Arctic and Antarctica


The remote regions of the Arctic and Antarctic may seem like distant worlds away that are unworthy of our attention, however understanding the dynamics of our icy environments couldn’t be more deserving and important in the present day. Accelerated warming of the atmosphere and oceans, rapid melting of giant ice sheets, vast losses in sea ice, thawing permafrost and changing polar ecosystems are transforming these environments, with knock-on implications for global climate and weather. Understanding how and why climate change is affecting the polar regions is only one part of the picture, as we must also acknowledge the contemporary challenges now faced by local communities, and how a changing Arctic is driving new opportunities for economic activity and political leverage.

The Arctic and Antarctic make up our polar regions, and whilst Antarctica is a single land mass and its own continent, the Arctic encompasses the most northern parts of eight countries. These cold environments are hotspots for climate change as they are warming 2-4 times faster than the global average, because of an important environmental feedback called the ice-albedo feedback loop. The ice that covers these areas is white and shiny, reflecting nearly all the radiation from the Sun that reaches the surface, keeping the polar regions cool, but when ice is lost as temperatures rise, less solar radiation is reflected and the Earth’s surface warms quicker than it would in a non-icy environment. This is the basis of understanding why rapid change is occurring in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Polar regions

The polar regions are climatically connected to the rest of
the planet via giant atmospheric circulations and ocean currents, which
transport heat, energy and moisture around the Earth. Therefore, rapid warming
in the Arctic and Antarctic has worldwide consequences for weather patterns
elsewhere and can be traced to some extreme storms experienced here in the UK. Pivotal
to climate change science is the rapid changes occurring to ice sheets and
glaciers, which lock up enough ice to raise global sea level by 65m if they
were to melt into the oceans. Glaciers that terminate at the ocean are often fringed
by floating ice shelves that increase the structural stability of the upstream
glacier by slowing its flow, therefore restricting discharge of grounded (on
land) ice into the ocean where it contributes to sea level. The stability and
longevity of ice shelves has attracted a lot of scientific attention in
response to colossal iceberg calving, disintegration and melting of large ice
shelves in Antarctica. Sea ice (frozen seawater) is another important component
of polar environments, where it forms a habitat for seals, penguins and polar
bears, and can act to further stabilise ice shelves. As sea ice is in direct
contact with the ocean and atmosphere, it is particularly sensitive to climatic
change and stark declines in sea ice extents have been observed in both the
Arctic and Antarctic.

The Arctic is home to nearly 4 million people, with nearly a
tenth of its population native communities that have lived off the land for thousands
of years. These indigenous and nomadic peoples have strong nature-based
livelihoods, relying on hunting, fishing and herding to sustain their
communities. Their traditional activities and way of life is threatened by a
rapidly changing environment, as well as globalisation and the introduction of
modern technologies, transport and economies. Conflicts that have arisen in
response to Western interests extending into indigenous societies has led to
the international recognition of the human and political rights of indigenous
populations, including their right to land and resources central to their
culture and survival.

Economic activity in the polar regions has boomed in recent
decades. The Arctic waters are highly productive fishing grounds due to
abundant commercially-viable fish stocks, which is also being driven by the
northwards shift of important fish species to colder waters. Years of
overfishing and sea ice decline that has opened up new fishing zones for
vessels to access has fuelled tensions over the ownership and rights of Arctic
countries to fishing grounds, and has led to disputes over illegal and
unregulated fishing, threatening the sustainable management of Arctic
fisheries. Mining is also anticipated to increase with the growing demand for
metals, of which the Arctic holds plentiful resources. Similar to the nature of
fishing, the fragile environment may struggle to recover from the damage caused
by large industrial-scale mines, and may interfere with the activities of
nearby indigenous settlements. Failings in governance and legislation has meant
that powerful economies have easily exploited the natural resources of the

Heightened geopolitical tensions have been the result of
these environmental, social and economic changes. Many nations are keen to
exert their presence and influence over the polar regions and have access to
their abundant natural resources. In efforts to do so, the Arctic has become
increasingly militarised as nations seek to defend their claims and national
interests. Emerging threats such as the interest of non-Arctic nations including
China is adding to the troubling situation in the Arctic. It is now vitally
important for effective governance and co-operation to ensure sustainable
management of resources, protection of populations and continued scientific
research into the worrying effects of climate change.

Resource activities

Climate change: Science and society

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Activity questions

  • What are the main environmental changes occurring in the polar regions at present?
  • Why is loss of sea ice both an ecological and geopolitical concern?
  • How can we sustainably manage natural resources in the Arctic and increase climate resilience for its population?

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