Warming of Arctic Explained

Please Share with maximum friends to support the Initiative.

This article was originally a part of Samajho's Corner Premium Content but has been unlocked for you to assess our quality of content.
Join Samajho's Corner Now to get full access to all Premium Articles for 18 months.

Relevance: GS I- Geographical features and their location- changes in critical geographical features (including water bodies and ice-caps) and in flora and fauna and the effects of such changes.

  • The Arctic is a polar region located at the northernmost part of Earth. The Arctic consists of the Arctic Ocean, adjacent seas, and parts of Alaska (United States), Canada, Finland, Greenland (Denmark), Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden.
  • Land within the Arctic region has seasonally varying snow and ice cover, with predominantly treeless permafrost (permanently frozen underground ice) containing tundra.
  • Arctic seas contain seasonal sea ice in many places.
  • Life in the Arctic includes zooplankton and phytoplankton, fish and marine mammals, birds, land animals, plants and human societies.
  • The Arctic region is a unique area among Earth's ecosystems. The cultures in the region and the Arctic indigenous peoples have adapted to its cold and extreme conditions.

  • How much Ice does the Arctic have?
    • This ice has historically ranged from roughly 14-16 million square kilometres (about 5.4-6.2 million square miles) in late winter to roughly 7 million square kilometres (about 2.7 million square miles) each September. In recent years, however, those numbers have been much lower.
    • Many global climate models predict that the Arctic will be ice-free for at least part of the year before the end of the 21st century. Some models predict the ice-free Arctic by mid-century. Depending on how much Arctic sea ice continues to melt, the ice could become extremely vulnerable to natural variability in cycles such as the Arctic Oscillation.
    • Declining sea ice will lead to a loss of habitat for seals and polar bears; it also would increase encounters between polar bears and humans. Indigenous peoples in the Arctic have already described changes in the health and numbers of polar bears.
    • As sea ice retreats from coastlines, wind-driven waves—combined with thawing permafrost—will likely lead to more rapid coastal erosion. Other potential impacts include changing weather patterns.

This map shows the extent of summer sea ice projected for 2040 and beyond, as viewed from the north pole.

The prediction is for a fringe of ice to remain in Northeast Canada and Northern Greenland when all other large areas of summer ice are gone

  • Why is Arctic sea ice important?
    • Arctic sea ice keeps the polar regions cool and helps moderate the global climate. Sea ice has a bright surface; 80% of the sunlight that strikes it is reflected back into space. As sea ice melts in the summer, it exposes the dark ocean surface. Instead of reflecting 80% of the sunlight, the ocean absorbs 90% of the sunlight. The oceans heat up, and Arctic temperatures rise further.
    • A small temperature increase at the poles leads to still greater warming over time, making the poles the most sensitive regions to climate change on Earth.
    • According to scientific measurements, both the thickness and extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic have shown a dramatic decline over the past thirty years. This is consistent with observations of a warming Arctic. The loss of sea ice also has the potential to accelerate global warming trends and to change climate patterns.
Arctic Warming

