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The Arctic cryosphere is a critically important component of the earth system, affecting the earth's energy balance, sea level, greenhouse gases and atmospheric circulation, transport of heat through ocean circulation, ecology and human resource use and well-being. The Arctic cryosphere is, however, changing rapidly with multiple important consequences that will potentially affect the earth system including the human population. The drivers of changes in the Arctic's cryosphere, the recent and projected changes in the cryosphere and the consequences for future climate warming, sea level rise, ecology and human wellbeing, have been comprehensively assessed by the Arctic Council's Snow Water, Ice, and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA) Project through its Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme Working Group. This article introduces the assessment and the associated papers within a special issue of the journal Ambio that extract and present some of the major findings of the SWIPA report.
During the past decade, the Arctic has experienced its highest temperatures of the instrumental record, even exceeding the warmth of the 1930s and 1940s. Recent paleo-reconstructions also show that recent Arctic summer temperatures are higher than at any time in the past 2000 years. The geographical distribution of the recent warming points strongly to an influence of sea ice reduction. The spatial pattern of the near-surface warming also shows the signature of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation in the Pacific sector as well as the influence of a dipole-like circulation pattern in the Atlantic sector. Areally averaged Arctic precipitation over the land areas north of 55°N shows large year-to-year variability, superimposed on an increase of about 5% since 1950. The years since 2000 have been wetter than average according to both precipitation and river discharge data. There are indications of increased cloudiness over the Arctic, especially low clouds during the warm season, consistent with a longer summer and a reduction of summer sea ice. Storm events and extreme high temperature show signs of increases. The Arctic Ocean has experienced enhanced oceanic heat inflows from both the North Atlantic and the North Pacific. The Pacific inflows evidently played a role in the retreat of sea ice in the Pacific sector of the Arctic Ocean, while the Atlantic water heat influx has been characterized by increasingly warm pulses. Recent shipboard observations show increased ocean heat storage in newly sea-ice-free ocean areas, with increased influence on autumn atmospheric temperature and wind fields.
Analysis of in situ and satellite data shows evidence of different regional snow cover responses to the widespread warming and increasing winter precipitation that has characterized the Arctic climate for the past 40–50 years. The largest and most rapid decreases in snow water equivalent (SWE) and snow cover duration (SCD) are observed over maritime regions of the Arctic with the highest precipitation amounts. There is also evidence of marked differences in the response of snow cover between the North American and Eurasian sectors of the Arctic, with the North American sector exhibiting decreases in snow cover and snow depth over the entire period of available in situ observations from around 1950, while widespread decreases in snow cover are not apparent over Eurasia until after around 1980. However, snow depths are increasing in many regions of Eurasia. Warming and more frequent winter thaws are contributing to changes in snow pack structure with important implications for land use and provision of ecosystem services. Projected changes in snow cover from Global Climate Models for the 2050 period indicate increases in maximum SWE of up to 15% over much of the Arctic, with the largest increases (15–30%) over the Siberian sector. In contrast, SCD is projected to decrease by about 10–20% over much of the Arctic, with the smallest decreases over Siberia (<10%) and the largest decreases over Alaska and northern Scandinavia (30–40%) by 2050. These projected changes will have far-reaching consequences for the climate system, human activities, hydrology, and ecology.
Snow cover plays a major role in the climate, hydrological and ecological systems of the Arctic and other regions through its influence on the surface energy balance (e.g. reflectivity), water balance (e.g. water storage and release), thermal regimes (e.g. insulation), vegetation and trace gas fluxes. Feedbacks to the climate system have global consequences. The livelihoods and well-being of Arctic residents and many services for the wider population depend on snow conditions so changes have important consequences. Already, changing snow conditions, particularly reduced summer soil moisture, winter thaw events and rain-on-snow conditions have negatively affected commercial forestry, reindeer herding, some wild animal populations and vegetation. Reductions in snow cover are also adversely impacting indigenous peoples' access to traditional foods with negative impacts on human health and well-being. However, there are likely to be some benefits from a changing Arctic snow regime such as more even run-off from melting snow that favours hydropower operations.
Freshwater ice dominates the Arctic terrestrial environment and significantly impacts bio-physical and socio-economic systems. Unlike other major cryospheric components that either blanket large expanses (e.g., snow, permafrost, sea ice) or are concentrated in specific locations, lake and river ice are interwoven into the terrestrial landscape through major flow and storage networks. For instance, the headwaters of large ice-covered rivers extend well beyond the Arctic while many northern lakes owe their genesis to broader cryospheric changes. The effects of freshwater ice on climate mostly occur at the local/regional scale, with the degree of influence dependent on the magnitude, timing, location, and duration of ice cover, and the size of the water body. Freshwater-ice formation, growth, decay, and break-up are influenced by climatic variables that control surface heat fluxes, but these differ markedly between lakes and rivers. Despite the importance of freshwater ice, there has been a recent reduction in observational recordings.
