The tip of the iceberg: Taking a deeper dive into climate change across the world’s circumpolar regions

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When you hear the words “climate change,” what comes to mind? Do these two words immediately conjure images of climate strikes, raging wildfires or a picture of a single polar bear stranded on an ice floe, surrounded by a seemingly endless expanse of blue and white? Although the term has quickly become a buzzword within the last decade, climate change is often a temporarily trending topic. But when it comes to climate change in the Earth’s circumpolar regions, there is far more to the Arctic and Antarctica than simply polar bears and penguins. 

People, plants and penguins in the world’s circumpolar regions

The Arctic region, found within the political boundaries of eight of the world’s countries (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States), is often depicted as a frigid and barren landscape devoid of animal and plant life. Contrary to popular belief, this vast geographical region is home to approximately four million people, 10 per cent of whom are Indigenous peoples. Inuit Nunangat (“the place where Inuit live”), also known as the Canadian Arctic, is native to over 64,000 Inuit people – many of whom continue to practice cultural traditions such as hunting and fishing on the sea ice today. In contrast, as the world’s southernmost continent, Antarctica does not have an Indigenous population but is partially governed by Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom. 

Along with research stations and Indigenous communities, vibrant communities of fauna and flora thrive in these polar regions. While approximately 1,700 plant species such as grasses, flowers, and shrubs flourish in the Arctic tundra, Antarctica hosts approximately 300 moss species, 300 terrestrial algae species, and 150 lichen species. In addition to the beloved polar bear, Arctic wildlife includes narwhals, Arctic foxes, musk oxen, and walruses, and Antarctica hosts seabirds, seals, and whales, to name a few. People and nature alike have defied the odds by withstanding the harsh conditions through resilience and adaptation. However, the circumpolar regions as we know them, including their interconnected network of cultures, ecology, and geography, are rapidly melting away with the ice every year. To better understand ice melt, we must take a step back and look at climate change.

What’s happening: A crash course in climate change and ice melt

As humanity continues to produce excessive amounts of greenhouse gases (e.g. carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) through human activity, including burning fossil fuels for transportation and electricity, these gases trap more heat in the Earth’s atmosphere than necessary and warm the planet. Through a process called the ice albedo feedback, warming in circumpolar regions has accelerated. As ice melts, the ocean surface is exposed, which is darker in colour than ice, absorbing more heat, and causing more ice to melt than before. This feedback loop continues in an endless cycle. According to the U.S. National Snow & Ice Data Center, while ice reflects as much as 50 to 70 per cent of incoming solar radiation (rising to 90 per cent with a blanket of snow), the ocean only reflects six per cent. 

Additionally, permafrost, the frozen ground, is thawing and further releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, which also contributes to warming. Not only has sea ice depleted and snow cover decreased, but glaciers across Alaska, Greenland, and northern Canada have significantly retreated. Within the last 30 years, the Arctic has been warming approximately twice as fast as the rest of the world.

“Several studies show that we will lose about 90 per cent of our ice in the Canadian Rockies by 2100,” said Christine Dow, an Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo and a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Glacier Hydrology and Ice Dynamics. Dow’s work focuses on the ways in which glaciers and ice sheets in the Antarctic, the Yukon, and the Canadian High Arctic behave in the present and how they may behave in the future. 

Why this matters

“Climate change is one of the few things in the world that is going to affect every single person on this planet in one way or another,” Dow said. As circumpolar regions become warmer, they will experience more frequent and longer ice-free summers, the sea level will rise, and extreme weather events including wildfires, droughts, and floods will occur globally with increased frequency and severity. 

Dow explained that while Kitchener-Waterloo may not be a coastal community directly affected by sea level rise, the Earth’s climate is intricately interconnected so that changes in our atmosphere occur when glaciers or sea ice melt in the Arctic. KW is already experiencing greater fluctuations in temperatures and variability in weather conditions due to an unstable jet stream.

As ice melt and sea level rise put coastal communities in danger, the warming climate also significantly disrupts agricultural processes and brings diseases that could not previously exist in colder latitudes. Lyme disease, for example, is associated with ticks, which are gradually expanding their northernmost range across Canada.

Moreover, although Canada is globally renowned for its magnificent landscapes and iconic glaciers such as the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies, Dow stated that such tourist landmarks may no longer be seen within the next 50 to 80 years. This would be “disturbing both for tourism and water resource management industries,” she said. 

How to get involved

With so much information on climate change, it can be overwhelming to know where to begin to take action. To reduce your personal impact on global climate change, many actionable steps only involve making slight changes in your daily habits – many of which may result in healthier life choices and save both energy and money. Dow emphasized the importance of voting and discussing climate change with one another, as individuals can make a big difference by getting their voices heard.

“It’s a combination of action on the governmental and individual scale,” Dow said. “If you can do everything you can to tackle it yourself, spread the word, and go vote, then you’re doing the best you can for the world and everyone’s future – and I would applaud that.” 

Students interested in getting involved with glacial hydrology, ice dynamics, and climate science, can enroll in the course “GEOG 420: Glaciers and Ice Sheets” and undergraduate students can engage in research opportunities across campus, including many related to climate change, through the NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Awards.