Case study: impact of climate change on the Arctic

Sea ice level in the Arctic Ocean has been decreasing since the 1970s.

The Arctic is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of global warming. These impacts include:

  • Rising temperatures, present day temperatures are 2°C above average.
  • Loss of sea ice and the melting of the Greenland ice sheet.
  • The Arctic Ocean could become less saline and warmer (due to melting ice). This could disrupt the North Atlantic Drift and cause cooling of western Europe's climate.
  • Water from melting ice sheets and glaciers will contribute to rising sea levels.

Impact on natural systems

  • Vegetation zones will shift northwards with coniferous forests invading the tundra.
  • Permafrost is expected to thaw, especially in Siberia, releasing a large quantity of methane.
  • New wetlands will be created.
  • The longer growing season will bring major changes to plant communities.

Impact on animal species

  • Species will migrate north, limiting the habitats of animals that evolved to survive there, eg Arctic fox, snowy owl and caribou.
  • Sea ice melting will wipe out polar bear habitat and cause a decline in their prey (seals).
  • Marine species dependent on sea ice, eg seals and walruses will decline, some may face extinction.
  • Birds, such as snow geese, will have different migration patterns.
A photo of a polar bear
The polar bear needs ice platforms to hunt for seals

Impact on society

  • Loss of hunting culture for indigenous peoples such as the Inuits.
  • Increased access for shipping as the sea ice melts.
  • Disruption of land-based transport because of permafrost thawing.
  • The longer, warmer growing season will be a benefit to Arctic agriculture.
  • Increased accessibility will allow exploitation of oil, gas, fish and other resources.