The topic of climate change is something that is very complex. Climate change has always been occurring on our planet; however, in recent years, it has been occurring at a rapid rate that we have never seen before. Climate change is being accelerated by human activity. Greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, absorb radiant energy and warm the planet so that it is livable. Without greenhouse gases, Earth would be too cold to support life. The burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, is increasing the natural greenhouse effect because they increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. More heat released from human activity is becoming trapped and warming the planet more than it should. According to NASA: Global Climate Change, “Humans have increased atmospheric CO2 concentration by 48% since the Industrial Revolution began.” (NASA Global Climate Change, 2022). A rapid increase in carbon dioxide causes warming of the planet, which will cause extreme weather patterns, melting of ice, threats to coastal homes, and habitat, diet, and behavioral changes in wildlife. Animals in the Arctic region are most in danger of being affected by climate change because they are living in an area that is most prone to seeing negative impacts due to melting sea ice. Over the next several weeks, I will be writing a series of six blog posts about how climate change is affecting arctic wildlife. Each post will explain one animal living in the arctic region and how they are being affected by climate change through habitat, diet, and behavioral changes. This first post will describe background information about climate change and the Arctic region, human impacts, and general effects on wildlife.
The Arctic region is a geographical area around the North Pole. The sea ice in this region is at its highest between February-March and at its lowest in September (The National Snow and Ice Data Centre, 2022). The Arctic is currently going through a “state shift” which is a period of fast changes to a new state. The Arctic environment is becoming replaced by an environment that is warmer and wetter. Permafrost (frozen ground), as well as snow and ice, have become threatened by global climate change within the past 50 years. Sea level rise has increased from 1.7mm/year in the 1900s to 3.2mm/year since 1993 (NOAA, 2022). Also, the area in the Arctic covered by sea ice has shrunk by 40% since 1979. This region is especially important to consider when thinking about climate change because the Arctic temperature has increased by “more than twice the global average” (GreenFacts, 2022).
Encyclopedia Britannica (2022). [Photograph]
Possibilities for the Arctic region in the near future could include a major disappearance of sea ice by the year 2040, which is less than 20 years away. In addition, recent identification of other melting processes that are affecting the Arctic glaciers have suggested that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sea level rise projections were possibly underestimated (GreenFacts, 2022). Arctic sea ice is declining at a rapid pace and it is not staying as long during the year. Sea ice extent is a measurement of how much ocean surface area is covered by ice (GlobalChange.gov). Satellite images are used to find the area of ocean that has an ice concentration of at 15%. The annual minimum is found in the month of September and each year it reaches a new minimum. The September 2021 value was 30% lower than the value from September 1979. This chart below from the National Snow and Ice Data Center represents these changes by showing the arctic sea ice extent each year since 1979. As you can see, the dark purple lines are from recent years and they present minimum values across the entire year each year. Overall, arctic sea ice is melting more than it is freezing.
Climate Change in the Arctic | National Snow and Ice Data Center, https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/arctic-meteorology/climate_change.html
Environmental changes within the Arctic due to climate change are not only affecting this region, but affecting weather patterns seen in the mid latitudes, which include the United States, Europe, and parts of Asia. For example, the Southeast Asia monsoon, which is an annual weather pattern that brings humid weather and heavy rain, is expected to cause unpredictable flooding events due to climate change. It is predicted that there will be times of overflooding from the monsoon and then in contrast, there will be events of very little rainfall. Both of these events will impact the large population, agriculture, and the economy in this region (Scientific Malaysian, 2017).
The Arctic includes northern indigenous people as well as 5,500 different species of Arctic wildlife (TourRadar). The endangered species of the Arctic consist of polar bears, beluga whales, ringed seals, and walruses. There are some living things that are able to respond to climate change, while most cannot. For example, certain plant species can bloom earlier or gradually expand to different regions. However, environmental changes have been happening too quickly in recent years so these plant species can no longer keep up with them (NOAA, 2019). Quick differences in temperature and precipitation patterns put too much pressure on them to change fast enough. In addition, these rapid changes can cause invasive species to thrive in this type of environment. This is detrimental to our ecosystem because invasive species can disrupt and displace natural habitats. They create competition with native wildlife for food, water, and shelter (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2014). Examples of invasive species that could be a danger to native wildlife in the Arctic region are the European green crab, Japanese ghost shrimp, and club sea-squirt (The Ecologist, 2013).
The main variables that I will be discussing within these future blog posts, as far as categories that are changing for many native Arctic wildlife, include habitat changes, diet changes, and behavioral pattern differences. Generally, the main wildlife in the Arctic consisting of the endangered ones I have previously mentioned, are currently witnessing major changes to their homes. The Arctic ice that is present in the summer is continuously shrinking every year, permafrost is seeing melting as well, and coastlines are continuing to erode. These animals’ homes are disappearing; many of them already endangered species.
Human activity is only making these conditions worse. Activities such as overfishing, pollution, and oil and gas development are contributing to the loss of Arctic ice. It will also be more difficult for these animals to find food, as fish are being taken away by fisherman faster than they are able to reproduce. Pollutants and plastics can also enter the Arctic through ocean currents. Wildlife can consume debris or become trapped in garbage and there are not very many people in this region to assist them, so they will die.
Toxins begin to be concentrated as they rise up in the food chain. This process is called biomagnification (WWF, 2022). Toxins are highest in the animals at the top of the food chain, such as polar bears. There are many oil and gas reserves in the Arctic that have not been touched. If getting to these resources is ever considered, it can cause disastrous consequences for the Arctic region. Habitats and wildlife patterns will be further worsened. There is also the possibility of an oil spill which can exist in the ecosystem for many years.
It is important to understand how Arctic wildlife are being impacted by climate change. In order to know this, you must first know what climate change is and why it is currently a great concern in today’s society. I hope you, the reader, now have a better understanding of climate change and what it means for the Arctic region. This first blog post has outlined why climate change exists, how human activity is worsening it, details about the Arctic region, and finally, how most Arctic animals are generally being impacted overall. My next post will focus on a specific endangered animal of the Arctic: the Polar Bear. The first animal that might come to mind for most when thinking about Arctic wildlife. Thank you for reading.
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