A new report from the United Nations shows that it’s basically game over for the Arctic as we know it.
According to the UN, meeting the existing Paris Agreement pledges—which do not get us to the two degree warming goal—would lead up to 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) of winter warming over the Arctic Ocean by midcentury and up to 9 degrees Celsius (16.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, along the way unraveling one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet and displacing people who have done very little to cause the disruption.
On Friday Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at Carbon Brief, took to Twitter to dispute some of the UN report’s original claims, including that Arctic temperatures would rise 5 degrees Celsius even if we “stopped all emissions overnight.” When Earther reached out to Hausfather via Twitter direct message, he said that RPC 2.6, a scenario in which we rapidly phase down emissions, leads to a more modest level of warming overall. On March 22, the UN issued a new version of its report and press release that dropped this claim.
The report was released on Tuesday at a meeting of the United Nations Environment Program. The synthesis pulls together recent research and puts it all in one terrifying graphic-driven document. The litany of changes that have already occurred is unsettling, but the real shock is in what could come next.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe, which translates to dramatic change. Sea ice extent, which has shrunk about 40 percent since regular satellite monitoring began in 1979, could reach zero percent in summer as early as the 2030s. Old, thick sea ice will likely be gone even sooner. Permafrost, frozen ground full of carbon, could thaw out and destroy a third of all the infrastructure in the Arctic (and also release deadly strains of anthrax). Rising temperatures could also unleash a host of other infectious diseases like Lyme disease, which is already on the rise in Canada.
“Insects like mosquitoes and ticks have the potential to connect the Arctic and tropics,” the authors write, which sounds like the sequel to Contagion.
The cruel irony of this is that like their small island counterparts, the 4 million people living the Arctic have contributed precious little to the carbon pollution causing those dramatic changes. In the case of permafrost, its thaw could also hasten climate change along by releasing methane and carbon dioxide in a vicious feedback loop.
And all these bleak findings don’t even get into other issues like plastic pollution, heavy metal contamination, or ocean acidification, all of which are and will continue to compound the region’s woes. The report concedes that the best way forward for the region with little sway on carbon pollution is adapting to whatever changes are coming its way.
“Challenges can no longer be managed in isolation: a holistic, ecosystem-based approach that considers multiple drivers and cumulative pressures is needed,” the report said. “In the years and decades to come, adaptation that integrates and respects local knowledge and Indigenous knowledge will be vital to help Arctic societies address the coming challenges.”
And there is sure to be no shortage of them.
Update 3/15: This article has been updated to include a comment from Zeke Hausfather.
Update 3/23: The original UN report included the claim that if we stopped emitting carbon tomorrow, winters in the Arctic could still warm 5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Following a fact-check by Carbon Brief, the UN has issued a new version of its report that drops this claim. Earther has dropped the claim from its story, as well. The amended UN report also clarifies its warming projections are for the Arctic Ocean rather than pan-Arctic; this article’s text has been similarly clarified.