The impact of climate change on a region key to our planet’s future

A new book published by the BBVA Foundation presents the multidisciplinary vision of 30 leading experts on the Arctic meltdown and its global repercussions

The Arctic is one of the planet’s command centers. The events unfolding in its frozen ocean determine sea level, ocean currents and numerous other processes that affect every continent. And it is changing fast. The impact of climate change is more patent in the Arctic than in any other place. The new Arctic will have less ice, different species and an increased human presence; changes that go beyond the strictly environmental with potential to transform the world both economically and geopolitically. The book Whither the Arctic Ocean?, published by the BBVA Foundation, presents the vision of 30 leading world experts on this region so vital to our planet’s survival. In the words of its editor, marine ecologist Paul Wassmann, it is a work whose distinctive value lies in a novel multidisciplinary approach that is “indispensable for a sustainable future.” The book can be downloaded free of charge at this link.


3 May, 2021

The authors apply the latest scientific knowledge to the study of a region that is particularly vulnerable to global warming and is at the same time a mythical land of human exploration, the habitat of fragile ecosystems, home to indigenous peoples, and a battle ground for the oil, mineral and other resources that the thaw has left accessible. Oceanographers, ecologists, climatologists and glaciologists describe the complex and fragile nature of the Arctic ecosystem, while anthropologists, international relations experts and conservationists examine the region’s socio-economic transformation and its impact on local cultures, without neglecting the ethical dimension of this challenge.

The book’s starting point is “the need for cooperation between traditionally separate fields of natural, social and political science, social anthropology and management perspectives,” explains Wassmann, a professor at UIT The Arctic University of Norway (Tromsø) and coordinator of the project. The question “Can we secure a sustainable future for the Arctic?” is the connecting thread of a work whose authors call for more research and urgent action, warning that the environmental changes already observable are so many and so fast that they have outstripped the predictive capacity of existing models.

Back in 2011, the BBVA Foundation published Arctic Tipping Points, which identified elements of the Arctic ecosystem likely to suffer abrupt alteration due to climate change. Whither the Arctic Ocean? updates this diagnosis, coinciding with the United Nations’ declaration of the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, in a bid to contribute to the scientific effort to bring knowledge to bear on this global challenge.

“The multi- and cross-disciplinary research set out in this volume is an extraordinary approach to the profound impact that certain tipping points, such as the warming of the Arctic Ocean, can have on the climate of the whole planet and in people’s lives,” writes Carlos Torres Vila, President of the BBVA Foundation, in the foreword to the book. “The Arctic is among the parts of the world most influenced by climate change and its melting ice is a global-scale concern. It is increasingly clear that the interconnectedness of the Arctic with lower latitudes will have unprecedented impacts and consequences across a range of economic, societal, and geopolitical challenges.”

The authors of Whither the Arctic Ocean? show that the fate of the Arctic is of critical importance for humanity’s future, as a key global challenge that can only be successfully addressed though the multidisciplinary approach proposed in its pages.

“Global society must become aware of the consequences that Arctic warming can unleash on the entire planet,” adds the BBVA Foundation President, “and this work will undoubtedly contribute to further attention and understanding.”

The risk of a planet-wide shock

Wassmann, who has taken part in numerous oceanographic expeditions the world over, states in his introduction that the rise in Arctic temperatures due to global warming is “three times higher than the world average,” and that this demands “adaptation strategies and science-informed policy responses” to ensure “sustainable development, not only for the Artic, but for the entire Northern Hemisphere.”

Global warming has already caused a dramatic reduction in the extent and thickness of ice in the Arctic Ocean. If this process is not halted, climatological models predict a sea-level increase of potentially devastating impact on coastal areas and archipelagos worldwide. Further, the rising temperatures of the Arctic region are associated with heat and cold extremes throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

“The Arctic,” says Wassmann, “is not a very large ocean, but it has a very important influence. It could, for instance, be behind a snowstorm of the kind recently experienced in Madrid, as well as all the variability of climate extremes we are currently exposed to, whose determining factor is the extent of the ice cover in the Arctic.”

The marine ecologist warns that climate change could cause a shock in the Arctic that takes its whole ecosystem beyond the “tipping point,” with unforeseeable consequences not just for the region but for all of the world’s climate. This situation of risk and uncertainty on a global scale is precisely what prompted the publication of this collective work.

