Polar Regions

The environmental impacts of climate change show profound regional differences both within and between the polar regions (very high confidence).

The impacts of climate change in the Arctic over the next hundred years are likely to exceed the changes forecast for many other regions. However, the complexity of responses in biological and human systems, and the fact that they are subject to additive multiple stresses, means that the impacts of climate change on these systems remain difficult to predict. Changes on the Antarctic Peninsula, sub-Antarctic islands and Southern Ocean have also been rapid, and in future dramatic impacts are expected. Evidence of ongoing change over the rest of the Antarctic continent is less conclusive and prediction of the likely impacts is thus difficult. For both polar regions, economic impacts are especially difficult to address due to the lack of available information [15.2.1,15.3.2,15.3.3].

There is a growing evidence of the impacts of climate change on ecosystems in both polar regions (high confidence).

There has been a measured change in composition and range of plants and animals on the Antarctic Peninsula and on the sub-Antarctic islands. There is a documented increase in the overall greenness of parts of the Arctic, an increase in biological productivity, a change in species ranges (e.g., shifts from tundra to shrublands), some changes in position of the northern limit of trees, and changes in the range and abundance of some animal species. In both the Arctic and Antarctic, research indicates that such changes in biodiversity and vegetation zone relocation will continue. The poleward migration of existing species and competition from invading species is already occurring, and will continue to alter species composition and abundance in terrestrial and aquatic systems. Associated vulnerabilities are related to loss of biodiversity and the spread of animal-transmitted diseases [15.2.2, 15.4.2].

The continuation of hydrological and cryospheric changes will have significant regional impacts on Arctic freshwater, riparian and near-shore marine systems (high confidence).

The combined discharge of Eurasian rivers draining into the Arctic Ocean shows an increase since the 1930s, largely consistent with increased precipitation, although changes to cryospheric processes (snowmelt and permafrost thaw) are also modifying routing and seasonality of flow [15.3.1,15.4.1].

The retreat of Arctic sea ice over recent decades has led to improved marine access, changes in coastal ecology/biological production, adverse effects on many ice-dependent marine mammals, and increased coastal wave action (high confidence).

Continued loss of sea ice will produce regional opportunities and problems; reductions in freshwater ice will affect lake and river ecology and biological production, and will require changes in water-based transportation. For many stakeholders, economic benefits may accrue, but some activities and livelihoods may be adversely affected [15.ES, 15.4.7,15.4.3,15.4.1,15.4.1].

Around the Antarctic Peninsula, a newly documented decline in krill abundance, together with an increase in salp abundance, has been attributed to a regional reduction in the extent and duration of sea ice (medium confidence).

If there is a further decline in sea ice, a further decline in krill is likely, impacting predators higher up the food chain [15.2.2,15.6.3].

Warming of areas of the northern polar oceans has had a negative impact on community composition, biomass and distribution of phytoplankton and zooplankton (medium confidence).

The impact of present and future changes on higher predators, fish and fisheries will be regionally specific, with some beneficial and some detrimental effects [15.2.2].

Many Arctic human communities are already adapting to climate change (high confidence).

Indigenous people have exhibited resilience to changes in their local environments for thousands of years. Some indigenous communities are adapting through changes in wildlife management regimes and hunting practices. However, stresses in addition to climate change, together with a migration into small remote communities and increasing involvement in employment economies and sedentary occupations, will challenge adaptive capacity and increase vulnerability. Some traditional ways of life are being threatened and substantial investments are needed to adapt or relocate physical structures and communities [15.4.6,15.5,15.7].

A less severe climate in northern regions will produce positive economic benefits for some communities (very high confidence).

The benefits will depend on particular local conditions but will, in places, include reduced heating costs, increased agricultural and forestry opportunities, more navigable northern sea routes and marine access to resources [15.4.2].

The impacts of future climate change in the polar regions will produce feedbacks that will have globally significant consequences over the next hundred years (high confidence).

Figure TS.16. Vegetation of the Arctic and neighbouring regions. Top: present-day, based on floristic surveys. Bottom: modelled for 20902100 under the IS92a emissions scenario. [F15.2]

A continued loss of land-based ice will add to global sea-level rise. A major impact could result from a weakening of the thermohaline circulation due to a net increase in river flow into the Arctic Ocean and the resulting increased flux of freshwater into the North Atlantic. Under CO2-doubling, total river flow into the Arctic Ocean is likely to increase by up to 20%. Warming will expose more bare ground in the Arctic (Figure TS.16) and on the Antarctic Peninsula, to be colonised by vegetation. Recent models predict a decrease in albedo due to loss of ice and changing vegetation, and that the tundra will be a small sink for carbon, although increased methane emissions from the thawing permafrost could contribute to climate warming [15.4.1,15.4.2].

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