Most of us probably know more about ice on the Martian poles than our own Arctic and Antarctic regions. But thanks to the fourth edition of the International Polar Year (IPY), which was launched worldwide on March 1, scientists can now hope to learn more about the atmospheric, terrestrial and marine life of the north and south poles. Studies conducted during the three IPYs held in the last 125 years have helped raise levels of understanding about these regions. But this one gets under way with the looming shadow of climate change.
What happens in the Arctic and the Antarctic impacts the whole planet, because these regions have a crucial role in regulating the circulation of the world’s oceans, which control the weather systems and climate on every continent. According to Nasa’s latest Arctic Climate Impact Assessment report, temperatures in the kingdom of the polar bear are rising by twice the global average and could touch the
10-degree Celsius mark by 2090. As the Arctic heats up, it releases carbon dioxide — that bad boy of global warming — into the atmosphere, intensifying the warming. Climate change then virtually begins to feed on itself.
The ‘greenhouse effect’ by itself is, in fact, essential for making the planet habitable. We receive all our energy from the sun, and the atmosphere helps retain some of that energy. Without heat-trapping greenhouse gases (GHGs), Earth would be at the same temperature as the moon — about 34°C colder. Too much of anything, however, is bad and rising GHGs in the atmosphere is now melting the planet’s ice cover. Ice reflects sunlight back into space, and as it disappears, Earth absorbs more sunlight, which increases warming. Although this threatens all ecosystems (like rain forests, coral reefs, and the ozone shield), a glacier melt is the most dangerous.
Glaciers store 80 per cent of the world’s freshwater, collecting snow during wet times of the year and releasing it slowly as meltwater during drier times, when farmers need it most. With glaciers shrinking faster than they grow, a quarter of the global mountain glacier mass could disappear in 50 years, with disastrous consequences. The loss of the Arctic ice sheet alone could trigger a chain of eco-events that would change life on Earth as we know it.