Enveloping a vast land mass, the Arctic Circle stretches through Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark (Greenland), Iceland, Russia, the US (Alaska) and Canada.
Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden in Lapland province, lies 145km inside the Arctic Circle. Temperatures here are chilly in winter, falling to as low as -20C.
Nik Faizal, my ex-colleague in the Stockholm office of the Malaysian Industrial Development Authority, and I crossed the Arctic Circle on 25 February 2013, during an official visit to Kiruna. (The Kiruna tourist office gives a certificate given to those who cross the Arctic Circle.)
Since 1979, the Arctic, above 66.5 degrees latitude, has warmed by about 3C. This is cause of concern for humanity as the Arctic has warmed at nearly four times faster than the Earth’s average rate over the last 43 years – much quicker than previously thought.
For many years now, scientists were aware that the Arctic was warming faster than the rest of the planet – a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification. Studies reveal that the Arctic’s warming has increased unevenly over the last few decades. It spiked sharply in the mid-1980s and then once more in 1999.
Arctic warming fluctuates based on the time of year – it is most intense in autumn – and by topography. Warming is pronounced above the Arctic Circle, while places with a wider geographic region may experience marginally reduced heating.
The thawing of the ice and glaciers has triggered a rapid raise in the heating of the Arctic Circle. Global warming is shrinking Artic sea ice. This has been taking place over the past few decades and is happening faster than expected.
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Meanwhile, the Earth’s atmosphere is changing in many ways and getting warmer. Some of these changes are altering the way heat flows north from the warm Equator, and this is also affecting Arctic temperatures. These changes can affect the speed at which Arctic sea ice melts.
Even if the intensification of Arctic warming slows in the future, it will not be cause for celebration. The Arctic region will have fundamentally changed and temperatures will have already soared. The region will probably continue warming, but perhaps not at four times the global average.
Fluctuations in temperatures work in combination with greenhouse gas emissions and human-caused climate change, triggering a spike in Arctic temperatures.
Future warming will hit the people and natural ecosystems of the Arctic. Studies show that Arctic warming affects climate patterns elsewhere around the globe.
The rising temperature has altered the Arctic’s physical appearance over the years: the landscape is now marked with more water than ice, sparking contagion effects on plants, animals and inhabitants in the region.
The colossal damage due to the loss of sea ice is endangering the existence of polar bears. Sailing routes, once permanently braced with ice, are breaking up faster than expected.
Ocean fronts are eroding faster with ice thawing, leading to increased greenhouse gases damaging the Arctic’s infrastructure. Flora and fauna are also being destroyed because of climate change and increased global warming.
The non-stop increase in temperatures has led to sometimes intense fires breaking out and plant species vanishing. Some harmful effects include lower productivity arising from longer droughts and, with more heat waves, plants are becoming less productive.
Fauna from the Arctic Circle has been hit as well. Polar bears, which depend on ice sheets to hunt seals, are now more vulnerable than ever. If no action is taken immediately to check shrinking ice sheets, polar bears might one day become extinct.
Swift mitigation efforts can reduce Arctic warming. Slashing major climate pollutants – black carbon, methane, tropospheric ozone and hydro fluorocarbons – will help reduce global warming. Slashing emissions of pollutants could slow the rate of Arctic warming by up to two-thirds of current levels.
The Arctic Circle is in a dire crisis. The onus is on all countries in the world to work together to slash greenhouse gas emissions and shrink their carbon footprint. It is not just the responsibility of the eight Arctic Circle countries to save this part of the planet earth; the entire human race has a moral obligation to act.
Future generations will pay a heavy price if far-reaching measures are not implemented now to tackle this critical global challenge. Surely, we don’t want to bequeath an ice-free Arctic Circle to posterity.
Measures undertaken now to preserve the Arctic Circle will also have positive impacts for the Antarctica as well. Without wasting anymore time, the countries around the world must work zealously to reduce emissions of pollutants. Time is running out.
The global community must act urgently to avert calamitous climate change. This can be done by simultaneously ending reliance on fossil fuels while engaging in low-emission development through forest preservation, sustainable development and restoration of damaged ecosystems.