Climate change and the Barents region

Polar bear, photo: Thomas Nilsen, www.barentsinfo.orgThe climate change affects differently the northern and southern parts of the vast Barents region. In the northernmost regions, the changes are expected to be more pronounced. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the average Arctic temperature has so far been rising at least twice as fast as the global temperature. One reason to this is that the melting ice and snow cover does not reflect back Sun’s radiation so effectively. If the snow cover melts, the revealed dark soil and water absorb heat and increase the melting. In order to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees, significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions need to take place.

For the Barents region, the climate models show increased precipitation and more floods. Temperatures are rising, especially during the winter, and very cold temperatures became scarcer. There will be more rain instead of snow in some parts of the Barents region in the wintertime. Extreme weather events (such as storms, floods and droughts) are expected to increase globally.

The melting of the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean gives access to new transport routes and oil and gas reserves. It has been estimated that areas north of the Arctic Circle have as much as 20% of the Earth’s technically recoverable, undiscovered oil and natural gas resources. The opening North-East Passage is anticipated to provide considerable savings in shipping costs in comparison with present logistics routes. The increased economic activity increases also the pressures and risks for the Arctic environment, such as the probability of a major oil catastrophe. The climate change may also amplify the effects of the industrial pollution - significant e.g. in the surroundings of the Kola Peninsula nickel smelters in the Barents region.

Changes in the flora and fauna

The area of distribution of species changes with the warming climate. The species that are adapted to northern conditions are likely to suffer as the climate zones move towards north. For example, the palsa mires which contain permanently frozen ice lenses may disappear from northern Finland. The Arctic fox may become endangered since the red fox occupies its breeding grounds. Warm winters can disturb the animals that go into winter torpor or hibernation, e.g. bears. The warming is expected to increase the growth of forests and to favor agriculture, but it is also likely to bring more plant pests and diseases to the northern regions.

Some of the predicted changes can be seen already

There are uncertainties in what changes will occur and at what pace, since the climate and the environment form a complex feedback system. According to expert estimates, the increasing use of fossil fuels may lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change.

We can already see signs of the occuring climate change.

  • The ice cover of the Arctic Ocean is constantly becoming smaller
  • The rise of the sea level has been faster that what was anticipated in the 2009 forecast
  • Mountain glaciers have shrunk globally, with large regional variations
  • Extreme weather events are taking place (flooding, droughts, heat waves, storms), though not indisputably due to climate change. IPCC (2011) has reported that the monsoon flooding in Thailand, the record hot summer in Russia and US during 2010 are more likely consequences of the climate change than not.
  • The area of distribution of the northern birds has become smaller

The thawing permafrost releases carbon to the atmosphere

A group of well developed palsas as seen from above, photo: Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Palsaaerialview.jpg

Permafrost covers almost a quarter of the land area in the Arctic and boreal regions of the Northern Hemisphere and it contains a large amount of organic carbon - plant and animal remains at different stages of decomposition. According to some estimates, there is even 1 700 Pg (milliard million grams) of carbon in the soil of the northern permafrost zone. Thawing permafrost releases carbon dioxide and methane, the latter being a 25 times stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

As with many other complex climate interactions, also in case of permafrost there are uncertainties: to some extent, the thawing permafrost can act as a carbon sink, since it favors increased growth of vegetation. This effect is, however, unlikely to compensate the loss of vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere from the thawing permafrost.  

Thawing of the permafrost causes problems for infrastructure built on the frozen ground: buildings, roads as well as  oil and gas pipes.

Emissions are increasing while they should be decreasing

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported in autumn 2011 that more greenhouse gases than ever were emitted. In 2010, the global emissions were higher than in the worst case scenarios of the 2007 IPCC assessment report, despite the global economic recession of 2008. The emissions have been rising especially in the fastly developing economies.

Climate change can have significant effects on the societies as whole. For example, due to droughts and other disturbances to agriculture, the price of the food can get so high that it causes conflicts. Some studies predict that climate change may create millions of environmental refugees due to sea level rise, desertification and extreme weather events. The extreme weather can have serious effects on livelihoods and on the infrastructure, causing disturbances in the electricity and water supply as well as in traffic and communications. 

(In these pages term “climate change” is used to describe the changes in climate that is caused by human-induced greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere)

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