Arctic Sea Ice in Hot Water

In addition to our meeting with Gail Whiteman, some of our team went to a very interesting and somewhat unusual talk at the Lancaster Environment Center, hosted by Dirk Notz of the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Not many of us had been in this building before; our habitat is the Management School. But what we heard exceeded our expectations! To be honest, the very science-related part of the talk exceeded our understanding but expanded curiosity. Listening to scientists and trying to keep those models in mind when deciding how to make business decisions is exactly what current and future business leaders should do. In this blog we share some of what we took home from this excellent talk, and what we can learn from such scientific studies for business policy.

Arctic Sea Ice in Hot Water

Sea ice is vital to the Arctic Ocean, covering the entire area during the winter months, which then melts during summer due to warmer temperatures as a result of longer hours of sunlight. Sea ice follows the cycle of thinning over the course of summer, then expanding and thickening throughout winter. Warmer air and subsequently, rising water temperatures are reducing the amount of sea ice present and this change directly affects the health of Arctic ecosystems. Many mammals rely on sea ice for hunting and breeding. As a result, these animals are facing the threat of restricted food access and falling birth rates. The impacts on wildlife have a direct effect on the indigenous populations, such as the Yup’ik, Iñupiat, and Inuit, via the restriction of their hunting lifestyle for survival.

Over the past 30 years, we have lost approximately 75% of Arctic ice. The major problem that we are likely to face because of this, is an increase of heat ray absorption by the Arctic ocean. This process is called ‘Polar amplification’ and results in the Arctic warming up faster than the rest of the world, leading to more ice and snow melting.

Furthermore, the thawing of the ice caps leads to jetstream meandering and creates a shift in weather patterns as the difference in temperatures between the arctic and the area near the equator do not have a steep gradient anymore. It is the difference between the temperatures of the arctic and the rest of the continents that creates a jet stream from the west to the east.

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Source: TIME, Keren Su / Corbis

A report conducted by InsideClimate News suggests that jetstream meandering created severe changes in wind patterns that transport large masses of warm, moist air from the Atlantic to the Arctic, leading to a more drastic impact on Arctic ice caps. However, modelling methods are not capturing this shift accurately and any study on this is subject to further evidence and research.

Dirk also lamented the loss of beautiful Arctic landscapes and the cultures of the Inuit and other local people that lived in this part of the world. In terms of the former, he was concerned that the beauty of the earth is not being preserved, and that we will not be able to share it with future generations. He also spoke of the Greenlandic people’s’ loss of their traditional livelihoods – the air was no longer arid enough to dry fish, forcing them to buy fridges.

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Source: NASA, Trent L. Schindler

Given the research done on this area, it is too early to say whether there is an estimated time frame as to when or if Arctic ice will vanish and Dirk had effectively proven that Arctic ice caps have the potential of accelerating themselves. Furthermore, he highlighted the fact that if ice caps thawed rigorously in one year, it would regenerate rapidly in the year after and this trend was seen over a 50 year period.

A silver lining, however, is that there is evidence that Arctic ocean is becoming more of a carbon sink as it expands due to the melting of the ice caps. In addition to the chemical exchange of carbon between any body of water and the air, phytoplankton (tiny ocean plants) grow in the water, absorbing carbon dioxide in the process of photosynthesis. Furthermore, when these plants die, they sink into the bottom of the ocean where the carbon of their bodies are effectively stored.

But from an economic perspective, what is the financial incentive for large multinational firms to tackle this issue? There is naturally the pressure of maintaining a good public image and appearing supportive of tackling environmental issues, but Dirk highlighted that the melting ice also opened new Arctic sea routes. As this reduces transport costs immensely for these firms, they have a vested interest in, at the very least, maintaining this loss of ice to at least some degree.

Melting sea ice will have global consequences in terms of business by exposing new shipping routes for trade, as well as fossil fuel reserves. It is undeniable that there will be serious climate-related impressions on a worldwide scale, influencing both people and ecosystems. By choosing to act now and slowing the rate of sea ice cover loss, we can reduce the aggressive, negative externalities we are facing. The members and liaison delegates at the WBCSD conference will have an excellent opportunity to address urgent – and global – environmental concerns such as these, and begin the journey along the path to building a safer and more stable future for our natural habitat.

Written by Ben Koh, Frederike Kress, Divesh Lachhwani, Callum Hudson and Jay Mirchandani.

Sources:

1) NSIDC, 2014. Is the Arctic Ocean a carbon sink? [Online] Available: https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/icelights/2014/07/arctic-ocean-carbon-sink [Accessed 28 Sep. 2016].

2)Insideclimatenews.org. (2016). Greenland’s big meltdown in 2015 wore jet stream’s fingerprints. [online] Available at:https://insideclimatenews.org/news/08062016/greenland-arctic-record-melt-jet-stream-wobbly-global-warming-climate-change [Accessed 28 Sep. 2016].

3) RealClimate. (2016). Polar Amplification. [online] Available at: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2006/01/polar-amplification/ [Accessed 28 Sep. 2016].

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