An unprecedented rate of ice loss

“The pace of Arctic change is currently the fastest on the planet and also the fastest in the last 65 million years,” write oceanographers Guillermo Auad, of the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and Brian Fath of Towson University, Maryland. “Thus, visualizing a future Arctic and informing decision-makers, planners, and strategists requires knowledge about change and decisions that can deal with that change. Using information acquired twenty or even ten years ago might not result in well-informed decisions today. This pace of change is happening faster than our norms, ethics, institutions, and knowledge can adapt.”

Robert Corell, a researcher in marine and atmospheric science at the University of Miami (United States) and UiT The Arctic University of Norway (Tromsø), points out that “over the recent past, warmer Arctic atmospheric and ocean temperatures have led to unprecedented Arctic Ocean sea-ice deficits, with a  75% loss of sea-ice volume in 2019.” By the end of this century, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects annual mean Arctic surface temperature increases as high as 9°C, if greenhouse gas emissions continue as today.

Climate extremes will be more frequent and more severe

Global warming is altering the dynamics of the polar jet stream, an air current whose oscillations have weakened as a result of Arctic warming. This, says Corell, is causing “an increase in the frequency and consequences of extreme climate events,” including waves of heat and cold, hurricanes, rainstorms, and flooding.

Alterations have also been detected in global ocean currents, due to both freshwater influx from melting ice and sub-Arctic waters entering the Arctic Ocean. These currents function as a mighty conveyor belt distributing heat around the planet, with the biggest of them all, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), carrying warm surface waters northwards and cold deep waters to the south.

Recent measurements indicate a 15% decline in the strength of this current since the mid-20th century: “This is of profound importance to Western Europe,” Corell continues, since “any reduction of the heat from the AMOC will proportionately cool Western Europe and the eastern provinces of Canada.”

As marine ecologist Francis Wiese, another of the book’s authors, points out, “the changes happening in the Arctic do not stay in the Arctic, but are connected in multiple ways to global climate, especially in the Northern hemisphere. It is as if you turn up the heating system in your home, which affects the entire building and not just the room in which the control switch is located”.

The inevitability of sea-level rise

The authors insist on the need for new knowledge to confront the uncertainty brought about by rapid environmental change. Paleoclimate expert Dorthe Dahl-Jensen (University of Manitoba, Canada and University of Copenhagen) studies Arctic ice samples obtained by drilling to depths of up to 3,100 meters. What they tell us is that the Arctic has experienced abrupt changes since Earth has existed. As many as 25 rapid warming events were recorded in the ice between 115,000 and 11,700 years ago, in which atmospheric temperatures climbed by 7°C to 15°C in the span of just 100 years, followed by a global sea-level rise of between 5 and 10 meters. These events were due to natural causes, such as variations in the Earth’s axis.

But “present warming is clearly caused by human activities,” Dahl-Jensen affirms. “In less than a hundred years atmospheric temperatures in the Arctic will very likely be 5°C warmer than those we experienced in the period 1950–1980, i.e., before the largest contribution of man-made warming started. This brings us to the same temperatures we had during the last interglacial period, so we should expect an increase in sea level of between 5 and 9 meters. As humanity will unavoidably have to adapt to sea-level rise, an important question is – how fast will it happen?”

Knowledge to forestall “potential conflicts”

At the same time, the Arctic meltdown is opening up new shipping routes that offer succulent opportunities to sectors like mining, fisheries, freight transport and tourism. The possibility of rising temperatures leading to ice-free summers could completely transform the region, with huge implications for the economic and geostrategic interests of the countries that make up the Arctic Circle, including the United States and Russia. This “new Arctic,” Wassmann warns, is a source of “potential conflicts” that can best be circumvented by “ecosystem-based management” leading to “wise political compromises and decisions.”

These changes are already happening: “Shipping on the Northern Sea Route was up 40% in 2019,” remarks Corell, “the major share of which went to gas and oil.” The NSR passes through Russian waters and has a large economic impact in coastal areas. It also provides access to valuable natural resources, like the minerals used in mobile phone components and those of other electronic devices.

Ecosystem impacts

Marine ecologist Elizaveta Ershova (UiT The Arctic University of Norway) has looked at the effects of a permanently navigable Arctic on ecosystems in the region: “In 2016, a family of seven, including five children, sailed the Northwest Passage in a 15-meter sailboat. In 2017, a non-ice reinforced Russian tanker traveled the Northern Sea Route along the coast of Siberia from Norway to South Korea for the first time in history. (…) For the past twenty-five years, every second or third year has marked a new record low in sea ice extent, age and thickness, causing an ice-free summer Arctic Ocean to rapidly transition into a new reality.”

