19 Ways Arctic Climate Change Could Unleash a Global Catastrophe

Researchers identify multiple tipping points, from ice melt to a collapse of fisheries, in the Arctic as the region warms.
(Photo: Rebecca Jackrel/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)
Nov 30, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Scientists have identified 19 “tipping points” that could radically change Arctic societies and environmental communities—and potentially the rest of the planet.

Those tipping points include things we’ve already heard a lot about, such as Arctic sea ice loss and the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet, as well as potential crises such as fishery collapses, a reduction of oxygen in the ocean, and the transformation of tundra ecosystems into woodlands.

“Some of these things have happened; some are more speculative,” said Garry Peterson of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, coeditor of the report, which was released last week by the center and the Stockholm Environment Institute. “Even if a bunch of these tipping points don’t happen, you’ve still got a lot to worry about.”

The biggest open question is how all these individual tipping points, also known as regime shifts, could magnify one another. “How regime shifts interact with one another is poorly understood,” Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, said in a statement. “If multiple regime shifts reinforce each other, the results could be potentially catastrophic. The variety of effects that we could see means that Arctic people and policies must prepare for surprise. We also expect that some of those changes will destabilize the regional and global climate, with potentially major impacts.”

Peterson said this is the first time that all 19 of these tipping points have been assembled in one place, providing a clear view of the potential effects of climate change across multiple scientific disciplines. “To see it as a whole collection, I think, can be quite powerful,” he said.

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While all these threats may seem rather apocalyptic, the report also indicates opportunities for hope by providing several case studies showing how communities around the Arctic have started adapting to climate change or are struggling to do so. For example, some communities have shifted their economies from fishing to whale watching. On the other side of the equation, the Yupik people living along the Bering Sea coast in western Alaska are contending with the financial and cultural costs of relocating their communities in the face of sea level rise, coastal erosion, and thawing permafrost.

“People in the Arctic have real challenges,” Peterson said. “These challenges are not their responsibility. They’ve been colonized, and they’re disproportionately suffering the effects of climate change—and who caused climate change? It’s not the people living in the Arctic.”

Peterson said the case studies into resilience offer strategies not just for the Arctic but also for the rest of the world. “ ‘Resilience’ isn’t a word that has a lot of left-right ideological baggage,” he said. “Communities can be resilient. You want tough guys to be resilient. You want kids to be resilient.”

Studying resilience in the Arctic is particularly important, he said, because “people have been very transformative and adaptive in their history in the Arctic. This is going on in the modern day, even in some difficult situations.” He said it is important to collect the socioecological memory of past solutions to help solve the problems that are now starting to develop. “If people don’t have this legacy of what we’ve done in the past when there have been problems, it’s harder to respond,” he said.

Understanding both the current and historic adaptations may be of global value. “These Arctic nations are a place where you can experiment with ways to adapt to climate change that could help the rest of the world prepare for the inevitable climate changes that are to come,” Peterson said.

“People in the Arctic, compared to a lot of other places, have a long history of dealing with extreme environmental change,” he added. “One of our Canadian colleagues works with people in the Yukon, where they’ve been dealing with glaciers moving backwards and forwards and melting all the time. So they have a lot of strategies for dealing with that and benefiting from it.”

Peterson said the effects of climate change aren’t just related to ice. They are also about societies, how people use their natural environments, and the cultural values created by our ecological surroundings. “Hopefully we can think more about these connections,” he said.