Not Vegas: What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic

Hey Santa, you better watch out, you might want to cry, you’ll probably pout — I’m telling you why: Climate change is melting the Arctic, and it means less food and longer bouts of extreme weather for us all.

The Arctic sea ice resembles Swiss cheese as researchers investigate the melt ponds. Photo/NASA
The Arctic sea ice resembles Swiss cheese as researchers investigate the melt ponds. Photo/NASA

Scientists called attention to the snowball effect of Arctic weather during “Santa’s Revenge: The Impacts of Arctic Warming on the Mid-Latitudes,” one of numerous lectures at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting this weekend at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.

“Thirty years ago the ice was so much thicker it could take a punch back then. Now it can’t,” said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo.

Thawing permafrost releases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, which “exacerbates global warming,” Serreze said. He added that the Arctic temperature is two to three times greater than the global average because reduction of the ice shield allows solar radiation to seep directly into the Earth.

The melting Arctic is not only Santa’s problem. Like lava oozing down the sides of a volcano, temperatures at the top of the world trickle down into lower latitudes, wreaking havoc with regional weather patterns.

“It’s not Vegas,” said David Titley, director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk. “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”

Record-setting warming trends in the top half of the world stimulate hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts and heat waves, spearheading dramatic property damage and human suffering.

“The reason I think we’re so concerned about climate is because of the impact on us, ourselves, our neighbors, our families, our cities, our children, our grandchildren,” Titley said.

Warmer Arctic air is pushing around jet streams, amplifying longer periods of extreme weather around the globe, said Jennifer Francis, a researcher at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences.

“We’re really on a one-way trip for Arctic change,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oceanographer James Overland said. “Even if you had five or six really cold years… it wouldn’t be enough to reverse the sea ice loss.”

Scientists James Overland (right) and Mark Serreze (left) answer questions about Arctic warming. Serreze presided over the discussion since the original moderator was kept out of town due to bad weather conditions.  Jennifer Draper/MEDILL
Scientists James Overland (right) and Mark Serreze (left) answer questions about Arctic warming. Serreze presided over the discussion since the original moderator was kept out of town due to bad weather conditions.
Jennifer Draper/MEDILL

A North Pole sans ice limits the amount of freshwater available in the U.S. and other countries around the world, stifling agriculture and other industries dependent on such resources.

“If you’re looking for a unifying theme on climate change, water is a pretty good one,” Titley said. “Too much, too little, wrong place, wrong time, salty where it used to be fresh, liquid where it used to be frozen, wet where it used to be dry — especially if you’re in Miami or New Orleans or Hampton Roads — the water is a key part.”

By 2050 most crops will have undergone environmental stress due to limited water capacities triggered by increasing temperatures. And as a result, there will be more diseased grains and mushier apples, with higher food prices, according to Jerry Hatfield, director of the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment.

In addition to smaller supplies of major U.S. exports like wheat, soybeans and corn, Hatfield said the productivity of cool season vegetable crops, such as broccoli and kale, is projected to decrease by 20 to 30 percent.

“The competition between what we have, our uses of water in a broader sense, is going to intensify,” said the agricultural climatology expert. “And the water demand to keep 7 billion to 9 billion people with water is going to become a tremendous pull on our resources.”

Genetically modifying plants to withstand impending climate stressors is only part of the solution to maintaining food security, Hatfield said. But as Titley pointed out, it may rely mostly on humanity’s ability to adapt to the changing conditions.

“As we go into the future, we’re going to be very, very dependent on a stable food production supply to avoid starvation around the world,” Hatfield said. “When we start seeing major changes in climate it will further erode our capabilities of being able to meet that global demand.”

Arctic climate change suggests future children may sneak fewer veggies to the dog under the dinner table and should picture Santa on a jet ski instead of a sleigh.