  • Hundreds of years ago, the Europeans saw the Arctic's frigid waters as a potential gateway to the Pacific. The region has also been home to many unique native cultures such as the Inuits and Chukchi.
  • However, the Arctic is also one of the last frontiers of natural resource discovery, and underneath the tundra and ice are vast amounts of undiscovered oil, natural gas, and minerals.
  • That's why there is a high-stakes race for Arctic domination between countries such as the United States, Norway, Russia, Denmark, and Canada.
  • The 2020 Arctic Report Card, a report led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) involving 133 scientists from 15 countries, points to trends that, with each passing year, have grown more extreme and have far-reaching implications for people living far outside the region, including in the Lower 48 states.
  • Climate feedbacks: Researchers say that the changes in the Arctic are worrisome because they could lead to feedback effects that lead to further warming. For instance, when the white sea ice melts in summer, areas of dark open water are exposed which can absorb more heat from the sun. That extra heat then helps melt even more ice. The loss of sea ice is known to be one of the drivers of Arctic amplification.
  • Permafrost may also be involved in feedbacks. As permafrost thaws, plants and animals that were frozen in the ground begin to decay. When they decay, they release carbon dioxide and methane back to the atmosphere that can contribute to further warming.
  • The changing vegetation of the Arctic also affects the brightness of the surface, which then influences warming. As the Arctic atmosphere warms, it can hold more water vapour, which is an important greenhouse gas.
  • How could Arctic warming contribute to greenhouse gas emissions?
    • Carbon is currently trapped as organic matter in the permafrost (frozen soil) that underlies much of the Arctic. Large amounts of carbon accumulate particularly in the vast waterlogged peat bogs of Siberia and parts of North America.
    • During the summer, when the surface layer of the permafrost thaws, organic matter in this layer decomposes, releasing methane and carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Warming increases these releases and can create an amplifying feedback loop whereby more warming causes additional releases, which would cause more warming, and so on.
    • The potential magnitude of these releases is affected by soil moisture and numerous other factors and is thus subject to substantial uncertainties.
  • Methane and Carbon Dioxide in Forests and Tundra
    • The boreal forests and arctic tundra contain some of the world's largest land-based stores of carbon, primarily in the form of plant material in the forests and as soil carbon in the tundra.
    • Methane is about 23 times as potent at trapping heat in the earth's atmosphere as carbon dioxide (by weight, over a 100- year time horizon). Methane is produced by the decomposition of dead plant material in wet soils such as mires and tundra ponds.
    • The release of methane to the atmosphere is generally accelerated by rising temperatures and precipitation, although in areas where drying occurs, methane may be absorbed by forest and tundra soils.
What are the adverse impacts of Article warming? 
  • Albedo:
    • Acting like a highly reflective blanket, the Arctic cryosphere protects Earth from getting too warm. Snow and ice have a high albedo.
    • They reflect much of the insolation, which helps in cooling the earth. Thus, the presence or absence of snow and ice affects the heating and cooling of the Earth’s surface. This influences the entire planet’s energy balance.
    • Less Ice on Land Means Sea Level Rises:
      • Sea level has been rising about 1-2 millimetres each year as the Earth has become warmer. Some of the sea-level rise due to melting glaciers and ice sheets which add water to the oceans that were once trapped on land. Certain glaciers and ice sheets are particularly vulnerable.
      • Global warming has caused them to be less stable, to move faster towards the ocean, and add more ice into the water.  If the Greenland Ice Sheet melted or moved into the ocean, the global sea level would rise by approximately 6.5 meters.
  • Feedback Loop:
    • As global warming causes more snow and ice to melt each summer, the ocean and land that were underneath the ice are exposed at the Earth’s surface. Because they are darker in colour, the ocean and land absorb more incoming solar radiation and then release the heat to the atmosphere.
    • This causes more global warming. In this way, melting ice causes more warming and so more ice melts. This is known as a feedback loop.
    • Melting Permafrost Releases Greenhouse Gas:
      • Global warming is causing soils in the polar regions that have been frozen for as much as 40,000 years to thaw. As they thaw, carbon trapped within the soils is released into the atmosphere as methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
      • The methane released into the atmosphere causes more global warming, which then melts more of the frozen soils.
  • Ocean Acidification:
    • Scientists are also warning of a more immediate potential threat from melting permafrost, suggesting that methane released from seafloor permafrost in the Arctic Ocean could enhance ocean acidification in that region over the next century.
  • Storage of Carbon:
    • The cryosphere locks the greatest amount of CO2 in the world. The permafrost of the polar region has trapped tonnes of carbon inside its soil. If the feedback loop aggravates, this carbon will be released in form of methane- a powerful greenhouse gas- which will catalyze global warming. Thus preventing a potential rise of many degrees in global temperatures.
    • Arctic biodiversity under serious threat from climate change:
      • The distribution of flora and fauna is shifting northwards as the Arctic continues to warm.
      • Ice dependent species such as narwhals, polar bears, and walruses are at increasing risk with shrinking sea ice cover.
      • By 2100, polar bears could face starvation and reproductive failure even in far northern Canada.
      • Increasing human encroachment with its attendant stresses will only aggravate this impact and upset a fragile balance.
  • Other Effects:
    • Have major impacts on water supply, food production, availability of potable water, freshwater ecosystems, and the risk of floods and droughts.
What are the impacts of Arctic warming on India? 
  • The extensive coastline of India makes it most vulnerable to the impact of Arctic warming as- 
  • It is found that rising temperatures in the Arctic region is causing the sea-ice to melt faster than expected, impacting a major ocean current linked to extreme weather events. 
  • India is particularly impacted due to the likely effect of these changes on critical aspects of national development, economic security, water security and sustainability, weather conditions and monsoon patterns, coastal erosion and glacial melting.
  • Indian agriculture is heavily dependent on the monsoons. It receives around seventy per cent of its annual rainfall during this season. The yield of staple summer crops which account for almost fifty per cent of India’s food output is dependent upon the precipitation during this period.
  • A good monsoon is critical for India’s food security and the wellbeing of its vast rural sector. Changes in the Arctic and global ecosystem induced by melting Arctic ice can thus be highly disruptive for India.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us the scale of disruption that can be caused by pathogens. Climate change-induced melting of ice bears similar portents. The thawing of permafrost soil could potentially release viruses and bacteria that have lain dormant for thousands of years, thereby increasing the propensity of pandemics.
  • There are several synergies between polar studies and the study of the Himalayas. Arctic research will help India’s scientific community to study the melting rates of the third pole – the Himalayan glaciers.
What are the opportunities due to the melting of ice and opening the Arctic region? 

