What on Earth? ‘Arctic Amplification’

For many, including myself, the Arctic is seen as a crystal haven abundant in wildlife and glassy waters. But what if I told you that the Arctic is in fact warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world? The dramatic white cliffs of ice, melting under degrees of warming, are a flagship for the impacts currently being inflicted on our delicate planet. This is all to do with a process called ‘Arctic Amplification’… but like most scientific dialect, what does that really mean?

First spoken about by the the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1896, Arctic amplification is a term that describes the enhanced warming of the Arctic circle (stemmed by human induced climate change) in comparison to the rest of the world. Currently, Arctic amplification sits at around twice that of the rest of our globe. Take this for example, from the years 2000 to 2009 global temperatures were on average around 0.6 degrees higher than 50 years earlier, where as Arctic temperatures were seen to be on average as much as 2 degrees higher. Such increases in temperatures are causing a matrix of various negative impacts across the region including rapid sea ice melt, greening of tundra land, implications for food chains and habitat loss for iconic species including the famous polar bear. Studies even suggest that soon these effects will spread outside of the arctic circle and into the northern hemisphere.

But how can that be? The Arctic is meant to be one of the coldest places on our planet so why should it be warming the fastest?

Temperature anomalies from the years 2000 – 2009. The graph uses darker red to indicate where warming is higher, note that much of this are surrounds the Arctic: Arctic amplification – Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet (nasa.gov)

There are a number of complex systems that are said to be behind this, the main culprit being the albedo feedback loop (another complicated sounding term that probably needs its own ‘what on earth?’ feature, I know). The albedo feedback loop is a process by which the warmer atmospheric temperature resulted from climate change is melting ‘shiny’ sea ice that would normally reflect radiation and consequent heat. But, when this ice melts it instead exposes dark ocean which absorbs radiation and heat. As a result of this heat absorption, temperatures increase again causing further ice melt, exposing more dark ocean, which melts more sea ice, exposing yet more ocean and so on and so forth. In fact, Since satellites first began monitoring the Arctic in 1979, the average area covered by sea ice has shrunk by at least 40% and the average thickness of the ice has fallen by more than half. This process is a continuous cycle of destruction, causing a ‘snowball effect’ of rapid temperature increase in the Arctic, hence leading to Arctic amplification.

Suggested to be a result of increased industrial developments, particularly in Asia, the quantity of black carbon in the Arctic atmosphere has also increased over the past decades and is linked to the regions unprecedented warming. Unlike cleaner pollutants like sulfate aerosols (which actually cool the atmosphere believe it or not) black carbon molecules absorb heat due to their dark surface in the same way the open ocean does. With a larger presence of black carbon in the Arctic atmosphere from recent years, more heat is subsequently being absorbed via radiation. This is further increasing atmospheric, ocean and land temperatures at a faster rate than other global locations, consequently supporting Arctic amplification.

Permafrost melt, a topic discussed in my previous blog, has also been described as a cause of Arctic amplification. Similar to the positive feedback loop of Arctic sea ice albedo, permafrost melt is a continuous cycle of negative impacts who’s consequences exacerbates its initial action. The carbon and methane sinks (both harmful greenhouse gas emissions) trapped within permafrost from historic decomposition are being released via melt processes under these more modern atmospheric temperatures. This adds to the global greenhouse affect, trapping further heat energy within the earth’s atmosphere, producing an increased warming scenario. To make matters worse, this warming effect then accelerates further permafrost melt, releasing more greenhouse gasses to create yet further warming and so on. Often described as a ‘ticking time bomb’, permafrost melt is a worrying factor for climate change scientists. As you may of already guessed, from witnessed warming implications this process is too amplifying Arctic warming.

The impacts of permafrost melt often include landslides where ground has given way due to ice loss: Arctic Meltdown: We’re Already Feeling the Consequences of Thawing Permafrost | Discover Magazine

With just these few examples of erratic and uncontrollable processes in mind, predicting Arctic warming is proving to be a challenge for the modern world of science. Though these complicated systems driving Arctic amplification may seem isolated, through the understanding and investigation of global system science it’s clear that their impacts will eventually reach many other regions. It’s important to remember that the Arctic is like a refrigerator for the rest of the world; it helps maintain cooler temperatures and manage vital natural climate systems. Like most issues I speak of, the best was to help tackle the impacts discussed of Arctic amplification is to play your part in the battle against the negative consequences of global warming. Be sure to know that your small part contributes to global goals, with no action wasted.

To summarise

The Arctic circle is at the heart of many of our global climate systems, relied on for a healthy planet. Arctic amplification is the term used to describe the process where by the Arctic circle is warming at around twice the rate of the rest of the globe. Local impacts are affecting food chains, habitats and species however consequences are predicted to breach out of the Arctic circle in the near future.

One Reply to “What on Earth? ‘Arctic Amplification’”

  1. I’ve seen somewhere that some scientists have come up with the idea of placing massive sheets of white in the Arctic Ocean to try to reverse this process. This would be a massive undertaking, considering that in about 25 years there won’t be any ice there in the summer. Have you heard anything about this? And if so, do you think it could possibly work, or is it just pie in the sky?


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