When we say "Arctic", what comes to mind? Maybe some snow? Polar bears? Something you learned is melting at school or from a David Attenborough documentary? Or even the prefix to a certain English Mercury-winning rock band that may or may not have been the soundtrack of your youth?
Well, Arctic Basecamp, a group of climate scientists, is here to give you a simple message: “Look beyond the polar bears.”
Okay, maybe spare them a thought. After all, the Arctic "poster child" could become extinct by 2100 if Arctic ice continues to melt at projected rates. But the point this band of Arctic experts is trying to make is that a warming Arctic will affect everyone, not just our furry friends. It may seem like it’s far away, but the impacts are already at our front door. European heatwave in 2022 ringing bells for anyone?
Arctic Basecamp is on a mission to tell the world that the changes happening right now in the Arctic will determine the fate of humanity, and they’ve used some wildly creative ways to get the word out — from melting icebergs-in-a-bottle at Glastonbury, hauling an actual iceberg to COP26, and making global headlines at COP27 when Rainn Wilson changed his name to “Rainnfall Heat Wave Extreme Winter Wilson” with their Arctic Name Changer to protest climate change.
Here are seven things they want you to know about the Arctic that you almost definitely didn’t learn in school.
1. The Arctic Is a Warning Siren for the Rest of the World
“The Arctic is a bellwether,” warned former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and what is happening there should serve as a warning to us all.
They say that if a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon rainforest, it can change the weather half a world away. Now imagine those butterfly wings are monster waves coming to a shore near you.
When a glacier melts in the Arctic, the effects of sea level rise are felt by a coastal community on the other side of the world — and this is happening, right now.
Arctic change is also driving more polarized seasonal temperature differences, heat stress everywhere, drought, wildfires, and increasingly frequent extreme weather events, which will in turn lead to a refugee crisis, the likes of which we have not seen before.
As polar scientists are so fond of saying: "What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic”.
2. Arctic Sea Ice Is the World’s Insurance Policy Against a Runaway Climate Crisis — and We’re Losing It Fast
White surfaces like Arctic sea ice reflect 80% of the sun’s energy back into space. That allows us to keep cool. But if those white surfaces disappear, the darker ocean and land will absorb 90% of that heat, magnifying global warming by 25-40% globally.
In other words, it’s our insurance policy against rampant global warming — and it’s disappearing.
3. Melting Greenland Ice Sheet Will Cause at Least 10 Inches of Sea-Level Rise
Even if we stopped all sources of planet-warming greenhouse gasses today, Earth’s oceans are already locked into 27cm of sea-level rise from Greenland’s melting ice sheet.
Worse, if our burning of fossil fuels continues, the total sea-level rise from the massive island’s melting ice could be 7.4m (24 feet).
Even the smaller 27cm sea-level rise will have huge societal, economic, and environmental impacts. And like any sea-level rise, the effects won’t be felt uniformly around the world; low-lying island nations and developing countries are particularly vulnerable.
4. The Arctic Is Warming 4 Times Faster Than the Rest of the Planet
One study after another is coming to the same conclusion: the Arctic is heating up much faster than we thought, and faster than the rest of the world.
Find out how much the Arctic has warmed since you've been alive by using Arctic Basecamp's nifty (but terrifying) tool: the “Arctic Risk Calculator.” Simply pop in your date of birth and it will tell you precisely by how much temperatures and sea levels have risen since you’ve been alive.
Over the last 43 years (the equivalent of a nanosecond in the grand scheme of the universe timeline), the Arctic has warmed four times more quickly than the planet as a whole — a phenomenon known as “Arctic amplification.”
How does it work? Much of the Arctic Ocean is covered with a layer of sparkling sea ice that reflects the sun’s rays. But the sea ice is steadily shrinking as the planet warms — in fact, it’s been declining for decades now. As it disappears, it exposes more of the ocean surface, increasing the amount of light absorbed as heat, and allowing more of that heat to escape from the warmer water into the colder atmosphere.
It’s a vicious cycle that means as sea ice continues to vanish, Arctic warming and melting accelerate.
5. The Arctic Is Acidifying Up to 4 Times Faster Than Other Oceans
Ocean acidification sounds pretty terrifying, and it is. Ocean acidification — the process of the chemistry of the ocean changing as excess carbon dioxide gets absorbed into the water — is happening four times faster in the Arctic.
6. Lakes 'Belching' Methane Have Been Discovered
Lakes appearing in Alaska and Siberia are "belching" methane into the atmosphere, according to NASA scientists.
As temperatures rise and permafrost (ground that usually stays frozen year round) thaws, more and more lakes, known as thermokarst lakes, have been appearing — and some of them are full of bacteria “belching” so much methane that you can actually see it bubble up onto the surface of the lake.
In fact, there are such high levels of methane that when a lit match is held over the surface of the water, it bursts into a larger flame.
“It’s like opening your freezer door for the first time and giving all the food in your freezer to microbes to decompose. As they decompose it, they are belching out methane gas,” said Katey Walter Anthony, an ecologist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.
7. 'Zombie Fires' Are on the Rise
They sound like the stuff of dystopian fiction, but they’re very real.
Zombie fires — named because they seem to come back from the dead — are wildfires that seem to have been extinguished on the surface but are secretly smoldering below ground. These fires can burn all through the winter, hidden under a layer of snow, ready to reignite again into wildfires when spring melts the snow and the soil dries out.
What’s more, unlike a normal wildfire that leaves root systems relatively unscathed, zombie fires feed on the underground systems of plants, which inhibits the regrowth otherwise seen after a fire, turning our forests from carbon sinks into carbon sources.
Due to hotter summers and longer burn seasons linked to climate change, zombie fires are becoming more frequent. Scientists have found that fire frequency today is higher than at any time since the formation of Arctic forests some 3,000 years ago.
Even more worrying, these fires are now being found in regions historically thought to be more resistant to wildfire.