  • The opening of the Arctic presents huge commercial and economic opportunities such as shipping, energy, fisheries, and mineral resources. 
  • New shipping route– The shrinking of ice on The Northern Sea Route will open new possibilities for shipping companies.
  • The distance from Rotterdam to Yokohama will be cut by 40% compared to the Suez route. 
  • Raw materials underground– The area above the Arctic Circle is underlain by sedimentary basins and continental shelves that hold enormous oil and natural gas resources. 
  • The Arctic holds about  22% of the world’s undiscovered  conventional oil and natural gas resource base along with mineral deposits including 25% of the global reserves of rare earth, buried in Greenland.
  • What are the challenges in doing so? 
    • First, Navigation conditions are restrictive and dangerous due to to-  extreme conditions: ice floes, fog, imprecise charts
    • Lack of search and rescue infrastructure and lack of deep-water ports.
    • Second, added cost of navigation in polar waters –  more expensive shipbuilding and crew training requirements need for ice-breakers, high insurance costs
    • Mining and deep-sea drilling carry massive costs and environmental risks. 
    • These difficulties may provide a crucial window to work out norms that are focused on balanced and sustainable development. However, the Arctic is not a global common and there is no overarching treaty that governs it. 
  • Global Impact
    • The opening of more Arctic routes will lead to the prosperity of already well-off nations and hence would deepen the North-South divide.
    • The supply of these energy resources is independent of political conflicts as in the Middle East.
    • Increased access to natural resources will require all levels of Arctic governance to readjust and cope with new challenges. This will also include synergies with lower levels of governance, especially regional and local levels.
    • Also, it will be important to maintain a fruitful climate of cooperation at all levels to attract the most keenly needed investment for development, disaster prevention, and adaptation.
    • Shipping routes will shift from politically unstable regions like Western Asia and piracy-infested routes like the South China Sea, the Malacca Straits and the Gulf of Aden.
    • Decreased reliance on the Middle East region (Gulf nations), Thereby altering the geo-political and economic relations among the global community.
    • Terrorist actions could target Arctic installations with substantial commercial and environmental consequences.
  • Consequences of Oil Discovery in the Arctic
    • Drilling for oil in some areas of the Arctic could cause toxins such as arsenic, mercury and lead to be released into ocean waters, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Toxic chemicals are not only found in the oil from oil spills, but also in the environmental contaminants that are found from the drilling process itself.
    • One of the most common chemicals found in oil is a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), which causes deformities and physiological defects in fishes’ hearts.
    • The permafrosts in this region are carbon sinks. Green House gasses trapped within them are potent when released by drilling can accelerate global warming.
    • Excessive oceanic noises during the extraction process will cause damage to aquatic species like whales which use sound for navigation and hunting. Pollution by drilling can impact life forms in the region. Possibility of commercial fishing due to the opening of sea Lanes disrupting the fragile ecosystem.
    • Their relative imprint in geopolitical terms will increase in a resource-constrained world. This might be the return of COLD WAR, as the US and Russia will try their best to dominate the Arctic region.
    • Decreased reliance on the Middle East region (Gulf nations), Thereby altering the geo-political and economic relations among the global community.
    • The carbon-based growth will derail the focus of world economies from renewable and clean sources of energy, which are important to reverse global warming.
    • Climate change due to ocean drilling will also affect marine fishing, a fundamental source of income in the circumpolar world, with a total fish catch in the Arctic accounting for 10.1% of the global catch.
  • How are Russia and china using Arctic geopolitics as a strategic posture? 
    • First, Russian priority is to ensure the Northern Fleet’s access to, and passage along, the Northern Sea Route (NSR) from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.  
    • Second, Russia has deployed substantive force and capabilities along its northern border, including through an exercise with China in the eastern Arctic. 
    • Third, China in the Arctic- China’s economic partnership with Russia in the Arctic with a focus on projecting the Polar Silk Road as an extension of the BRI, and has invested heavily in ports, energy, undersea infrastructure and mining projects.
    • Thus, an active China in the Arctic and its growing economic and strategic relationship with Russia need close monitoring. 
International law And The Arctic
  • With the melting of ice, the Arctic’s vast reservoirs of fossil fuel, fish and minerals, including rare earth materials, are now accessible for a longer period.
  • But unlike Antarctica, which is protected from exploitation by the Antarctic Treaty framed during the Cold War and is not subject to territorial claims by any country there is no legal regime protecting the Arctic from industrialization, especially at a time when the world craves for more and more resources.
  • Due to climate change, the Arctic sea ice is melting at an alarming rate. Because of this change, the Arctic drilling season is limited to the few months of summer.
  • The Arctic consists of land, internal waters, territorial seas, exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and high seas above the Arctic Circle (66 degrees 33 minutes north latitude).
  • All land, internal waters, territorial seas and EEZs in the Arctic are under the jurisdiction of one of the eight Arctic coastal states that regulate this area as with other portions of the Earth.
  • Under international law, the high seas including the North Pole and the region of the Arctic Ocean surrounding it, are not owned by any country.
  • The five surrounding Arctic countries are limited to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles (370 km; 230 mi) adjacent to their coasts.
  • The waters beyond the EEZs of the coastal states are considered the “high seas” (i.e. international waters).
  • The sea bottom beyond the exclusive economic zones and confirmed extended continental shelf claims are considered to be the “heritage of all mankind” where exploration and exploitation of mineral resources are administered by the UN International Seabed Authority.
  • Upon ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a country has a ten-year period to make claims to an extended continental shelf which, if validated, gives it exclusive rights to resources on or below the seabed of that extended shelf area.
  • Norway, Russia, Canada, and Denmark launched projects to provide a basis for seabed claims on extended continental shelves beyond their exclusive economic zones.
  • The United States has signed, but not yet ratified the UNCLOS.
    • The status of certain portions of the Arctic sea region is in dispute for various reasons. Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States all regard parts of the Arctic seas as national waters (territorial waters out to 12 nautical miles (22 km)) or internal waters. There also are disputes regarding what passages constitute international seaways and rights to passage along with them.
    • There is one single disputed piece of land in the Arctic— Hans Island—which is disputed between Canada and Denmark because of its location in the middle of an international strait.
    • The untapped treasure bounded by ice and water has brought a storm in world politics. Arctic countries are trying to assert their dominance in the Arctic using the UN Convention on the Law Of the Sea.
    • The Arctic nations want to reap the riches, while the non-Arctic nations want the pole to be preserved as a global commons, such as Antarctica or the international sea.


