Polar change, notably the fast Arctic melt, could impose huge costs on world economies. New evidence shows how rapidly the frozen north is changing.
The northern reaches of the planet are undergoing very rapid change: the fast Arctic melt means the region is warming at twice the speed of the planetary average.
The loss of sea ice and land snow could tip the planet into a new and unprecedented cycle of climatic change and add yet another $70 trillion (£54 tn) to the estimated economic cost of global warming.
In yet another sombre statement of the challenge presented by climate change, driven by ever-increasing emissions of greenhouse gases from the fossil fuels that power the global economy, British, European and US researchers took a look at two manifestations of warming.
One is the growing levels of ancient carbon now being released into the atmosphere as the Arctic permafrost begins to melt. The other is the reduced reflection of solar radiation back into space as what had once been an expanse of snow and ice melts, to expose ever greater areas of light-absorbing blue sea, dark rock and scrubby tundra.
The concern is with what the scientists like to call “non-linear transitions”. The fear is not that global warming will simply get more pronounced as more snow and ice disappears. The fear is that at some point the melting will reach a threshold that could tip the planet into a new climate regime that would be irreversible, and for which there has been no parallel in human history.
And if so, the costs in terms of climate disruption, heat waves, rising sea levels, harvest failures, more violent storms and more devastating floods and so on could start to soar.
The scientists report in the journal Nature Communications that if the nations of the world were to keep a promise made in Paris in 2015 to contain planetary warming to “well below” 2°C above the average for most of human history by the year 2100, the extra cost of Arctic ice loss would still tip $24 tn.
But on the evidence of national plans tabled so far, the world seems on course to hit 3°C by the century’s end, and the extra cost to the global economies is estimated at almost $70 tn.
“What we are witnessing is a major transport current faltering, which is bringing the world one step closer to a sea ice-free summer in the Arctic”
If the world goes on burning more and more fossil fuels – this is called the business-as-usual scenario – then global temperatures could rise to 4°C above the historic average by 2100. The bill for what the scientists call “the most expensive and least desirable scenario” is set at $2197 tn. And, they stress, their forecast $70 tn is just the extra cost of the melting Arctic.
They have not factored in all the other much-feared potential “tipping points” such as the loss of the tropical rainforests that absorb so much of the atmospheric carbon, the collapse of the great Atlantic current that distributes equatorial heat to temperate climates, the loss of the West Antarctic ice sheet, and other irreversible changes.
As they see it, even to contain global warming to 1.5°C by 2100 could cost a global $600 trillion.
And although the thawing of the permafrost and the opening of the Arctic Ocean would deliver mining and shipping opportunities, any such rewards would be dwarfed by the cost of the emissions from the thawing permafrost, and the reduction of what scientists call albedo: the reflectivity of pristine ice and snow that helps keep the Arctic frozen.
Research of this kind is based on vast numbers of simulations of the global economies under a range of scenarios, and the calculations of cost remain just that, estimates based on models of what nations might or might not do. The price economies must pay will be real enough, but the advanced accounting of what has yet to happen remains academic.
But the changes in the Arctic are far from academic, according to a series of new studies of what has been happening, and is happening right now.
●Researchers in California report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they have now reconstructed change in the Greenland ice sheet between 1972 and 2018, to estimate the loss of ice.
Fifty years ago, the northern hemisphere’s greatest sheet of ice was losing 47 billion tonnes of ice every year, and by the next decade 50 bn tonnes annually.
Sea levels raised
Since then the losses have risen almost six-fold, and since 2010 the island has been losing ice at the rate of 290 billion tonnes a year. So far, ice from Greenland alone has raised sea levels by almost 14 mm.
●German scientists have looked at the results of 15 years of observations by the Grace satellite system – the acronym stands for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment – which ended in 2018. They calculate that between April 2002 and June 2017, Greenland lost about 260 bn tonnes of ice each year, and Antarctica 140 bn tonnes.
They warn in the journal Nature Climate Change that melting at this rate could accelerate sea level rise to 10 mm a year – faster than at any time in the last 5,000 years – as a direct consequence of a warming climate.
●And the traffic of sea ice across the Arctic ocean has begun to falter, according to German oceanographers. The Transpolar Drift is a slow flow of new sea ice from the Siberian Arctic across the pole to the Fram Strait east of Greenland.
Melting too early
It has its place in the history of polar exploration: in 1893 the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen deliberately sailed his ship the Fram into the ice pack off Siberia and went with the floes across the Arctic.
The Drift is a kind of frozen ocean conveyor that carries nutrients, algae and sediments across the pole. But, researchers say in the journal Scientific Reports, this flow has started to vary. Most of the young ice off the Siberian coast now melts before it can leave its “nursery”. Once, half the ice from the Russian shelf completed the journey. Now, only one-fifth does.
“What we are witnessing is a major transport current faltering, which is bringing the world one step closer to a sea ice-free summer in the Arctic,” said Thomas Krumpen of the Alfred Wegener Institute, who led the study.
“The ice now leaving the Arctic through the Fram Strait is, on average, 30% thinner than it was 15 years ago.”