The arctic, a polar region at the northernmost part of the Earth, is home to four million people and an array of diverse but dying wildlife. Though it only holds 1% of the world’s ocean water, it has a huge impact on the world. The Arctic helps circulate cold and warm water around the globe, regulating the environments for many underwater species. Additionally, it is connected to 10% of the world’s rivers and contains a quarter of the world’s continental shelf, land submerged under water.
The Arctic is easily susceptible to climate change. In the past 30 years, it lost approximately 95% of its oldest and thickest ice. The younger ice holding the arctic together is easily melted. While we can easily see the ice on the surface of the ocean melting away, most do not realize how much underwater ice has eroded away. In 2020, we saw record high temperatures in the Arctic: 1.9˚C (3.4˚F) above average. Ice also reached the second lowest extent ever recorded at the end of summer 2020.
The melted ice also contributes to the warming of the ocean and the further eroding of even more ice. Known as the Albedo effect, this causes the Arctic to warm at almost twice the rate of the global climate. A thick layer of ice can easily reflect sunlight, but as the ice thins and breaks, more heat gets absorbed. Without the protecting layer of ice, the dark ocean absorbs twice as much sunlight as ice, expediting the melting of more and more of the polar ice caps.
Less ice results in more open pathways through the Arctic. Many shipping companies take advantage of these newfound opportunities with little to no regard towards their massive impact on the environment. Moreover, the Arctic contains 13% of the world’s oil reserves. Companies have begun drilling for these untapped resources, damaging the Arctic itself and encouraging the use of fossil fuels. Because of the remote location and extreme weather conditions, responses to oil spills are limited, raising the stakes for the disaster.
Additionally, fires near the Arctic have negatively impacted the environment. In 2019, more than 3,800 square miles of Alaska was burned (almost ten times that of California’s). In Russia, the burnt acreage was approximately three times that of Alaska’s and only 11 kilometers away from the Arctic Ocean. Warmer temperatures also result in “zombie fires,” fires that smolder underground throughout the arctic winter and reemerge the following year.
Animals living in the Arctic have already been affected by the changing conditions in more ways than one. Studies show that polar bears are experiencing lowered fertility rates and bowhead whales are at risk of extinction... again. These whales, with a lifespan of more than 200 years, were almost hunted to extinction in 1920, but after activists stepped in, the population began to recover. However, warming oceans, pollution, and changing weather and ocean current patterns have harmed the Bowhead whale population. Furthermore, the loss of ice exposes them to their only natural predator: orcas. The impending extinction of multiple species in the Arctic will undeniably harm the ecosystem and create a ripple effect to affect other species.
Scientists predict that when we surpass a 1.5˚C change in global temperature, the odds of an ice-less summer will begin rising exponentially and will likely cause an additional 0.5˚C of global warming. If all the ice on Earth’s glaciers and sheets melt, sea levels will rise an additional 216 feet. Although that is an unlikely scenario for this century, if we continue burning fossil fuels, it will eventually happen. Sea levels have already risen four to eight inches in the past century and continue to rise an additional 0.13 inches every year. Experts predict that by 2100, oceans may rise between 10-30 inches if temperatures increase past the 1.5˚C mark. Rising sea levels, no matter how great, will cause erosion, flooding, and contamination of agricultural soil with salt. Additional threats of hurricanes and typhoons loom as well. People and animals alike are already being forced to migrate inland to seek shelter from the effects of climate change.
In order to adapt to these threats, coastal cities are building sea walls and planting vegetation to absorb water. However, for some, it’s already too late. The Marshall Islands, a nation made up of 29 islands, must decide between relocating or building up their land before the sea rises anymore.
Although we could simply boycott shipping companies that use the Arctic’s routes, we cannot forget the Arctic’s four million residents. Instead of leaving the residents jobless, we should focus on environmentally friendly modes of transportation. However, a complete ban on oil drilling - not just in the Arctic, but everywhere - is essential to stopping global warming.
The Arctic Ice Project (formerly known as Ice911), a nonprofit aiming to combat climate change, has discovered a viable solution to stop the Arctic from melting. They have developed sand-like silica beads meant to deflect sunlight from reaching the ice. Not only are the necessary ingredients (silicon and oxygen) abundant on Earth, they are also harmless to humans and animals. Studies led by the founder of Arctic Ice Project, Leslie Field, have proven the efficacy of silica beads. However, instead of scattering these beads everywhere, the group plans on pinpointing key parts of the arctic to target in order for the beads to have maximum impact. More information on this project can be found on the Arctic Ice Project website.
The Arctic is a key factor to our Earth’s survival, yet it is extremely susceptible to climate change. Its downfall would initiate a domino effect of toppling habitats throughout the whole world. By advocating for environmentally friendly shipping and supporting non profits such as the Arctic Ice Project, we can stop the melting ice and save millions of habitats, animals, and people.
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