The Arctic Circle is a figurative latitudinal line that circles the entire way around the northernmost part of the Earth, marking a frozen boundary where at certain times of the year, the sun no longer appears to rise or set. Anything above this line is considered a part of the Arctic polar region; one of the harshest environments on the planet.
Measuring more than five million square miles in size, the Arctic is larger than the US, China or Europe, and temperatures there can reach as low as -70°C. Wildlife, infrastructure and indigenous communities do still inhabit parts of this remote region, but very sparsely, and in much of the high north not very much survives at all.
Despite its bleak icy landscape not being capable of supporting much life in the way of flora and fauna, the Arctic is in fact (much like its southern polar partner, the Antarctic) an essential regulatory component of the Earth’s elemental systems that keep the global climate stable.
However, in order to fulfil its planetary role in maintaining the balance of the world’s seasons, weather and temperature, the Arctic’s own climate also needs to be stable.
Unfortunately, we know all too well that, due to human-induced climate change, this is not the case. Polar temperatures are in fact strikingly off-kilter, and still continue to rise.
What is the result of this polar imbalance? Well, though somewhat counterintuitive, one of the many downstream effects of the Arctic’s warming is actually an increase in the incidence of extreme cold weather like the deadly winter blasts in Northern Europe, or the “bomb cyclone” seen across many parts of the US in recent weeks.
At least 38 people have been killed in seven states, after a brutal bomb cyclone swept across much of the U.S., bringing blizzard conditions and hurricane-force winds to some regions of the country. https://t.co/W0yV6n6fHs pic.twitter.com/DKeAbNGgzV
— CBS Mornings (@CBSMornings) December 26, 2022
How does the Arctic regulate the climate?
When it comes to the impacts of climate change, we often witness the juxtaposition of extremes next to one another; e.g., those who suffer the worst from the climate crisis are often those who contribute to it the least.
The polar crisis is no different.
Though the Arctic is one of Earth’s most important natural infrastructures in maintaining stable global temperatures, it is not only one of the landscapes worst affected by global warming, but also causes some of the worst of its downstream effects.
This is of particular concern given the inherent role the Arctic plays in keeping the planet stable, so to speak.
Though the Arctic may seem like a remote and far away place, the protection of this region is crucial for our species’ survival – not to mention for the preservation of the indigenous communities, cultures and wildlife that thrive there.
Think of the Arctic and Antarctic regions as the planet’s cooling systems; the large surface area of frozen white ice reflects solar energy back up into space that would otherwise contribute to the warming of the Earth.
In order for the Arctic to function properly, it must remain cold. To ensure this – alongside the sunlight-reflecting capabilities of the region’s vast ice sheets – there’s also another natural phenomenon that keeps the Arctic cool, and that’s the polar vortex.
In the stratosphere, high above the Arctic, there is a counter-clockwise swirling mass of extremely cold air known as the polar vortex that maintains the sub-zero Arctic climate.
Several miles below this body of air, in the troposphere (the atmospheric level at which we exist, breathe, and planes fly), at the bottom edge perimeter of the vortex’s circular polar wind, there is another fast-moving circle of air known as the polar jet stream. This stream of air also encircles the entirety of the Arctic region, and interacts with other, warmer bodies of air from different parts of the globe to influence the seasons.
When both the polar vortex and jet stream are circling the region properly, it is the duality between the two westerly blowing winds that creates a vacuum effect to keep the cold air of the Arctic in, and the warm air below, out.
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When either the polar vortex or jet stream is destabilised, the cold air that they encapsulate in the high north region begins to bleed out further south, exposing Arctic conditions to otherwise more temperate mid-latitude regions such as northern parts of Europe and North America.
The exact mechanisms behind this destabilisation are still somewhat debated amongst members of the climate science community – it’s a little bit like the chicken vs. egg conundrum – but one thing that is generally agreed upon, is the part that global warming has to play in undermining the Arctic polar vortex’s function.
