A winter with lots of snow should not make us forget that the Arctic is melting.
Klassekampen, 9 March 2018
Severe frost, snow, and ice. Great! Europe finally got a normal winter. Right? No. Appearances can be deceiving, because in reality there is nothing normal about it. In my previous column I already predicted this: due to changes in the jet stream circling the polar region, it can be extremely cold in one place and extremely warm somewhere else. This was also the case this winter.
While cold records were broken in Europe, the British talked about 'The Beast from the East', the Dutch about 'The Russian Bear', and the Swedes about 'Snökanon' (snow cannon), temperatures were dozens of degrees too high near the North Pole. To the North of Greenland is where the thickest sea ice is normally found, and it should now be at its maximum. But with temperatures of 5 degrees Celsius and strong wind, the sea ice disappeared. There is about one and a half million square kilometers less sea ice this winter than in the 90s. One third of the EU's area. The difference is much greater in the summer.
The disappearing act of sea ice and the rapid warming of the polar region is triggering a chain reaction that goes far beyond what you would expect: from local to worldwide and from predictable to unexpected.
For polar bears, seals, and walrus, sea ice is essential as a habitat, e.g. for finding food and the raising of young. When these animals have to spend a long time on shore, many of them will not survive. Hidden under the sea ice, major changes are also taking place: thinner ice allows for more sunlight to penetrate, which can lead to more algae growth, and at other times of the year. This disrupts the entire food chain, which makes it harder for arctic fish and other marine life to find food, and these are possibly replaced by species that thrive better in the warmer water.
It's clear that nature in the polar region will never be the same again due to the disappearance of sea ice. But the melting ice also has consequences for our climate. It is like the removal of a gigantic mirror that reflects sunlight back into space. More open water means the opposite: sunlight is absorbed, and the ocean and atmosphere warm up even further. This can lead to more ice melt, which strengthens the problem. The polar region warms two to three times faster than the rest of the world, mostly because of the loss of sea ice.
In addition to sea ice, this rapid warming also causes a faster melting of land ice, such as on Greenland. This is particularly a problem for low-lying countries. While the disappearance of sea ice does not cause sea levels to rise, the melting of ice caps and glaciers does. It is the difference between a glass of water that already has ice in it, or when you add ice cubes to it.
Moreover, permafrost soils are slowly starting to thaw. Large amounts of carbon have been built up over millennia in these frozen soils, originating from plant remains and the like, which were not or barely degraded by the low temperatures. When permafrost thaws, this carbon is released as CO2 and methane – the two most important greenhouse gases. The earth warms even further, and the downward spiral is complete.
It’s like the removal of a gigantic mirror that reflects sunlight.
Aren't there any positive aspects to the warming of the Arctic? Yes and no. Because the snow melts earlier and the summers get warmer, plants can grow longer, providing more food to both humans and animals. A little extra warmth in the summer is not that bad, but the extremely high winter temperatures – like a few weeks ago – cause major problems in the high North. A warm spell can cause the snow to melt, and if it is followed by frost, plants are exposed to severe cold. If not all of the snow melts, it forms a thick ice layer that also causes damage to plants – a serious problem for both nature and agriculture. Satellites and field studies show that this is already the case in many parts of the Arctic, especially in northern Norway.
Seen this way, the wonderful winter scenes from Europe were a false perception, an illusion. Our changing climate is playing a game of smoke and mirrors, while it's doubling down in the Arctic. And even if a snowy winter also makes me glad, I know that these will end unless we reverse our current behavior. Climate change is not restricted to the High North.
For every ton of CO2 we release, we gamble that our planet will be able to withstand it. Have we already reached the turning point – and if not, do we dare to find out how long we can continue this bet?
This text originally appeared in Klassekampen on 9 March 2018