Consequences of Climate Change in the Arctic

Climate change has worldwide effects, but many studies show that trends are more intense in higher latitudes [1]. Since the Arctic is the northernmost of the five major circles of latitude, its environment and communities are more vulnerable. Thus far, the average temperature in the Arctic has risen almost twice as fast as in the rest of the world with records showing drastic changes in various parts of the biophysical environment of the Arctic, such as sea-ice extent, area of permafrost and depth, and the distribution of marine and terrestrial species in the region [2].

The overall warming of the earth's surface and atmosphere is mainly attributed to the greenhouse effect. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) absorb radiation more efficiently and persist in the atmosphere for longer, correspondingly their warming effects increase with time. Ice melting also releases methane. Moreover, frozen ice reflects incoming solar radiation without which the ocean will absorb more radiation (albedo effect) [3]. Heating of the ocean water will lead to further ocean acidification, and in turn, a rise in the mean sea level. The Arctic basin is an ice-covered ocean that has strong feedback effects on many parts of the climate system, impacting the whole world. Since the Arctic regulates heat exchange between the ocean and atmosphere, the sea-ice decline is expected to affect atmospheric circulation and weather patterns. Other effects of ice melting in the Arctic also include diminished rainfall in many parts of the world which will lead to desertification in many areas and a decline in their ability to sustain agriculture. These changes indirectly create more water scarcity and will increase migration of communities. More direct effects of the degradation of the Arctic include a significant rise in global sea levels, which will displace low coastal areas around the world and result in loss of agricultural lands. The increase of temperatures is making the region more accessible for extraction of resources due to its vast mineral and oil deposits.

The Arctic resources race refers to the competition between global entities for newly available natural resources of the Arctic. Under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, five nations - Canada, Russia, Denmark, Norway, and the United States have the legal right to exploit the Arctic's natural resources [4].

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that undiscovered oil and gas reserves in the Arctic amount to 22% of the world's total (about 412 billion barrels of oil) [5]. The exploration of the Arctic for petroleum was originally considered to be quite technically challenging. Although, the melting ice makes these huge reserves of oil and gas more accessible. Arctic oil production is costly; in October 2015, the break-even point of known but undeveloped Arctic oil reservoirs was $78.6 per barrel [6]. With soaring oil prices, and recent technological developments, there is renewed political and economic pressure to increase oil drilling in the Arctic. The environmental risk from drilling projects and increasing ship traffic is massive.

Further, the Arctic region is home to an estimated 400,000 indigenous people. If the ice continues to melt at the current rate, then these people are at risk of being displaced. Increased anthropogenic activity in the Arctic region, attributed to the resource race, has contributed to this threat of indigenous displacement. As the climate changes in the region, local animals’ normal patterns are disrupted and the communities’ food supplies are affected. Melting permafrost and erosion has already damaged local infrastructure, including homes, buildings, and sewage systems. Unstable and unpredictable ice patterns have affected mobility vital for transportation, hunting, travel, and communication. The changing climate in the Arctic is affecting food security in indigenous communities as well. When the ice is unsuitable to travel on, it is impossible for them to hunt for food, essential for survival. Additionally, the food supply of these communities consists of local animal species that are themselves sensitive to climatic changes. There is also concern over the toxins found in local species and the risk of oil contamination in food supplies. Furthermore, the changes and variability in the climate have left indigenous communities - who rely on traditional knowledge - vulnerable, essentially "stripping arctic residents of their considerable knowledge, predictive ability, and self-confidence in making a living from their resources." [7].

Introduction of arctic trade routes are argued to decrease global greenhouse gas emissions from shipping because these routes would be much shorter than the existing shipping routes. However, the increased shipping in the region will not only contribute to Arctic environmental degradation since the region is more sensitive to increased emissions and oil spills, but will also severely impact indigenous communities. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Potential impacts from shipping include: the release of oil through accidental or illegal discharge, ship strikes on marine mammals, the introduction of alien species, disruption of migratory patterns of marine mammals, increased anthropogenic noise and increased atmospheric emissions.” [8].

A last great unprotected wilderness and safe haven for endangered species and home to native people whose subsistence lifestyle has survived in harmony with nature for thousands of years - the Arctic - needs to be protected. Climate change has already removed at least 75% of Arctic summer sea ice volume at rates never before experienced in human history [9]. Despite the Arctic Ocean’s unique vulnerabilities, it is still the least protected of all the world’s oceans.



  1. Houghton, J.T., Ding, Y., Griggs, D.J., Noguer, M., Van Der Linden, P.J., Dai, X., Maskell, K., And Johnson, C.A. 2001. Climate change 2001: The scientific basis. Contribution of Working Group 1 to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 881 p.
  2. Ford, James D. (Dec 2004). "A Framework for Assessing the Vulnerability of Communities in the Canadian Arctic to Risks Associated with Climate Change". Arctic. 57 (4): 389–400. 
  3. Schneider, Stephen Henry; Mastrandrea, Michael D.; Root, Terry L. (2011). Encyclopedia of Climate and Weather: Abs-Ero. Oxford University Press. p. 53.
  4. "United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea". United Nations Treaty Series. 
  5. Andrew Osborn, Putin's Russia in biggest Arctic military push since Soviet fall, Reuters (January 31, 2017).
  6. Andrew Osborn, Putin's Russia in biggest Arctic military push since Soviet fall, Reuters (January 31, 2017).
  7. Chapin, F. S.; Peterson, G.; Berkes, F.; Callaghan, T. V.; Angelstam, P.; Apps, M.; Beier, C.; Bergeron, Y.; Crépin, A-S.; Danell, K.; Elmqvist, T.; Folke, C.; Forbes, B.; Fresco, N.; Juday, G.; Niemelä, J.; Shvidenko, A.; Whiteman, G. (2004). "Resilience and Vulnerability of Northern Regions to Social and Environmental Change". AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment. 33 (6): 344–349
  8. Administration, US Department of Commerce, NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric. "National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Home Page".