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 | 23-09-2023

Achilles tendon Arctic (1/3):
The importance of the Arctic


In our three-part series “Arctic Achilles Tendon”, our Senior Expert in marine topics and biodiversity Prof. Dr. Dr. H. c. Karin Lochte and former managing partner and marine biologist Dr. Alexis Katechakis explain why the Arctic is so important (Part 1), what economic temptations lie in developing the Arctic, which act as sustainable opportunities (Part 2) and how we can protect the Arctic – also so that it can protect us (Part 3) .

Karin, we have so much water. Why is the Arctic Ocean so important?

The Arctic Ocean is an uniquely important ecosystem that influences all life on the planet. Although it accounts for only 1 % of the world's ocean volume, it significantly drives the global oceanic current system that connects all seas. It also governs the polar front jet stream, a high-altitude wind that influences atmospheric patterns in North America, Europe and Asia. These in turn have a major influence on regional rainfall and thus on the fresh water available, for example for agriculture and food production. In fact, the Arctic Ocean not only affects the climate in the Northern Hemisphere, but also the weather worldwide through the global network of ocean currents and climate cells. The Arctic Ocean also has a disproportionate impact on the planet through the albedo effect.


In what way?

Albedo describes the extent to which an object can reflect sun rays. The brighter the body, the higher the albedo. The white ice of the northern and southern polar regions keeps the Earth cool through the albedo effect, as it reflects much of the sun's thermal radiation back into space. If the ice recedes, the cooling effect is reduced.
The northern and southern polar regions differ in key points:
The South Pole lies on a mountainous continent covered in ice up to thousands of meters thick. The varied terrain reduces its albedo because the surface is neither uniformly exposed to light nor consistently shaped at right angles to effectively reflect it back into the atmosphere.
The North Pole, on the other hand, lies in the Arctic Ocean, which is only covered with ice a few meters thick. Where ice is present, the shallow sea surface has a greater albedo than the Antarctic land ice around the South Pole. On the other hand, sea ice is much more susceptible to melting and other disturbances than land ice. Due to man-made climate change, sea ice in the Arctic has declined sharply in the summer months, further accelerating global warming.


By what percentage has the Arctic sea ice melted since regular measurements began in 1979?

The summer sea ice area has shrunk by about 50 % and about 95 % of the thick, perennial ice has disappeared. The Arctic region is the fastest warming region on earth, having already warmed by 2 to 4°C. Parts of the Arctic Ocean have actually become up to 7°C warmer and there could be an ice-free summer in the Arctic Ocean in just over a decade if anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions remain high.

What does this entail?

As Arctic sea ice melts, the darker water surface absorbs more solar energy and warms further. The increased heat accelerates the melting of sea ice and also causes shifting or blocking of ocean current systems, leading to stronger tropical cyclones in other regions and weather changes in our climate zones. Marine life continues to migrate toward the poles in search of cooler water. These changes are now threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people.
The warmer ocean, in turn, warms the air, which then also melts the nearby land ice and puts humanity at risk of sea level rise due to massive melting of the Greenland ice sheet.
With the loss of ice cover and increasing warming, the northern polar regions are also becoming vulnerable to fires. In 2021, wildfires burned over 161,000 square kilometers of Siberian forest, an area larger than all the wildfires in Greece, Turkey, Italy, the United States and Canada combined that year. The CO2 emissions released in this way correspond to those of the entire German industry.

Thanks Karin. In the second part of our three-part series “Arctic Achilles Tendon”, former managing partner and marine biologist Dr. Alexis Katechakis looks at the development of the Arctic and economic temptations that look like sustainable opportunities. Read more here.