As the climate crisis intensifies, cold blasts from the high north will increasingly be forced down into new territory, putting unprepared civilisations at risk of extreme polar conditions.
Global warming isn't over. It's getting worse.
The strength of this #BombCyclone may be a product of a weakening polar vortex from our warming planet, causing extreme cold air to shift further south.
We need bold action on climate. Now. pic.twitter.com/GDzbK6rb1g
— Manny Rutinel (@MannyRutinel) December 23, 2022
But how does this happen? Why are we witnessing an increase in extreme cold snaps on a warming planet?
The polar vortex and climate change
Each one of Earth’s vital natural infrastructures – rainforests, coral reefs, polar ice caps, and mountain glaciers, to name a few – is affected by climate change.
What’s more, scientists recently reported that global warming may in fact be pushing these landscapes past a critical threshold known as their climate “tipping point;” a point of no return beyond which they risk spiralling into a cascade of self-perpetuating degradation, possibly triggering other elements to also tip over the edge in the stead of their deterioration.
The Arctic is one of these vital planetary landscapes that is now thought to have possibly already surpassed its tipping point (which scientists previously predicted would not occur for many years) triggering its own further destruction in a positive feedback loop of accelerated warming. Scientists’ estimates suggest that the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the world, now estimated to be 3°C above pre-industrial levels.
Due to this rapid warming of the polar climate, during the Arctic summer, the once-frozen white sea ice that covers much of the Arctic during the winter melts in just a few days, exposing the blue sea to the sun in its place.
White ice reflects sunlight, whereas blue sea absorbs it. Therefore, as the ice melts and more sea is exposed, more of the sun’s warmth is absorbed by the water, causing even more of the ice to melt, and subsequently less sunlight to be reflected. This spiral loops back around as more sea is exposed and more ice melts. Hence, a self-perpetuating warming effect ensues.
The thing is, as the blue sea is increasingly exposed and warms up, so does the mass of air above it. This newly warm mass of air should not be in the Arctic, and disrupts the cooler circular winds of the polar vortex and jetstream, causing unusual shifting air patterns that force cold Arctic air, which would normally be contained within the region, to move down to southern areas that it wouldn’t usually reach.
It’s this destabilisation that results in unprecedented Arctic blasts and extreme weather that causes major travel disruptions and claims scores of human lives, leaving millions of people without power, and damaging all manner of livelihoods.
Dozens of people have died after a bomb cyclone battered the US with extreme winter weather this week.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) December 27, 2022
Though the US and Europe have experienced polar conditions such as this before – e.g., the “Beast from the East,” a historic cold front that struck the UK in 2018, triggered by freezing polar air being pushed further south – climate change is expected to increase the frequency of such events as it further disrupts the polar jet stream and vortex.
Sir David King, Founder of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group (CCAG) and Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge University said in his speech at the C40 World Mayors Summit in October, “the Arctic Circle has gone.”
“What is happening in the arctic circle now, is threatening the whole future of the planet,” warns King.
Repair the Arctic to reverse its decline
King and his group in Cambridge have a “three R” strategy to tackle the problems faced in the Arctic, which together will help preserve the region’s future and potentially reverse its deterioration.
Reduce (carbon emissions), Remove (excess greenhouse gases), and Repair the region by refreezing it – an important initiative to preserve the precious biodiversity and landscape that exists in the high north, but also because, as King says, “what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”
Though it’s hard to believe, along with heatwaves, drought and wildfires, our warming planet is also now driving the emergence of extreme cold weather further south than ever before.
The time to prevent climate-induced damage to the Arctic has passed; the damage has unfortunately already begun. But the era of reacting to the impacts of its melting we are currently navigating is still salvageable if we can put measures in place now to prevent further decline in the future. If we give it a try, we may even be able to reverse some of the damage we’ve already done!
Correction: This article has been updated since publication to remove mention of climate denial.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Burning and frozen matches. Featured Photo Credit: Elle Florio/Wikimedia Commons