A new report from the United Nations shows that it’s basically game over for the Arctic as we know it.
Even if carbon pollution magically stopped tomorrow, the region’s winters would still warm an astonishing 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) by century’s end. Meeting the Paris Agreement pledges—which do not get us to the two degree warming goal—would lead to that level of warming by midcentury and up to 9 degrees Celsius (16.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, along the way unraveling one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet and displacing people who have done very little to cause the disruption.
The report was released on Tuesday at a meeting of the United Nations Environment Program. The synthesis pulls together recent research and puts it all in one terrifying graphic-driven document. The litany of changes that have already occurred is unsettling, but the real shock is in what could come next.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe, which translates to dramatic change. Sea ice extent, which has shrunk about 40 percent since regular satellite monitoring began in 1979, could reach zero percent in summer as early as the 2030s. Old, thick sea ice will likely be gone even sooner. Permafrost, frozen ground full of carbon, could thaw out and destroy a third of all the infrastructure in the Arctic (and also release deadly strains of anthrax). Rising temperatures could also unleash a host of other infectious diseases like Lyme disease, which is already on the rise in Canada.
“Insects like mosquitoes and ticks have the potential to connect the Arctic and tropics,” the authors write, which sounds like the sequel to Contagion.
The cruel irony of this is that like their small island counterparts, the 4 million people living the Arctic have contributed precious little to the carbon pollution causing those dramatic changes. In the case of permafrost, its thaw could also hasten climate change along by releasing methane and carbon dioxide in a vicious feedback loop.
And all these bleak findings don’t even get into other issues like plastic pollution, heavy metal contamination, or ocean acidification, all of which are and will continue to compound the region’s woes. The report concedes that the best way forward for the region with little sway on carbon pollution is adapting to whatever changes are coming its way.
“Challenges can no longer be managed in isolation: a holistic, ecosystem-based approach that considers multiple drivers and cumulative pressures is needed,” the report said. “In the years and decades to come, adaptation that integrates and respects local knowledge and Indigenous knowledge will be vital to help Arctic societies address the coming challenges.”
And there is sure to be no shortage of them.