Climate Crisis

The poles are the ‘canaries in the coalmine’ of the climate crisis. Here’s why

Polar bear in the arctic as the climate crisis worsens.

Climate crisis: “Antarctica has often been referred to as a ‘sleeping giant’,” one expert said. Image: Hans-Jurgen Mager on Unsplash

Gill Einhorn
Head, Innovation and Transformation, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum
Spencer Feingold
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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Climate Crisis

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • The poles are warming faster than global averages, causing significant damage in the regions.
  • Nine of the 16 Earth system tipping points are in polar regions.
  • The tipping points accelerate warming through natural Earth systems, and once triggered, become extremely difficult to stop.

The Arctic is warming nearly four times as fast as global averages, with some locations warming up to seven times faster. Meanwhile, the Antarctic has warmed almost 3°C since the 1970s – more than anywhere else in the Southern Hemisphere, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Rising temperatures in the poles have caused significant damage to ancient glaciers, ice sheets, sea ice, permafrost landscapes and the lives of indigenous peoples and local communities. As such, the polar regions have become known as the “canaries in the coalmine” of the climate crisis.

The Arctic is a climate-change early-warning system, and its alarms are flashing red.

Arctic Risk Platform

Yet, what happens in the poles doesn’t stay in the poles.

Nine of the 16 Earth system tipping points are in polar regions. These tipping points accelerate warming through natural Earth systems, and once triggered become extremely difficult, if not impossible, to stop. They also have cascading consequences for other tipping points, making the 1.5°C warming target a hard limit, according to experts.

Of the six tipping points which are likely to be triggered by 1.5 – 2°C of warming, five are located at the poles. Under the current emissions trajectory, these will trigger unprecedented adaptation as well as significant loss and damage to economic, social and natural systems worldwide.

16 Earth System Tipping Points, of which 9 are located at the poles. climate crisis
16 Earth System Tipping Points, of which 9 are located at the poles. Image: Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK)

Impacts of the climate crisis on the poles

In recent years, the climate crisis in the Arctic has led to significant environmental destruction and changes in weather patterns.

The Greenland Ice Sheet, for instance, has lost ice for 25 consecutive years due to higher temperatures and increased rainfall, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NASA, the US space agency, also reported that the average Arctic sea ice for the month of September is now shrinking at a rate of over 12% per decade. Even with emission reductions in place, the Arctic will likely experience an ice-free summer by 2050, causing the collapse of marine ecosystems that depend on ice for survival.

The warming also poses a major threat to permafrost, which is ground that has been continually frozen for at least two consecutive years—and often for thousands of years.

Permafrost extends across the boreal and tundra biomes and underlies roughly 15% of the exposed land surface area in the Northern Hemisphere. Stored within this frozen ground layer is 1.4 trillion tons of organic carbon—approximately twice as much carbon as is currently in the Earth’s atmosphere. As permafrost thaws due to warming and extreme events such as wildfires, this carbon is broken down and released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane. Emissions from permafrost thaw could take up 25 – 40% of our remaining emissions budgeted to cap warming at 2°C, analyses show.

The Antarctic climate crisis has also led to significant sea ice loss. In February, sea ice on the continent receded to 1.79 million km²—a record low since satellites began measuring ice sheets in the late 1970s, according to an analysis by the US National Snow and Ice Data Center. Another study published last month in Nature Geoscience, a peer-reviewed journal, reported that seasonal variations in ice flow for some Antarctic glaciers accelerated by up to 22% in recent summers.

“Antarctica has often been referred to as a ‘sleeping giant’ … it’s the coldest, windiest and driest continent and often thought of as being relatively stable,” Dr Mike Sparrow, Head of the WMO co-sponsored World Climate Research Programme, said in a statement last year. “However, recent temperature extremes and ice shelf collapses have reminded us that we shouldn’t take Antarctica for granted.”

Impacts of the polar crisis on the world

The potential for global sea level rise is one of the most significant effects of the polar climate crisis. The Antarctic Ice Sheet, which spans 14 million km² and contains 30 million km³ of ice, alone holds roughly 60% of the world’s total freshwater, according to the British Antarctic Survey. The amount of freshwater equates to a 70-metre rise in global sea level.

Already, sea level rise is having an impact on marine environments. As the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023 stated, “The impending collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets may contribute to sea-level rise and coastal flooding, while the ‘die-off’ of low-latitude coral reefs, the nurseries of marine life, are sure to impact food supplies and broader marine ecosystems.”

The nearly 900 million people that live in coastal zones are also at risk, according to the United Nations. “Low-lying communities and entire countries could disappear forever,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a recent speech. “We would witness a mass exodus of entire populations on a biblical scale. And we would see ever-fiercer competition for fresh water, land and other resources.”

Besides sea-level rise, the polar crisis triggers severe weather events like the Arctic bomb cyclone of December 2023 due to destabilized jet-streams and ocean currents. This affects food, agriculture and aquaculture value chains as well as subsistence farming around the world, increasing the likelihood of poverty, food shortages and disrupted supply chains.

So-called zombie viruses, which have been frozen in ice and buried under polar ice caps or permafrost for hundreds or thousands of years, are another cause for concern. With rising temperatures, they are capable of being revived and unleashing deadly strains that the human population may not be equipped to deal with.

A path forward

Accelerating the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions today is the safest and clearest opportunity to stabilize fragile polar ecosystems, and thereby, the planet, experts say.

Moreover, climate scientists maintain that increasing the pace of corporate and government actions to reduce emissions is the most important step to avoid cascading tipping points, which will have consequences for all in the centuries and millennia to come.

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