Global warming impacts in the Arctic and Antarctic

The polar regions of the Earth are where climate change is having the most visible and significant impacts. Sea ice and freshwater glacial ice are melting, the permafrost continues to thaw and release even more greenhouse gases and many species are find it increasingly hard to adapt to the escalating changes.

The barometers of global climate change

Signs of unprecedented change abound at the Earth's poles. Sea ice in the Arctic has declined drastically in the last 30 years and the Northwest Passage was ice free for the first time in history in 2007. At the Arctic and Antarctic massive ice shelves are disintegrating and breaking away, such as the now famous break away of the Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica in 2002.

But the signs of change at the poles are more pervasive than the attention grabbing declines of sea ice and collapsing ice shelves — and they affect us all.

Polygon tundra in the Lena Delta Nature Reserve. Siberia, Russian Federation. rel=
Massive amounts of greenhouse gases are locked in the frozen tundra around the Arctic. As the thawing increases these gases wil continue to escape and lead to further warming.
© Peter PROKOSCH / WWF-Canon
Melting permafrost releases more greenhouse gases

A vast expanse of the Arctic is made up of permanently frozen ground, called permafrost. This frozen ground supports roads, pipelines, and buildings. As the temperatures increase the permafrost thaws and the infrastructure becomes twisted and unstable. 'Drunken forests', where the trees fall over as the ground beneath them thaws, has become a more common sight.

View graphic of permafrost extent in the Arctic.

Beyond the visible impact of thawing ground is the threat posed by the carbon and methane that has been locked in the permafrost and beneath the cold arctic waters (in subsea permafrost) for millions of years. As the temperatures warm, these greenhouse gases are increasingly released into the atmosphere and cause further warming. This warming in turn releases more greenhouse gas, and unless it is stopped it will reach a "tipping point".

Reaching the tipping points

Once a tipping point has been reached a feedback process takes over and it would be near impossible to slow it down. Scientists are concerned that the release of carbon and methane from thawing permafrost in the Arctic could be one of several tipping points.

Another tipping point is the change in albedo (the extent to which a surface can reflect sunlight) from reflective ice and snow to absorbent open water. Snow sitting on top of the sea ice reflects about 90% of the sun's energy whereas open water absorbs about 94%. So as the open water of the ocean absorbs more heat and causes more sea ice to disappear it exposes even more water and another feedback process has begun.

View graphic of tipping points around the world

More information

Barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus). rel=
Barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus).
© Peter EWINS / WWF-Canada

Impact on wildlife

Some species now struggle to survive as polar regions become warmer.

Even small changes in the conditions are enough to have serious impacts.

In the Arctic a whole ecosystem relies on the presence of sea-ice. From the plankton that live on the bottom on the sea ice and all the way up to harp seals and polar bears.

Walrus are having a harder time as they rely on sea-ice floating close to land on which to haul out. As this sea-ice disappears some walrus pups drown at sea and others are crushed to death during stampedes on crowded beaches.

Read Russian story about impact of sea ice decline on walrus

The Emperor penguin colony at Terra Adelie in Antarctica could decline by 95% before the end of the century, if sea-ice continues to decline at the current rate. This would place the population at serious risk of extinction. Other Emperor penguin colonies could face a similar situation.

Arctic fox (<i>Alopex lagopus</i>) / ©: Staffan Widstrand
Climate changes threatens a lot of arctic species, including the arctic fox (Alopex lagopus), which continues to lose ground as the red fox moves northward.
© Staffan Widstrand

Break away of ice shelves

In both the Arctic and Antarctic massive ice shelves have broken away on an unprecedented scale in recent years.

Antarctic

Arctic

Polar climate facts

    • The Arctic has warmed at around twice the rate as the rest of the planet.
       
    • Yearly ice loss along the Antarctic Peninsula has increased by 140% in the last 10 years.
  • Sea ice extent comparison at the Arctic - mimumum ice reach comparison between 1979 and 2008. / ©: NASA

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