Climate Change 2001:
Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability
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5.7. Polar Regions

Climate change in the polar region is expected to be among the greatest of any region on Earth. Twentieth century data for the Arctic show a warming trend of as much as 5°C over extensive land areas (very high confidence), while precipitation has increased (low confidence). There are some areas of cooling in eastern Canada. The extent of sea ice has decreased by 2.9% per decade, and it has thinned over the 1978-1996 period (high confidence). There has been a statistically significant decrease in spring snow extent over Eurasia since 1915 (high confidence). The area underlain by permafrost has been reduced and has warmed (very high confidence). The layer of seasonally thawed ground above permafrost has thickened in some areas, and new areas of extensive permafrost thawing have developed. In the Antarctic, a marked warming trend is evident in the Antarctic Peninsula, with spectacular loss of ice shelves (high confidence). The extent of higher terrestrial vegetation on the Antarctic Peninsula is increasing (very high confidence). Elsewhere, warming is less definitive. There has been no significant change in the Antarctic sea ice since 1973, although it apparently retreated by more than 3° of latitude between the mid-1950s and the early 1970s (medium confidence). []

The Arctic is extremely vulnerable to climate change, and major physical, ecological, and economic impacts are expected to appear rapidly. A variety of feedback mechanisms will cause an amplified response, with consequent impacts on other systems and people. There will be different species compositions on land and sea, poleward shifts in species assemblages, and severe disruptions for communities of people who lead traditional lifestyles. In developed areas of the Arctic and where the permafrost is ice-rich, special attention will be required to mitigate the detrimental impacts of thawing, such as severe damage to buildings and transport infrastructure (very high confidence). There also will be beneficial consequences of climatic warming, such as reduced demand for heating energy. Substantial loss of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean will be favorable for opening of Arctic sea routes and ecotourism, which may have large implications for trade and for local communities. [,,,]

In the Antarctic, projected climate change will generate impacts that will be realized slowly (high confidence). Because the impacts will occur over a long period, however, they will continue long after GHG emissions have stabilized. For example, there will be slow but steady impacts on ice sheets and circulation patterns of the global ocean, which will be irreversible for many centuries into the future and will cause changes elsewhere in the world, including a rise of sea level. Further substantial loss of ice shelves is expected around the Antarctic Peninsula. Warmer temperatures and reduced sea-ice extent are likely to produce long-term changes in the physical oceanography and ecology of the Southern Ocean, with intensified biological activity and increased growth rates of fish. [,]

Polar regions contain important drivers of climate change. The Southern Ocean's uptake of carbon is projected to reduce substantially as a result of complex physical and biological processes. GHG emissions from tundra caused by changes in water content, decomposition of exposed peat, and thawing of permafrost are expected to increase. Reductions in the extent of highly reflective snow and ice will magnify warming (very high confidence). Freshening of waters from increased Arctic runoff and increased rainfall, melt of Antarctic ice shelves, and reduced sea-ice formation will slow the thermohaline circulations of the North Atlantic and Southern Oceans and reduce the ventilation of deep ocean waters. [16.3.1]

Adaptation to climate change will occur in natural polar ecosystems, mainly through migration and changing mixes of species. Some species may become threatened (e.g., walrus, seals, and polar bears), whereas others may flourish (e.g., caribou and fish). Although such changes may be disruptive to many local ecological systems and particular species, the possibility remains that predicted climate change eventually may increase the overall productivity of natural systems in polar regions. [16.3.2]

For indigenous communities who follow traditional lifestyles, opportunities for adaptation to climate change are limited (very high confidence). Changes in sea ice, seasonality of snow, habitat, and diversity of food species will affect hunting and gathering practices and could threaten longstanding traditions and ways of life. Technologically developed communities are likely to adapt quite readily to climate change by adopting altered modes of transport and by increased investment to take advantage of new commercial and trade opportunities. [16.3.2]

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