  • The Arctic Council is the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic. This article contains a backgrounder on the Arctic Council and its work.
    • The Arctic Council is the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.
    • The Ottawa Declaration lists the following countries as Members of the
    • Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States.
    • In addition, six organizations representing Arctic indigenous peoples have status as Permanent Participants. The category of Permanent Participant was created to provide for active participation and full consultation with the Arctic indigenous peoples within the Council.
    • They include:
      • the Aleut International Association,
      • the Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich'in Council International,
      • the Inuit Circumpolar Council,
      • Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and
      • the Saami Council.
    • Observer status in the Arctic Council is open to non-Arctic states, along with inter-governmental, inter-parliamentary, global, regional and non-governmental organizations that the Council determines can contribute to its work. Arctic Council Observers primarily contribute through their engagement in the Council at the level of Working Groups.
    • The standing Arctic Council Secretariat formally became operational in 2013 in Tromsø, Norway. It was established to provide administrative capacity, institutional memory, enhanced communication and outreach and general support to the activities of the Arctic Council.
    • The work of the Council is primarily carried out in six Working Groups.
    • The Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP) acts as a strengthening and supporting mechanism to encourage national actions to reduce emissions and other releases of pollutants.
    • The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) monitors the Arctic environment, ecosystems and human populations, and provides scientific advice to support governments as they tackle pollution and adverse effects of climate change
    • The Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Working Group (CAFF) addresses the conservation of Arctic biodiversity, working to ensure the sustainability of the Arctic’s living resources.
    • The Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group (EPPR) works to protect the Arctic environment from the threat or impact of an accidental release of pollutants or radionuclides.
    • The Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group is the focal point of the Arctic Council’s activities related to the protection and sustainable use of the Arctic marine environment.
    • The Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) works to advance sustainable development in the Arctic and to improve the conditions of Arctic communities as a whole.
    • The Council may also establish Task Forces or Expert Groups to carry out specific work.


