The Arctic is currently experiencing unprecedented levels of social, ecological and environmental change that could threaten the way of life for communities in the polar region and have far-reaching global implications, according to a new report by an international team of scientists.
The Arctic Resilience Report compiled by experts working with the Arctic Council states that the observed rate of change in regards a number of indicators in the Arctic is faster than ever before and is accelerating, threatening the sustainability of ecosystems in the region. The report notes that while some change, including warming temperatures, has a gradual impact, others, such as the collapse of ice sheets, “have the potential to be not only abrupt, but also irreversible.”
“This ground-breaking report, based on direct evidence from case studies across the circumpolar Arctic, is an unprecedented effort to gain insight from what is happening on the ground in the region’s social-ecological systems,” Joel Clement, the Director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the U.S. Department of the Interior and co-chair of the Arctic Resilience Report Project Steering Committee said in a statement.
Human activity -- including greenhouse gas emissions, migration, resource extraction, tourism, and shifting political relationships -- is the main cause of climate change to the Arctic, according to the report.
“Climate change is severely stressing Arctic livelihoods and people, and the extent to which Arctic people can build resilience to these stresses is quite limited,” Miriam Huitric, a lead author of the report said in a statement.
“Without rapid action to slow climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the resilience of the Arctic will be overwhelmed," Huitric added.
The report states that the Greenland Ice Sheet was previously believed to be resistant to climate change, but recent observations suggest that "major changes in the dynamics of parts of the ice sheet are occurring over time scales of only years."
The report adds that the ice sheet has been "thinning at rates higher than expected due to warmer summers as atmospheric temperature rise." It also states that the biggest "direct driver" in the loss of the ice sheet is warmer temperatures caused by climate change.
If the Greenland Ice Sheet melts completely, it would raise global sea levels an average of 7.4 meters, according to the report.
The report comes as regional temperatures alarmingly reached nearly 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) above average seasonal averages. In addition, summer sea-ice hit new record low levels in recent years.
The report identifies 19 key "regime shifts," described in the report as "largely irreversible changes," that have or could occur in Arctic ecosystems, and would affect the stability of current climate, landscapes and the way of life for indigenous people.
"One of the study’s most important findings is that not only are regime shifts occurring, but there is a real risk that one regime shift could trigger others, or simultaneous regime shifts could have unexpected effects,” Johan L. Kuylenstierna, executive director of the Stockholm Environment Institute and a member of the Project Steering Committee said in a statement.
Johan Rockström, the executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and co-chair of the Project Steering Committee added, "If multiple regime shifts reinforce each other, the results could be potentially catastrophic. The variety of effects that we could see means that Arctic people and policies must prepare for surprise. We also expect that some of those changes will destabilize the regional and global climate, with potentially major impacts.”
The report emphasized the need for international cooperation in order to tackle the effects of climate change on the Arctic region, and to be able to build local communities' resilience to climate change.