What goes on in the Arctic won’t stay in the Arctic

This article appeared in the Irish Times on the 22nd of December 2022 as https://www.irishtimes.com/environment/climate-crisis/2022/12/22/what-goes-on-in-the-arctic-wont-stay-in-the-arctic/

For a country unused to ice, sparkling landscapes gifted to us by a cold snap bring fairy-tale conditions. Snow always comes to us as a surprise in this part of the world, accustomed as we are to dreary winters of what Emily Brontë called “mourning grey”. In his poem Snow, Louis McNeice depicts it as proof of the craziness of a world that is much more “incorrigibly plural” than we imagine. It is ironic that our cultural constructs of winter are entirely imported from soft drink ads, frozen in time, while our world’s real snow and ice are melting away.

The largely benign climate we have in Ireland is contingent on the Atlantic air and ocean currents that mostly act as a barrier to freezing Arctic conditions reaching us. But because the Arctic is warming at four times the rate of the rest of the planet, what happens there will directly affect this island. The jet stream is now weakening and meandering due to global warming, leading to more frequent high pressure “blocking” systems over Greenland that act like an atmospheric detour, diverting weather systems and leading to cold air outbreaks and heatwaves in Europe and North America. What goes on in the Arctic won’t stay in the Arctic.

The cryosphere – the snow and ice on sea and land, mountain glaciers, permafrost and ice sheets – is in real trouble. At the recent COP in Egypt, I attended the launch of the latest assessment of the cryosphere, where scientists announced grimly that fulfilment of all country pledges made in 2022 still commits the world to 6-10 metres of sea level rise. According to the glaciologists, it is already too late to prevent the impact of 1.5 degrees of global warming on the cryosphere, because certain thresholds have been crossed that make continued ice losses irreversible.

In fact, the current rate of actual greenhouse gas emissions puts us on an even more catastrophic trajectory of up to 15 metres of sea level rise by 2300. This scale of warming – and melting – is unprecedented in our planet’s history. While this pessimistic trajectory doesn’t reflect the Paris Agreement pledges, the atmosphere is responding to the only numbers that matter – the gases we are still pumping into the atmosphere. As the authors of the report remind us, you cannot negotiate with the melting point of ice.

The state of the frozen world, however remote from us, should cause us to sit up and pay attention. The cryosphere, if it could talk, would be screaming for help. More than a billion people depend on the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra river systems, which are fed by snow and glacial melt from the Hindu Kush Himalaya region, known as the world’s “Third Pole”. Without this reliable meltwater, these regions could shift rapidly into dangerous drought-like conditions threatening the food security of billions. Under current pledges, just 20-35% of the Himalayan and Patagonian glaciers would remain with all other mountain glaciers at mid-latitudes gone by 2300. That February ski trip won’t be an option for our descendants.

Instead, the prospect of ice-free summers in the Arctic by the 2040s is being viewed by some states as an opportunity to expand exploration for fossil fuels, and new shipping routes. Unlike the Antarctic Treaty, which has a moratorium on the exploitation of resources that is holding up well, the Arctic and the 4 million people living in the Arctic circle are extremely vulnerable to both climate change and the absence of any formal international treaty to protect the region. The Arctic Council, established in 1996, operates as a forum for research and representation for the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, but it is toothless. A large percentage of the Arctic landmass lies within Russia’s borders, including more than half of the coastline of the Arctic Ocean. The environmental research of the Council has been severely hampered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (Russia is chair of the Council until 2023). As a result, many important collaborative research projects including those measuring the rate of permafrost melting have been suspended. Aside from the urgency of a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty to end fossil fuel exploration, the Arctic is in dire need of a global agreement to protect the region and its indigenous peoples from further ecological disaster.

While we might experience snow “general all over Ireland” with nostalgia, as Joyce penned it so beautifully in The Dead, the mutinous waves that threaten our coastlines will come from the melting ice that once fell softly as snow millions of years ago. Falling softly, softly falling.

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