The State of Arctic Ice Cover, Arctic Amplification

The arctic ice cover region which constitute the north pole of earth is subject to intense global warming and climate change. The change in arctic region is not only significant from environmental point of view but also has major strategic implications. This article will introduce you to major happening in the arctic and its impact on India which is very significant from both UPSC GS paper II and GS paper III.

Why Arctic is in News

Recent research have shown that it is now too late to save summer Arctic sea ice and scientists say preparations need to be made for the increased extreme weather across the northern hemisphere that is likely to occur as a result. Analysis shows that even if greenhouse gas emissions are sharply reduced, the Arctic will be ice-free in September in coming decades. The study also shows that if emissions decline slowly or continue to rise, the first ice-free summer could be in the 2030s, a decade earlier than previous projections. The research shows that 90% of the melting is the result of human-caused global heating, with natural factors accounting for the rest.

Arctic Ice Cover and Global Climate

Since the early 1900s, many glaciers around the world have been rapidly melting. Human activities are at the root of this phenomenon. Specifically, since the industrial revolution, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions have raised temperatures, even higher in the poles, and as a result, glaciers are rapidly melting, calving off into the sea and retreating on land.

When warming temperatures gradually melt sea ice over time, fewer bright surfaces are available to reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere. More solar energy is absorbed at the surface and ocean temperatures rise. This begins a cycle of warming and melting. Warmer water temperatures delay ice growth in the fall and winter, and the ice melts faster the following spring, exposing dark ocean waters for a longer period the following summer.

Arctic Amplification

While changes due to global warming are witnessed across the planet, any change in the surface air temperature and the net radiation balance tend to produce larger changes at the north and south poles. This phenomenon is known as polar amplification; these changes are more pronounced at the northern latitudes and are known as the Arctic amplification. Among the many global warming-driven causes for this amplification, the ice-albedo feedback, lapse rate feedback, water vapour feedback and ocean heat transport are the primary causes. Sea ice and snow have high albedo (measure of reflectivity of the surface), implying that they are capable of reflecting most of the solar radiation as opposed to water and land. In the Arctic’s case, global warming is resulting in diminishing sea ice . As the sea ice melts, the Arctic Ocean will be more capable of absorbing solar radiation, thereby driving the amplification. The lapse rate or the rate at which the temperature drops with elevation decreases with warming. Studies show that the ice-albedo feedback and the lapse rate feedback are responsible for 40% and 15% of polar amplification respectively.

Arctic Ice Cover and Ocean

Sea ice affects the movement of ocean waters. The ocean is salty and when sea ice forms, much of the salt is pushed into the ocean water below the ice, although some salt may become trapped in small pockets between ice crystals. Water below sea ice has a higher concentration of salt and is denser than the surrounding ocean water, so it sinks and moves from the surface. In this way, sea ice contributes to the circulation of the global ocean conveyor belt. Cold, dense polar water descends from the surface and circulates along the ocean bottom toward the equator, while warm water from mid-depth to the surface travels from the equator toward the poles.

The warming of the Arctic Ocean and the seas in the region, the acidification of water, changes in the salinity levels, is impacting the biodiversity, including the marine species and the dependent species. The warming is also increasing the incidence of rainfall which is affecting the availability and accessibility of lichens to the reindeer. The Arctic amplification is causing widespread starvation and death among the Arctic fauna.

The permafrost in the Arctic is thawing and in turn releasing carbon and methane, stored in arctic ice cover, which are among the major greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. Experts fear that the thaw and the melt will also release the long-dormant bacteria and viruses that were trapped in the permafrost and can potentially give rise to diseases. The best-known example of this is the permafrost thaw leading to an anthrax outbreak in Siberia in 2016, where nearly 2,00,000 reindeer succumbed.

arctic ice cover and arctic amplification

Arctic and India

According to the World Meteorological Organization’s report, ‘State of Global Climate in 2021’, sea level along the Indian coast is rising faster than the global average rate. One of the primary reasons for this rise is the melting of sea ice in the polar regions, especially the Arctic.

Scientist also find that reduced sea ice in the Barents-Kara sea region of Arctic can lead to extreme rainfall events in the latter half of the monsoons — in September and October.

Strategic Significance of Arctic

The Arctic region has abundance of natural resources such as gas and oil, which are ready for exploitation by the great powers in the region. New territorial claims for resources, due to the shrinking of ice sheets, new water bodies are emerging and due to that the surrounding countries of Arctic Ocean, have started claiming these water bodies to harvest the resources, to exploit the resources that are present there, especially oil and natural gas.

Melting Arctic ice has opened shipping routes, the Northern Passage (Canada) and the Northern Sea Route. In warmer months, ships have started to use the Northern Sea Route that bypasses Singapore, unlike the Suez Route. Due to this shortened path, businesses will be profitable, as the cost of transportation will be less.

Since the Cold War, both the USSR (Russia now) and the United States have placed their powerful weapons and weapon technologies in the Arctic region. Most importantly, the Russian nuclear deterrent is primarily located in the Arctic and both the countries have developed an extensive surveillance system that would allow them to attack each other’s. As a result, Arctic became one of the most militarized regions of the world.

Indian Initaitve on Arctic

India in 2022 unveils its Arctic policy named ‘India and the Arctic: building a partnership for sustainable development’ based upon 6 pillars of strengthening India’s scientific research and cooperation, climate and environmental protection, economic and human development, transportation and connectivity, governance and international cooperation, and national capacity building in the Arctic region.

India is is one of thirteen nations holding Observer status in the Arctic Council, a high-level intergovernmental forum that addresses issues faced by the Arctic governments and the indigenous people of the Arctic.

HIMADRI ‘the abode of snow’ is India’s first research station located at the International Arctic Research base, NyÅlesund, Svalbard, Norway. It is located at a distance of 1,200 kilometres from the North Pole. It was inaugurated on the 1st July, 2008.

Suggested Readings:

India’s Neighbourhood Policy and SAARC

India-Pakistan Relations for UPSC IR

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