Nature and Biodiversity

Polar regions are our insurance policy against runaway climate change. Here's why

The polar regions are the control centre for our climate system.

The polar regions are the control centre for our climate system. Image: Pexels.

Gail Whiteman
Professor of Sustainability, University of Exeter Business School, University of Exeter
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • The North and South Poles help regulate the world’s climate and weather.
  • But they are in crisis, warming faster than the rest of the world.
  • We must cut emissions now to prevent risks to society and business.

This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its latest synthesis of climate science. It restated that we are well on the path to irreversible climate catastrophe.

When most people try to picture the climate crisis, they imagine arid deserts around the equator, or punishing heatwaves.

But look at the science and it’s clear that climate change is just as much melting ice sheets near the North Pole, as it is a wildfire in Siberia.

What are the North and South Poles telling us – and what does it mean for the rest of the world?

Have you read?

Warming poles worsen climate change

The polar regions are the control centre for our climate system. They help regulate the world’s climate, influencing the Earth’s atmospheric and oceanographic circulation systems. In other words, what happens in the Arctic and Antarctic doesn’t stay there.

That control centre is breaking down. Scientific evidence shows that the poles are in crisis. The poles are warming three times faster than the rest of the world – with some parts of the Arctic warming seven times faster. Of 16 critical global climate tipping points, nine are in the polar regions – including five of the six closest to tipping (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Of 16 critical global climate tipping points, nine are in the polar regions – including five of the six closest to tipping
Figure 1. Of 16 critical global climate tipping points, nine are in the polar regions – including five of the six closest to tipping Image: PIK, based on Armstrong McKay et al., Science [2022]

This matters because the poles act as powerful insurance policies for the world against runaway climate change.

Arctic sea ice helps to keep our planet cooler by reflecting much of the sun’s energy back to space. But since 1971, we have lost about 50% of that ice. As global warming melts sea ice, the ocean is exposed, absorbing more of the sun’s energy and warming up. As a result, scientists estimate that if we lose the Arctic snow and ice, it will magnify global warming by 25-40%.

The Antarctic is the last great barrier we have against out of control climate change. Yet at the end of February 2023, the Antarctic’s sea ice minimum set another record low.

Another polar insurance policy is Arctic permafrost staying frozen. Permafrost is partially frozen ground with huge volumes of carbon locked up – about two times the amount already in our atmosphere. As it thaws, it releases the greenhouse gas methane. Scientists estimate that if the store of carbon in permafrost is released, it will eat up to 40% of the remaining carbon budget to keep us within 2℃ warming.

Societies across the world depend on polar stability

As those insurance policies disappear, polar breakdown creates instability across the rest of the world.

We now know that Greenland’s contribution to global sea level rise is primed for catastrophic coastal flooding for more than a billion people around the world – the vast majority of whom are unprepared.

A growing body of research connects warming at the poles with cold spells, super storms, hurricanes, cyclones, droughts, fires and flooding.

In February 2023, Los Angeles was under a blizzard warning with hurricane-force winds. Warming in the Arctic directly contributed to this storm through a deep jet stream dip known as a "trough". If extreme events such as these become the norm, year on year, communities have little to no chance of recovery.

Polar change – now and in the future – translates into extreme pressures on food and water security in the rest of the world, heat stress in cities and climate vulnerable regions, more extreme weather, and supply chain disruptions.

It means that all of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals are on thin ice. The health of the planet and our people rests on the polar agenda.

Discover

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Warming of polar regions threatens economies and businesses

Global warming in the Arctic is expensive. Estimates of global socio-economic and ecological impacts linked with Arctic warming put a price tag of billions of dollars per year leading to the 2050 net-zero target.

Look at the examples of disrupted supply chains, like the Rhine River during summer 2022 in Germany, which takes 80% of shipping raw materials through inland Europe. Last summer that route actually stopped because of drought conditions. Arctic warming is an expensive material risk for companies when it comes to agriculture, supply chains, water, coastal communities, and real estate.

We can avoid the worst of this if we take action that matches the scale of the crisis in the poles. Solutions to climate change already exist: cutting emissions in half by 2030, no new fossil fuel exploration, investment or subsidies. That includes rejecting projects like the Willow Project in Alaska. Business leaders have already developed a roadmap to transition industry towards clean energy, aligning financial flows with net-zero, and protecting nature.

We don’t need to wait for miraculous technological progress to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts right away. It requires action at scale, and there are no silver bullets.

No matter where we live, the poles affect us. We need adaptive solutions and a global convening body to mobilise the world to unlock and address the polar crisis. It needs to start today.

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