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What's Going On In The Arctic Should Worry You
If you think we had a hot summer, it is nothing compared to the Poles.
This year was a wake-up call for anyone who thought climate change wasn’t a problem. The world has sweltered under insane heat and suffered through its consequences, like wildfires, droughts, and sudden floods. But what we have experienced this year is just the horderves of what’s to come. Yet, at the bottom of the world, heat records weren’t just broken; they were utterly demolished last year with one of the most ferocious heatwaves ever. But despite the Antarctic’s distant isolation, we have every reason to be terrified of this drastic turn of events.
So, what happened in Antarctica?
Well, during March 2022, temperatures in Eastern Antarctica soared to about 39 degrees Celsius (102.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above the monthly average. March 18th was the hottest day of this heatwave, where the temperature reached -10C (-14F). For some contrast, the average for this region of Antarctica during March is -54C (-65.2F).
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This makes this heatwave by far the largest-ever record. For some context, if this heatwave occurred in New York during March, the temperature would be an astonishing 45.5 degrees Celsius (113.9 F) rather than the monthly average of 6.5 degrees Celsius (43.7 F). That is actually hotter than the hottest temperature ever recorded in New York of 42.2 degrees Celsius (108 F).
Now, the big question on everyone’s lips is, what caused this insane heatwave? Was it us through climate change?
Well, researchers went back through meteorological data and found that this heat wave was caused by bizarre air current patterns near Australia, which pushed a warm bubble of air into the polar region. Now, such unusual air patterns can be caused by climate change, as it affects the thermodynamics of the atmosphere, which in turn changes or destabilises weather systems like the jet streams and Hadley cells. But for a while, it wasn’t clear if climate change was the cause of these unusual air circulations near Australia. This is because there is very little meteorological data on the polar south, as it is so hard to gather.
However, further research has been conducted, and a link between this event and climate change was established. So climate change was at least in part to blame for this astonishing weather event.
Okay, so why does this matter? No one lives in Antarctica.
Well, there are two reasons. Firstly, this shows just how drastically climate change is affecting the polar regions. Studies have found that the ends of the Earth are warming four times faster than the rest of the world! This means that even if we hit our climate targets, these environments and ecosystems will be hit insanely hard.
But that still doesn’t answer why this is a massive problem, so let’s get to the second reason: all ecosystems and environments are interlinked. Let me explain.
Icecap loss is the most prominent link here. Unlike the Arctic, there is a massive continent under the southern ice cap, which props it up out of the ocean. This ice is, on average, over 2 km deep (2 miles). In fact, 90% of the world’s ice can be found on top of the Antarctic continent (i.e. not including Antarctic sea ice). As temperatures rise, this ice will melt and push sea levels up. Around the world, there are 900 million people who live in areas acutely at risk of coastal sea rise caused by climate change and ice cap loss. As these places flood, like London, New York and countless others, there will be a massive financial and refugee crisis as civilians and businesses are swept away.
Another link is permafrost thawing. I have covered this a few times, and while it isn’t a problem for the Antarctic, it is a massive issue for the Arctic. You see, around 1,700 billion tons of trapped carbon dioxide and methane are buried in the arctic permafrost. This natural deposit has been undisturbed for hundreds of thousands of years, but climate change threatens to thaw it out and release its massive reserves of planet-wrecking gases. As the poles are heating up so much faster than the rest of the world, this thaw could potentially happen quite quickly, causing sudden, dramatic and deadly climate change across the globe.
The last significant link/impact is stalling ocean circulation. You see, the ocean is criss-crossed with currents, like the Gulf Stream. The currents circle around and around, with their surface section taking warm waters to the poles and their deep sections bringing cold, nutrient-rich waters to the tropics. These giant conveyor belts are powered by surface winds and salinity at the Poles. You see, as sea ice forms, the water around them gets saltier, as salt can’t freeze. This makes the water denser than the surrounding sea, causing it to sink. This acts as the pump, pushing and sucking and powering the ocean currents. But, when sea ice doesn’t form properly or melts too early, this mechanism grinds to a halt.
Why is this a problem? Well, many densely populated areas of the world have a more stable climate thanks to these currents. The warm surface sections heat up colder latitudes during winter, allowing for pleasant winters and long growing seasons. This is partly why these areas are so heavily populated, as these conditions enable enough food to be grown to support such large populations. On the other hand, the cold water upwellings of these currents cool the tropics and act to mitigate summer heatwaves and droughts in these areas, again making them more habitable to humans. As the poles heat up, these vital climate systems will grind to a halt, and life in many parts of the world will become much more challenging.
Equally, most of the world’s fertile fishing grounds depend on these currents to bring vital nutrients. Without them, the biomass will shrink, and the millions of people who rely on fishing, both economically and nutritionally, will suffer greatly as the fish simply disappear.
This is why we should be deeply worried about such a massive weather event. Even though no human was directly impacted by this gigantic heatwave, the knock-on effects of what is causing it will negatively impact us all. Before the end of this article, I want to reiterate that we have the technology to save the planet from climate change already. We just need to start implementing it faster; then, we can avoid all of these horrific events. The choice is in our hands; we just need to decide what future we want to live in.
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