The Arctic Is on Fire and Warming Twice as Fast as the Rest of the Earth
The most immediate impacts of the climate crisis are in the nether-regions world of the world where temperatures are extreme and inhospitable. One of the most alarming examples is playing out in Siberia, which just saw temperatures reach triple digits as it endured its warmest month ever. That June heatwave in Siberia has led to some staggering numbers, according to scientists, as CNN reported.
The wildfires in Siberia started much earlier in the spring than ever before, according to The Washington Post. Permafrost is thawing, infrastructure is crumbling, and sea ice is dramatically vanishing.
"We always expected the Arctic to change faster than the rest of the globe," said Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, to The Washington Post. "But I don't think anyone expected the changes to happen as fast as we are seeing them happen."
The wildfires released an estimated 59 megatonnes of carbon dioxide across Siberia in June, according to scientists at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS). This spate of fires on landscapes that are typically too cold, wet, and icy to burn is raising alarms for ecologists and climate scientists, according to National Geographic. They fear the rash of blazes is another sign that the Arctic is undergoing rapid changes that could set off a series of consequences on a global scale.
The fires can be a double whammy for the Siberian ecosystem. If they become a regular occurrence, it could cause new species to colonize the area, which would set the stage for more fires. Also, the increased intensity and duration of the fires may accelerate the climate crisis by thawing the ground and releasing trapped carbon that has accumulated in frozen organic matter, as National Geographic reported.
"By how big they are and how hot they are, I would say there's no way they're not burning down," said Amber Soja, an associate research fellow with the National Institute of Aerospace and an expert on Siberian wildfires, to National Geographic.
Already, the area's carbon dioxide emissions for June were its highest in the 18 years of the CAMS dataset, surpassing the record of 53 megatonnes set just one year ago in June 2019.
"Higher temperatures and drier surface conditions are providing ideal conditions for these fires to burn and to persist for so long over such a large area," said CAMS senior scientist Mark Parrington, as CNN reported.
"We have seen very similar patterns in the fire activity and soil moisture anomalies across the region in our fire monitoring activities over the last few years."
Siberia also had a warmer than average winter. CAMS said that the warm winter meant that "zombie" blazes were able to smolder through the winter and may have reignited this spring, according to Phys.org.
Globally, June 2020 was more than half a degree Celsius warmer than the 1981-2010 average for the same month, and on a par with June 2019 as the warmest ever registered. Siberia, which is larger than the U.S. and Mexico combined, was more than 5 degrees Celsius above normal for June, according to Copernicus Climate Change Services satellite data, as Phys.org reported.
Some parts of Siberia had an average temperature that was 10 degrees Celsius, or 18 degrees Fahrenheit, warmer than average. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet through a process known as Arctic amplification, as CNN reported. Arctic ice melt has accelerated, which leads to seasonal snow cover that isn't as white and absorbs more sunlight, which leads to more warming, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"To me what's really shocking is how warm it's been relative to average for so many weeks and months," said Zack Labe, a climate scientist at Colorado State University, as National Geographic reported.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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