UPDATE, 17 February 2016 – The National Academies of Science posted videos and additional material from Arctic Matters Day.

Washington, D.C. – Scientists studying one of Earth’s most extreme regions gave brief, TED-like talks to demonstrate the pervasive impact of climate change during a free, public event.

“What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic,” many of the speakers said throughout the event, titled “Arctic Matters: The Global Connection to Changes in the Arctic.” The National Academies of Sciences hosted the event on 14 January 2016.

Arctic Matters Day coincided with the 2015-2017 U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which is an international forum that promotes cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic States, indigenous communities, and other interested parties on common Arctic issues. The focus of the US leadership term will be to improve economic and living conditions for Arctic communities, lead on Arctic ocean safety and security issues, and address climate change’s impacts.

Scientists explained the geological and meteorological processes that change with rising temperatures, and described how those changing processes link what happens in the Arctic to the rest of the world.

Melting ice

It is difficult to predict exactly how massive two-mile thick, continent-wide ice sheets will change, but the more we warm, the faster Greenland will melt, Richard Alley, a geoscience professor at Penn State University studying glaciology, sea level change, and climate change, said.

“Ice sheets spread like pancake batter, on a greased griddle in some places but on a bumpy waffle iron in others,” Alley said. Ice sheets are supported by ice shelves, and the shelves press up against islands – the ice shelves are like the outer edges of the batter and the islands are like the sides of the griddle. Once the supporting ice shelf melts, the ice sheet will spread till it falls apart, Alley said, citing the waffle-like Jakobshavn Isbrae ice sheet in west Greenland as an example of a melting ice sheet. The ice sheet retreats twice as quickly when its ice shelf melts, Alley said.

Richard Alley speaks during Arctic Matters Day. Credit: Elizabeth Goldbaum.

Ice shelves are more susceptible to melting and global warming because they sit at lower, warmer elevations and hit their melting point when they contact water, Alley said.

Warming temperatures also encourage puddles to form on top of ice sheets. Water from the puddles can squirm through massive cracks in the ice, as deep as the Lincoln Memorial is high, sometimes gushing down at rates faster than water flows at Niagara Falls. 

Impacts of melting ice

The Arctic used to be biologically and physically isolated until it started melting, Scott Doney, a marine biogeochemistry professor at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution studying ocean acidification, said.

Melting ice in the Arctic and subpolar regions has opened previously closed doors to invasive species from the Pacific, causing potentially large impacts on the ecosystem, Doney said.

The large surge of fresh water that was formerly ice also has potential impacts on ocean circulation. “We’ve already seen freshwater flow into Massachusetts,” Doney said.

Not only is the Arctic melting, it’s also getting more acidic. Carbon dioxide emitted from fossil fuel burning is littering the ocean, mixing with water, and forming carbonic acid. The higher levels of acid make it harder for many marine creatures to grow. Corals, shellfish, and tetrapods all suffer from ocean acidification, Doney said.

The Arctic is also more sensitive to acidification because its water is so cold. “It’s a hotspot for ocean acidification,” Doney said.

Polar bears in the North Pole. Credit: Christopher Michel.

“Crazy weather”

Just as Arctic waters are more sensitive to acidification, they are also are more sensitive to climate change. The most extreme temperature hikes are in the Arctic, Jennifer Francis, a marine and coastal science professor at Rutgers University, said.

We’re in “unchartered territory,” Francis said, referring to present-day record low ice levels over the last 800,000 years. Furthermore, loss of sea ice affects atmospheric circulation, which in turn can affect weather, Francis said.

“The weather gods have lost their marbles,” Francis said, mentioning Boston’s recent “snowmageddon,” the United Kingdom’s ferocious storms, California’s mega-droughts, Japan’s intense snowfalls, and Spain’s torrential rain as examples of increasing extreme weather incidents.

It can be difficult to effectively communicate what people experience locally versus what scientists see in global trends, Deke Arndt, head of NOAA’s Climate Monitoring Branch, said. Although global temperatures are on the rise, people are more likely to focus on an extreme snowfall that buried their car.

Big heat, big rain and big drought events are on the rise as big cold events decrease in frequency, Arndt said. Examples of big heat can be seen in NOAA’s Climate Extremes Index, which tracks how climate has changed over the years.

On average, summer mornings are getting warmer, which has implications for public health. Day laborers, for example, will lose their morning respite from the heat, Arndt said.

Big rain incidents are increasing, which means many municipalities’ water supply is dependent on extreme rainfall events, which can be difficult to manage and wreak havoc on infrastructure, Arndt said.

Although NOAA is getting better at predicting extreme events, it is still working on how to effectively communicate risks. If the risks sound extreme, people may tune them out. If the risks are too minuscule, people will die, Alley, the geoscientist, said.

Deke encouraged people to share local stories about weather trends. For example, Deke’s father, a high school football coach in Oklahoma, often talks about how warmer, more humid days make practicing football difficult and uncomfortable, which shows a local effect of a global phenomena, Deke said. His father’s story has extra impact because, “you don’t want to mess with football in Oklahoma,” Deke said.

Despite the many dire predictions under a business-as-usual scenario, Alley remained optimistic about the future. “We will yet end up in a world that has icebergs and rainbows,” he said. “We’re not committed to the worst of this,” Alley said.

By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow

The North Pole. Credit: Christopher Michel.