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How metaverse technology is catalysing action on polar ice tipping points

The metaverse is being used to address polar tipping points, which are irreversible changes to the Earth's climate system that could have devastating consequences.

The metaverse is being used to address polar tipping points, which are irreversible changes to the Earth's climate system that could have devastating consequences. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto.

Gail Whiteman
Professor of Sustainability, University of Exeter Business School, University of Exeter
Julienne Stroeve
Professor of Polar Observation & Modelling, University College London, and Canada C-150 Chair, University of Manitoba, Canada
Gill Einhorn
Head, Innovation and Transformation, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum
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  • In June 2023, scientists announced that Arctic summer sea ice might be unavoidably lost in future decades – even in low emissions scenarios – due to global warming.
  • To visualize the dynamic interconnected global risks of rapid polar changes, the Global Collaboration Village has introduced a new immersive environment: The Polar Tipping Points Hub.
  • Through next-generation technology, the hub transports decision-makers to this hard-to-reach environment to catalyse collective action on an issue that affects all humans on the planet today.

Since 1979, the Arctic's summer ice cover has diminished by almost 13% per decade due to rising global temperatures. In June this year, scientists announced that the Arctic’s summer sea ice is in jeopardy – even in a low emissions scenario. Although polar regions might feel remote and unrelated to our daily lives, the extreme changes experienced there affect humans, economies and societies across the globe. To make this connection more palpable, the Global Collaboration Village, a World Economic Forum initiative in partnership with Accenture and Microsoft, is introducing a new Polar Tipping Points Hub.

The Hub, an immersive virtual environment, leverages live simulations and 3D tools to enable decision-makers from around the world to connect across distances, visualize challenges from fresh perspectives, and share diverse insights in a dynamic and collaborative space. As part of the Village's broader efforts, the Hub harnesses virtual reality to transform complex global challenges, such as polar warming, into immersive, tangible experiences.

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By navigating this virtual realm, users can delve into environments often beyond reach in the physical world, gaining a profound understanding of the significant impacts of climate tipping points. Such an immersive perspective on the facts and risks associated with polar warming provides decision-makers with the clarity and urgency required to ignite collective action.

Arctic summer sea-ice cover continues to decline and scientists could foresee an ice-free summer as soon as the 2030s. This decline ramps up extreme weather events across the northern hemisphere due to weakening of the jet stream. Because the loss of sea-ice reduces the Arctic’s ability to reflect sunlight back into space, it will accelerate global warming too. This in turn risks triggering a domino effect of other climate tipping points.

Breaching polar tipping points: the domino effect.
Breaching polar tipping points: the domino effect. Image: Adapted by Arctic Basecamp from: Tipping Elements - big risks in the Earth System v1.1 2023, PIK.

Scientists have identified 16 climate tipping points across the world. These are Earth systems that, once tipped, have a substantial impact on human welfare, or the loss of a unique feature of our Earth’s system and functioning. They often reinforce rather than reduce warming and once triggered cannot be rectified by emissions reductions.

Five Arctic and Antarctic tipping points are at risk below 2°C of warming. Within the polar tipping points, four have global systemic consequences that directly impact the stability of other tipping points. At 1.5°C of warming, three polar points will have already tipped. Once polar climate tipping points have been triggered, the resulting cascades will most likely catapult us into a world beyond 2°C.

polar tipping points at risk below 2 degree C.

No matter where you live or work, the polar regions increasingly will affect your life and the risks you face. The accelerated warming of the Arctic will increase global vulnerabilities like sea-level rise, extreme weather events, heat stress and heat waves, compromised food and water security, climate migration, disease exacerbation, and disruptions in logistics and supply chains.

Let’s take sea-level rise as an illustration. Greenland melt is already a significant contributor to sea level rise. Antarctica has been known as the “sleeping giant” because its response to climate change has been historically slower than the Arctic’s. However, this year Antarctic sea-ice extent is an anomaly at a record low – having lost 1.5 million square kilometers compared to the previous year. Antarctic sea ice acts as a protective force by shielding the ice shelves, ice sheets, and glaciers from the warmer ocean and erosion by wind and waves, helping avoid ice melt on land and thus sea-level rise.

“The changes are really speeding up in Antarctica and we don't know yet if this is a sign that anthropogenic warming is now coming to Antarctica, the same way that we've been seeing in the Arctic,” says Julienne Stroeve, Professor of Polar Observation & Modelling at University College London. “These recent extreme Antarctic sea ice lows suggest that it could be turning the tide.” Antarctica holds a sea-level equivalent ice volume of 58m of sea level rise, of which 23m is at particular risk. Scientists also have shown that there is at least +27cm of locked-in sea level rise from Greenland, even if we stopped emitting today. If warming continues, humanity will need to prepare in the longer term for a scenario of mass-forced displacement from sea-level rise.


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

Urgent collaborative action is key

Current Earth observations show that urgent action is critical to prevent polar tipping points from cascading and accelerating the climate crisis around the world. The ability to live-simulate the tipping points at different temperatures in the Polar Tipping Points Hub is intended to drive faster and more informed decision-making. We urge all stakeholders from business, government, civil society and academia to champion nature and climate solutions and scale-up credible mitigation and adaptation in light of looming risks.

Beyond visualizing complex challenges, the Global Collaboration Village has been designed as a virtual meeting and collaboration space to connect partners and communities around the world and at all levels of the climate change response. The launch of the Polar Tipping Points Hub is the starting point to bring leaders together for meaningful dialogues to better understand the science and respond appropriately to risks of cascading climate tipping points.

A 1.5°C temperature rise risks activating three polar tipping points, pushing us beyond safe limits. At 2°C, two more are at risk, likely leading to irreversible outcomes. Polar changes have global repercussions. Our future depends on how we tackle this – and right now we are on dangerously thin ice.

The Polar Tipping Points Hub features new and combined data sets from Arctic Basecamp (a non-profit science outreach organization that works to promote awareness of the global risks of climate change in the Arctic to global world leaders from business, policy and civil society), NASA, the National Snow and Ice Data Center, and other institutions. The virtual environments have been developed in partnership with Accenture, with expertise from Gail Whiteman and Arthi Ramachandran (Arctic Basecamp) and Julienne Stroeve (University College London).

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