Paleolimnological evidence from some Arctic lakes suggests that longer ice-free seasons have been experienced since the beginning of the nineteenth century. It has been inferred from some additional records that many Arctic lakes may have crossed an important ecological threshold as a result of recent warming. In the instrumental record, long-term trends exhibit increasingly later freeze-ups and earlier break-ups, closely corresponding to increasing air temperature trends, but with greater sensitivity at the more temperate latitudes. Broad spatial patterns in these trends are also related to major atmospheric circulation patterns. Future projections of lake ice indicate increasingly later freeze-ups and earlier break-ups, decreasing ice thickness, and changes in cover composition, particularly white-ice. For rivers, projected future decreases in south to north air-temperature gradients suggest that the severity of ice-jam flooding may be reduced but this could be mitigated by changes in the magnitude of spring snowmelt.
Climatic changes to freshwater ice in the Arctic are projected to produce a variety of effects on hydrologic, ecological, and socio-economic systems. Key hydrologic impacts include changes to low flows, lake evaporation regimes and water levels, and river-ice break-up severity and timing. The latter are of particular concern because of their effect on river geomorphology, vegetation, sediment and nutrient fluxes, and sustainment of riparian aquatic habitats. Changes in ice phenology will affect a wide range of related biological aspects of seasonality. Some changes are likely to be gradual, but others could be more abrupt as systems cross critical ecological thresholds. Transportation and hydroelectric production are two of the socio-economic sectors most vulnerable to change in freshwater-ice regimes. Ice roads will require expensive on-land replacements while hydroelectric operations will both benefit and be challenged. The ability to undertake some traditional harvesting methods will also be affected.
Changes in the Arctic's climate are a result of complex interactions between the cryosphere, atmosphere, ocean, and biosphere. More feedbacks from the cryosphere to climate warming are positive and result in further warming than are negative, resulting in a reduced rate of warming or cooling. Feedbacks operate at different spatial scales; many, such as those operating through albedo and evapotranspiration, will have significant local effects that together could result in global impacts. Some processes, such as changes in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, are likely to have very small global effects but uncertainty is high whereas others, such as subsea methane (CH4) emissions, could have large global effects. Some cryospheric processes in the Arctic have teleconnections with other regions and major changes in the cryosphere have been largely a result of large-scale processes, particularly atmospheric and oceanic circulation. With continued climate warming it is highly likely that the cryospheric components will play an increasingly important climatic role. However, the net effect of all the feedbacks is difficult to assess because of the variability in spatial and temporal scales over which they operate. Furthermore, general circulation models (GCMs) do not include all major feedbacks while those included may not be accurately parameterized. The lack of full coupling between surface dynamics and the atmosphere is a major gap in current GCMs.
Snow, water, ice, and permafrost are showing evidence of substantial change in the Arctic, with large variations among different geographical areas. As a result of these changes, some habitats and their associated eco-systems are expanding, while others are undergoing rapid contraction. The warming of the Arctic cryosphere is limiting the range for cold-adapted biota, and less specialized taxa including invasive species from the south are likely to become increasingly common. Extreme climate events such as winter thawing are likely to become more frequent, and may accelerate shifts in community structure and processes. Many Arctic ecosystems are interdependent, and changes in the cryosphere are altering physical, bio-geochemical, and biological linkages, as well as causing positive feedback effects on atmospheric warming. All of these climate-related effects are compounded by rapid socio-economic development in the North, creating additional challenges for northern communities and indigenous lifestyles that depend on Arctic ecosystem services.
Changes in sea ice, snow cover, lake and river ice, and permafrost will affect economy, infrastructure, health, and indigenous and non-indigenous livelihoods, culture, and identity. Local residents are resilient and highly adaptive, but the rate and magnitude of change challenges the current adaptive capacity. Cryospheric changes create both challenges and opportunities, and occur along local, regional, and international dimensions. Such changes will provide better access to the Arctic and its resources thereby increasing human activities such as shipping and tourism. Cryospheric changes pose a number of challenges for international governance, human rights, safety, and search and rescue efforts. In addition to the direct effects of a changing cryosphere, human society is affected by indirect factors, including industrial developments, globalization, and societal changes, which contribute to shaping vulnerability and adaptation options. Combined with non-cryospheric drivers of change, this will result in multifaceted and cascading effects within and beyond the Arctic.
The Arctic cryosphere is a critically important component of the earth system, affecting the energy balance, atmospheric and ocean circulation, freshwater storage, sea level, the storage, and release of large quantities of greenhouse gases, economy, infrastructure, health, and indigenous and non-indigenous livelihoods, culture and identity. Currently, components of the Arctic cryosphere are subjected to dramatic change due to global warming. The need to document, understand, project, and respond to changes in the cryosphere and their consequences stimulated a comprehensive international assessment called “SWIPA”: Snow, Water, Ice, Permafrost in the Arctic. Some of the extensive key SWIPA chapters have been summarized and made more widely available to a global audience with multi-disciplinary interests in this Special Report of Ambio. In this article, an overview is provided of this Special Report in the context of the more detailed and wider scope of the SWIPA Report. Accelerated changes in major components of the Arctic cryosphere are documented. Evidence of feedback mechanisms between the cryosphere and other parts of the climate system are identified as contributing factors to enhanced Arctic warming while the growing importance of Arctic land-based ice as a contributor to global sealevel rise is quantified. Cryospheric changes will result in multifaceted and cascading effects for people within and beyond the Arctic presenting both challenges and opportunities.