Difference between the Arctic and Antarctic sea ice

  • The primary difference between the Arctic and Antarctica is geographical. The Arctic is an ocean, covered by a thin layer of perennial sea ice and surrounded by land.  Antarctica, on the other hand, is a continent, covered by a very thick ice cap and surrounded by a rim of sea ice and the Southern Ocean.
  • The Arctic Ocean is very deep and closely linked with the climate systems around it, making it more sensitive to climate changes than Antarctica.
  • During the centuries of human exploration in the Arctic, sea ice covered the Arctic Ocean well year-round, up until recent decades. But satellite observations show that Arctic sea ice has been declining in extent*, thickness and volume since 1979.1 Average Arctic sea ice extent is at its lowest since 1850.

  • During the summer melt season, the sea ice’s edge retreats toward the North Pole, only to re-grow during the Arctic winter. As a result of ongoing warming driven by human activities, the trend toward summer sea ice loss continues.


Way Forward

  • The only way to deal with Arctic amplification is by halting global warming as a whole.
  • The Paris Agreement provides a clear vision of limiting global warming. Cutting fossil fuel emissions, conservation of forests and afforestation and carbon sequestration are some of the ways to bring down the global temperature levels.
  • The challenge will be to improve the relationship between science and policy. The issues arent’ going to change, but individual problems can be tackled given a modicum of political will and imagination.
  • As the changes will be of an essentially transboundary nature, and no global power will be able to act alone to face them, Arctic states will be called to coordinate among themselves and with an increasing number of non-Arctic states and non-state actors.
  • While new economic opportunities arise, they also induce severe environmental impacts and risks. So the model of exploration should be based on cost-benefit analysis. Increasing oil, gas and mineral exploration, shipping and tourism put pressure on the vulnerable Arctic environment.
  • It is essential to have clear and effective policies in place to manage these risks. There is an urgent requirement of a regulating body that can set some rules and regulations to keep the process less harmful to the environment and the people associated with it.
  • Strengthen bilateral regulatory arrangements within all the Arctic Council Nations.


  • There is little doubt that the developments taking place in the Arctic will have significant and perhaps even irreversible impacts on the global ecology, the global economy and the distribution of political power. Also, there have been no substantial global initiatives to decide on how the Arctic should be governed.
  • By increasing investments and knowledge flows towards renewable options, that are abundant and un-perishing, the focus from the carbon economy can be shifted to a sustainable one.

Please Share with maximum friends to support the Initiative.

Download the Samajho App

Join 5 lakh+ students in downloading PDF Notes for 2000+ Topics relevant for UPSC Civil Services Exam. &nbsp Samajho Android App: https://bit.ly/3H9hva1 Samajho iOS App: https://apple.co/3H8ZJE2 &nbsp Samajho IAS Youtube Channel (300K+ Subscribers): https://www.youtube.com/@SamajhoIAS