In our backyard: A melting Arctic is so much more than melting icebergs

In October this year scientists called on governments to protect ‘the last of the wild’ after finding that less than a quarter of the Earth’s terrestrial surface remains untouched by human activity.

Of this remaining wilderness, most is found in Arctic and boreal regions. Worryingly, these ecosystems are also among the most threatened by climate change. Arctic regions are warming exceptionally rapidly; more than twice as fast as the rest of the world. This is driving extensive ecological and social change.

It is in the interest of the EU to step up action to protect the Arctic, to preserve one of the regions at the forefront of climate change. This would naturally mean an ambitious reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, but beyond that a more coherent and ambitious Arctic policy, as well as reinforcing its climate diplomacy with a strong and integrated Arctic perspective.

A new normal

The most visible impacts of Arctic climate change are affecting the region’s defining characteristics: ice and snow. Summer snow cover has halved in some regions and increasingly precipitation is falling as rain, rather than snow. Land-based ice is melting at an accelerating pace and the Arctic Ocean could be largely free of summer ice in less than 20 years. The replacement of these bright white surfaces - which reflect heat - with dark surfaces (land or sea) which absorb heat contributes to further warming.

Ice is not the only thing melting. Frozen ground, or permafrost, has warmed by more than half a degree over the last 10 years. As permafrost warms and thaws, the ground destabilises, causing dramatic changes in Arctic landscapes and damage to infrastructure – potentially at a cost of trillions of dollars this century. When permafrost thaws it also exposes carbon previously locked away in the frozen soil, leading to the release of potent greenhouse gases which accelerate climate change.

Perhaps more unexpected is an increase in extreme events across the Arctic in recent years – including insect outbreaks, extreme weather conditions, and even wildfires. These events can release stored carbon or slow carbon uptake in Arctic ecosystems, including by causing sudden plant dieback across Arctic landscapes. This ‘browning’ of Arctic plants is in sharp contrast to the well-established ‘Arctic greening’ trend, which describes an increase in plant growth with warming summers. Currently, greening is expected to enhance future carbon uptake in the Arctic; however, as extreme events become more frequent, the damage they inflict on plant communities could limit the ability of Arctic ecosystems to help tackle climate change.

The consequences of rapid Arctic change are felt worldwide. The release of stored carbon drives further climate change, while warmer Arctic temperatures are linked to changes in storm tracks, flooding and winter weather at more southerly latitudes. However, consequences are also felt by local communities in the Arctic, where livelihoods, local culture and even homes are threatened by the effects of climate change. These communities are on the frontline of climate change.

What are the solutions?

The EU has a key role to play in protecting the Arctic and it is very much in the interest of the EU to do so. In the second half of 2019 the Presidency of the Council of the EU will be held by an Arctic country: Finland. Finland also holds the chairmanship of the Arctic Council – a high-level forum addressing Arctic issues - until May 2019. This could be a key opportunity to link climate leadership of the EU with the critical need to protect and preserve the Arctic.

The 2016 Communication from the High Representative of the EU on an integrated policy for the Arctic is a good starting point for EU action. It identifies climate change and safeguarding the Arctic environment as one of its three priority areas. Still, there remains a lack of real integration and ambition in EU Arctic policy, as well as a lack of coordination between funding programs and initiatives benefitting the Arctic.

A more effective and progressive EU Arctic policy would help to protect some of the world’s most fragile ecosystems, and address climate change. As the Arctic region is naturally shared with a number of non-EU countries, the EU should place emphasis on increasing cross-border cooperation, with Arctic interests fully integrated into EU Climate and Environmental Diplomacy efforts. Similarly, the interests of indigenous people living in the Arctic region should be ensured by real involvement in decision-making, and in the implementation of those decisions.

Given the extreme present and future impacts of climate change, adaptation efforts in the Arctic region should be stepped up, alongside, of course, urgently needed emissions reductions. The reality faced by the Arctic is unique; and cross-border collaboration around adaptation – such as through developing common regional climate adaptation policies and plans -would bring clear benefits. Addressing climate change also requires enhanced investment in understanding its impacts on the Arctic, as well as the potential for a melting Arctic to exacerbate climate change.

An EU Arctic policy should also protect Arctic ecosystems by ensuring rigorous climate and environment proofing of any large-scale projects and investments. This principle should equally apply to EU funds, which should be better coordinated and targeted at efforts to tackle the effects of climate change in the Arctic. 

The Arctic is changing rapidly and it is our common interest to protect the region, with its vulnerable and unique ecosystems. Ambition and resources are needed for this work, as well as cooperation and cross-border diplomacy. The EU is well positioned to lead on this. 2019 offers a clear opportunity to build momentum for the Arctic.


Photo attribution: Rachael Treharne