Ershova also remarks that science still has much to learn about the Arctic system: “In the Arctic, sampling is only possible during two months in polar summer, when sea ice is at its lowest coverage and polar night has not yet set in. As a result, [most of what we know of the Arctic Ocean] is based on a brief glimpse into the yearly cycle, with the winter still being a blank page. (…) Underneath the Arctic skin is a complex and fragile marine ecosystem, which may be facing more upheaval than we can currently imagine.”

Ershova and her co-author, glaciologist Sam Herreid, of Northumbria University (United Kingdom), stress that “as the accessibility of the Arctic Ocean increases, it will become more economically valuable, but also more vulnerable. The future Arctic will bring new opportunities, and together with them new responsibilities. Pollution, oil spills and such like will migrate northwards along with industry, tourism and shipping.”

Fisheries expert Alf Håkon Hoel, of UiT The Arctic University of Norway, examines the potential of the new Arctic as a fishing ground faced with the invasion of sub-Arctic species: “There is a broad scientific consensus that most of the Arctic Ocean will be ice free in summer by mid-century, and that stocks of living marine resources will continue to expand northwards.”

Geopolitical, socioeconomic and ethical implications

For Corell, any solutions must factor in the wider geopolitical and economic context: “It is increasingly clear that the interconnectedness of the Arctic and global interactions are driven by key ocean processes in an Arctic inexorably nested in a global socioeconomic and geopolitical framework.”

David Balton, an expert in international relations at the Polar Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, with extensive experience in international fisheries policy, examines different options to strengthen Arctic Ocean governance going forward. He reviews the workings of the eight-member Arctic Council – a forum created in 1996 whose decisions, however, are not binding – and describes recent agreements like the Polar Code, aimed at improving the safety and environmental security of shipping in the region.  But he is also the first to question whether these instruments alone can manage “the increasing human activity in the new Arctic.” Until recently, he adds “the Arctic Ocean did not require extensive international cooperation, as year-round sea ice coverage – and the absence of modern technology to allow people to operate in its harsh conditions – made large-scale human activities in much of the area difficult if not impossible. But times have changed.”

Among the remedies he identifies are strengthened international governance arrangements that can bring about closer regional cooperation in scientific research and the assessment of ecological quality indicators and objectives, along with “integration across sectors and jurisdictional boundaries.” He also proposes the creation of a new international marine science organization that could promote collaborative research projects and share knowledge on Arctic Ocean ecology.

While admitting that the situation is not an easy one, Balton is optimistic: “The great powers – China, Russia and the United States – seem more intent on competing with each other than in cooperating in the Arctic (…). That said, [their interests] remain similar. Both Russia and the US claim to desire a peaceful Arctic, one that is stable and rules based. Both claim to want to develop the Arctic in an environmentally sustainable manner. Both claim to respect the rights and interests of Arctic Indigenous Peoples and seek to promote scientific understanding.”

According to Guillermo Auad and Brian Fath, “it is imperative to launch an international adaptive strategy to unify criteria and approaches, facilitating the adoption of effective legislation, policies, and governance at pan-Arctic and regional scales.” There is no denying, they add, that “under current socio-ecological trends, the future Arctic will face increased human presence, which will bring increased pollution and disease.” These populations will have to deal with the effects of environmental changes – “thawing permafrost will present a constant threat to infrastructure” – as well as the geographical coexistence of different models of governance across the Arctic nations.

Henry Huntington, Arctic Science Director at Ocean Conservancy (Eagle River, Alaska), unpicks the ethical dimension of human impact on the Arctic. “The future of the Arctic Ocean is a matter of human choice. These choices can be big ones at a high policy level, such as whether to open the Arctic Ocean to commercial fishing or oil and gas activity. But many of the choices are small ones. Each time I choose to start my car, turn on a light, or get on a plane, I am responsible for additional greenhouse gas emissions, which all contribute to further melting of Arctic sea ice.”

For Huntington, the future of this key planetary region is a choice between “contributing to the plunder and destruction of the Arctic as we know it, standing by and watching others plunder and destroy it, or fighting for what remains and what can still be.”

Ultimately, as Francis Wiese points out, the challenge of conserving the Arctic is “a great experiment in global cooperation”, and its sustainability will depend on “our capacity to work together to solve problems which affect us all”.