans are 30% more acidic now than before the industrial revolution. Cold oceans, like those in the Arctic, are acidifying twice as fast as average. Acidic water interferes with the development of coral reefs and the shells of oysters, crabs, snails and plankton, just to name a few.

We are all responsible

The Arctic is literally the air conditioner of the world, and so, it is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that it continues to function according to the ebb and flow of life necessary to sustain it – for animals and for people. We are all responsible to contribute to this effort, though Arctic countries, especially those with high carbon footprints, should lead the way.

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal is the leader of WWF’s global Climate and Energy Practice. He is based in Lima, Peru. mpulgarvidal@wwfint.org

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