What happens in the remote and remarkable Arctic region has profound effects on the rest of the planet. Climate changes currently underway in the Arctic are a driver for global sea-level rise, offer new prospects for natural resource extraction, and have rippling effects through the world's weather, climate, food supply, and economy.
Click on the titles to the left and right to find out more about the changes occurring in the Arctic and their global connections.
Temperatures are rising twice as fast in the Arctic as compared to the average global temperature rise. Warming temperatures are a driver of Arctic change and also may be affecting weather patterns across the Northern Hemisphere. See p5 of the booklet for more.
If you were to stand at the North Pole, the sea ice under your boots might extend as far as you could see. But over the past several decades, warmer temperatures have meant there is less sea ice left at the end of the summer. See p6 of the booklet for more.
Ice is melting at a rapid pace on the land masses that encircle the Arctic Ocean. Glaciers, many of which have endured since the last Ice Age or longer, are becoming smaller. Those that border bodies of water are increasingly breaking off into icebergs that float away and gradually melt into the sea. See p8 of the booklet for more.
Permafrost derives its name from the word "permanent," but it is becoming markedly less so. When permafrost thaws, it can have significant impacts on an area's landscape, ecosystem, hydrology, and infrastructure, for example by causing the erosion of coastline and the collapse of roads, bridges, runways and buildings. See p9 of the booklet for more.
Many Arctic species are highly specialized, having evolved in response to the unique Arctic environment over millions of years. As ice melts and temperatures change, these species face mounting challenges—including the possibility of extinction. See p11 of the booklet for more.
Changes in the Arctic environment—combined with broad political, economic, and cultural shifts—are putting new strains on ancient traditions. For example, melting snow and ice pose problems for subsistence hunters who typically rely on over-ice forms of transportation such as sleds or snow mobiles to reach animals like seals, walruses, and caribou. See p14 of the booklet for more.
There are an estimated 30 billion barrels of technically recoverable, undiscovered oil in the U.S. Arctic alone, and the Arctic also contains valuable mineral deposits, including some rare minerals critical to making electronics. Rising demand for these raw materials and the Arctic's increasing accessibility, make it possible that the region will become more developed as these reserves are explored. See p23 of the booklet for more.
The Arctic's melting land ice and glaciers contribute to global sea-level rise. As this ice melts, much of it ultimately flows into the sea, adding volume to the world's oceans. Sea-level rise (and associated storm surges) poses significant threats to human lives and infrastructure, especially in these vulnerable and densely-populated coastal areas. See p15 of the booklet for more.
One of the most prominent factors influencing weather in the Northern Hemisphere is the jet stream, an air current generated when colder air masses from the Arctic meet warmer air masses from the tropics. Because temperatures are rising faster in the Arctic than at the tropics, the temperature gradient that drives the jet stream is becoming less intense. This could result in longer droughts, heat waves, and cold snaps in North America and Europe. See p16 of the booklet for more.
As Arctic ice melts, the Arctic Ocean is being flooded with fresh water. Because the circulation of ocean water is acutely affected by water temperature and salinity (saltiness), scientists believe this freshwater influx could have profound impacts on the circulation of ocean water worldwide. Ocean circulation, in turn, is a major driver for weather patterns, both in the Arctic and around the world. See p17 of the booklet for more.
Ten percent of the world's fish catch comes from Arctic and subarctic waters, and about half of the United States fish catch comes from subarctic waters. Changes in the Arctic marine environment could have important implications for this global food source, with potential effects on local communities, regional labor markets, and international trade. See p18 of the booklet for more.
In the past, few ships ventured into the perilous waters of the Arctic Ocean or its various straits and seas. That situation is changing rapidly. More and more ships are coming to the Arctic to explore for oil and gas, to conduct research missions, to transport oil and other commodities, and for tourism. See p24 of the booklet for more.
Arctic residents are most directly affected by the environmental changes happening in the Arctic and the region's increase in human activity. At the same time, growing interest in the Arctic from the south is bringing an influx of new people, new cultures, new ideas, and new opportunities. Although most are located within the legal jurisdiction of the Arctic nations, many Arctic indigenous groups have benefitted from an increasing level of involvement in decision making, for example taking part in processes that review proposed developments such as mines or oil drilling operations. See p27 of the booklet for more.
Many of the shifts underway in the Arctic are likely to contribute to further climate changes, both in the Arctic and around the globe. For example, as the area covered by reflective, white Arctic snow and ice shrinks, darker surfaces like tundra and water—which absorb more of the Sun's energy—are left behind. As a result, the reflectivity, or albedo, of the region decreases, causing temperatures to rise and more snow and ice to melt. See p24 of the booklet for more.
The Arctic in the Anthropocene: Emerging Research Questions. National Research Council, 2014.
Responding to Oil Spills in the U.S. Arctic Marine Environment. National Research Council, 2014.
Linkages Between Arctic Warming and Mid-Latitude Weather Patterns: Summary of a Workshop. National Research Council, 2014.
Opportunities to Use Remote Sensing in Understanding Permafrost and Related Ecological Characteristics: Report of a Workshop. National Research Council, 2014.
Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. National Research Council, 2013.
Seasonal-to-Decadal Predictions of Arctic Sea Ice: Challenges and Strategies. National Research Council, 2012.
Sea-Level Rise for the Coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington: Past, Present, and Future. National Research Council, 2012.
Frontiers in Understanding Climate Change and Polar Ecosystems: Summary of a Workshop. National Research Council, 2011.
National Security Implications of Climate Change for U.S. Naval Forces. National Research Council, 2011.
Other relevant reports:
National Climate Assessment. US Global Change Research Program, 2014.
Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2014.
US Navy Arctic Roadmap: 2014�2030. US Navy, 2014.
For more National Research Council reports and events on this topic, please visit the Polar Research Board website at http://dels.nas.edu/prb.