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The Planet’s Air Conditioner Needs a Fix

By Margaret Williams Over and over again, science is showing us that the Arctic is in big trouble due to climate change. Air temperatures are warming, sea ice is decreasing, permafrost is thawing, and communities and wildlife are feeling the impacts. But the most concerning fact of all? If the Arctic is in trouble, we’re...

By Margaret Williams

Over and over again, science is showing us that the Arctic is in big trouble due to climate change. Air temperatures are warming, sea ice is decreasing, permafrost is thawing, and communities and wildlife are feeling the impacts. But the most concerning fact of all? If the Arctic is in trouble, we’re all in trouble.

The Arctic has been called the “world’s air conditioner” for good reason: sea ice helps cool the rest of the planet by reflecting sunlight and insulating cold ocean water, while permafrost holds billions of tons of carbon and methane which, if released, would add to the existing heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

Now, as the entire planet experiences climate change, the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world. If the global average temperature increases by 2 degrees Celsius, at higher latitudes that change will be much greater: the Arctic could warm on average by as much as 5 degrees C. As we lose more and more sea ice, glaciers, and permafrost, these shifts will have cascading effects, leading to an “unraveling” of the Arctic as we know it today.

Arctic communities — whose livelihoods are intricately linked with the health of sea and land — are facing major changes to their physical environment, access to their local food sources, and even the infrastructure of their villages and homes.

During a November visit with a friend from the remote Russian village of Vankarem on the Arctic Ocean, I learned that from his home on the coast, there was no sea ice in sight – this at a time when he typically would be hunting or traveling on the sea ice with his team of sled dogs. Each autumn for the last decade, Vankarem has been the host to a major congregation of Pacific walruses. Tens of thousands of these Volkswagen Beetle-sized mammals find their way to the broad beach of Vankarem. As the summer season of an open Arctic ocean lengthens each year, the walruses must wait longer and longer for the sea ice to begin forming. Only then will they be able to return to their preferred habitat for foraging, resting and raising their young.

This week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its Arctic Report Card, an annual update on the status of numerous components of the Arctic environment. The report presents measurements on air temperatures, sea ice extent, snowfall, tundra plant cover, and much more. What’s especially useful is the historical context the report provides, so that readers can compare current conditions with those of a century ago, thereby observing trends and anomalies.

This year’s report card shows in stark terms the scale of change at the top of the world. Arctic air temperatures are warmer than ever, last winter’s ice extent was the lowest ever recorded, and snow cover extent across American and Eurasia was third lowest on record. The findings are consistent with news we’ve seen again and again in both first-hand accounts from Arctic residents, and scientific studies such as Columbia Climate Center’s A 5 Degree Arctic in a 2 Degree World, the Arctic Council’s Arctic Resilience Report, and the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s Sea Ice Index. These trends are going to cause challenges for all of us if we keep going down this precarious path of excessive carbon emissions.

Beyond today’s headlines, it’s critical we remember that the Arctic is an integral part of larger planetary systems, and impact more than just the four million people that live above the Arctic Circle. As sea ice coverage declines, a weaker and “wavier” jet stream is bringing long periods of droughts to lower latitudes, and generally destabilizing what we know to be “normal” weather patterns. Society’s connections to the region – through food, commerce, and weather – mean that we all need the Arctic. And it needs us. Solving the climate crisis requires a global approach, one that promotes collaboration among scientists and Arctic residents monitoring the situation, among businesses and academics tapping innovative solutions, and among leaders pursuing the right policies that will drive down global carbon emissions.

Just a year ago, nearly 200 nations signed on to the Paris Climate Agreement. Through this process, the world is now moving forward on a collective approach to reducing the emissions driving climate change. Now, more than ever, it is essential – for the Arctic and the rest of the planet – to keep up the momentum and move toward a low-carbon economy and climate-resilient world. This means capping emissions, keeping oil and gas in the ground, normalizing more renewable sources of energy, and continually searching for solutions to keep the Earth’s systems healthy.

As science continues to help us understand more about the Arctic and our world, it becomes clearer than ever that we are all connected and have a responsibility to safeguard it. The Arctic’s future is our future… and we must do our part to take care of it.

Margaret Williams

Margaret Williams is the managing director of the WWF  Arctic Program.

Working in the Bering Sea region isn’t for the weak of heart. The temperatures are often frigid, the landscape is vast and there is no easy way to get there. And, if you’re like Margaret and you have actually been stranded in Siberia, you also need a good bit of patience. Fortunately for WWF, it is her dream job. She even gets to live in Alaska.

Encompassing both the marine environment of the Bering Sea and the terrestrial landscape of Russia’s Kamchatka province, Margaret’s region is filled with environmental challenges. Heavy shipping traffic, offshore oil drilling, wildlife poaching, human-animal conflict and overfishing all imperil the region’s sensitive ecosystem. And global warming – the cause of shrinking sea ice, rising temperatures in salmon rivers and many other ecosystem changes – is an overarching concern.

As problem-plagued as the region may be, Margaret is optimistic for its future. WWF is helping to organize polar bear patrols to minimize human-wildlife conflict – stimulated in large part by global warming – and working to create a series of protected areas along the coast to reduce disturbance of the bears and their denning sites. “The problems are many but so are the opportunities. As a conservationist, it’s just an exciting place to work.”

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