The relentless increase in global warming has led to the loss of ice caps and glaciers in the Russian Arctic. Two archipelagos are losing enough meltwater to fill close to 5 million Olympic-size swimming pools every year, according to a study put out in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
The warming has increased to 3 times the global average and this is severely affecting the fragile ecology of the region. Studies based on satellite observation have measured the deviations in ice volume in numerous glaciers from 2010 to 2018 covering the Russian Arctic in great detail.
The studies have shown that the ice loss in the Severnaya Zemlya and the Novaya Zemlya archipelagos of the Russian Arctic is around 11.4B tons each year, according to a press release by the University of Edinburgh. Enough water to drown Holland under 7 ft. of water.
Researchers obtained such detailed data from the research satellite, CryoSat-2, of the European Space Agency. They used timelines and data to calculate ice loss and gain during the study period, according to the co-author of the study, Dr. Paul Tepes of the university’s School of GeoSciences.
The purpose of the study was not merely to study the loss of ice, but also to get to the bottom of the reason behind it. The data on the loss of ice in the Russian Arctic was compared with figures on climatic developments such as ocean and air temperatures.
Russian Arctic Ice Loss Directly Linked To Climate Change
They discovered that there was almost a direct relationship between the rise in the ocean and air temperatures and the loss of ice in the Russian Arctic. On the Novaya Zemlya, the link between ice loss and warm ocean and air temperatures was almost direct. But on the Severnaya Zemlya, they found that the ice loss was related to the warming of the ocean and was the main factor driving it. Warm Atlantic waters circulate along the continental margin of Eurasia.
The thinning of the ice cover is already beginning to have a huge impact on the region’s ice caps and glaciers. It has affected their stability, which in turn could trigger further loss of ice soon.
The ice caps are much larger than the glaciers and are several hundreds of meters thick, covering an area of up to 8,000 square miles in the Russian Arctic.
The improving quality of data from satellites has helped researchers explore the climatic influences behind the loss of ice in the Russian Arctic. Tepes said that it was a significant achievement and would help in predicting the loss of ice in the future in the Russian Arctic and other regions of the Arctic.
The study has proved that the region is losing ice at a significant rate. Just one ice cap nestled in the Severnaya Zemlya, the 84-billion ton Vavilov Ice Cap started surging forward in 2013 at a rate of 26 meters per second, dumping 4.5 billion tons of ice into the sea in a single year. the inland ice cap has lost 9.5 billion tons of ice between 2013 and 2018.
Scientists say that this is more than a simple glacial surge, which is a common phenomenon. They say that it is more of an ‘ice-steam,’ a sustained, fast-moving flow of ice moving from the glacier into the surrounding landscape, in this case, the sea of the Russian Arctic.
More Than A Simple Glacial Surge
The studies are just another growing evidence that there is a dramatic change taking place in the Russian Arctic. Vasily Yablokov, Climate and Energy head of Greenpeace Russia says that this tendency of reducing ice cover has been going on since the 1980s.
The thawing is affecting not just the ice caps and the glaciers that were part of the study. All rivers are also melting much earlier while freezing much later in winter. The Northern Sea Routes are virtually ice-free in the late summer months.
The change in ice cover portends ill for the human communities and the wildlife of the region. The worst affected are the iconic representation of the polar regions, the polar bears.
Permanent Damage Has Already Happened
The receding sea ice has meant the loss of their hunting lands. This has forced them to intrude into settlements. In 2019, a group of 52 bears invaded a town in Novaya Zelma forcing the town to declare an emergency.
Melting permafrost has damaged buildings and roads as the ground has sunk in the region. It has caused a major oil spill in 2020, the worst natural tragedy in the vast Russian Arctic recently.
The archipelagos that were the subject of study by Tepes have a negligible population. While Severnaya Zemlya virtually stays uninhabited, Novaya Zemlya is populated by both the Nenets, an indigenous group, and Russian settlers. But the chain of islands was depopulated for nuclear tests after WWII. But people have again moved.
Climatic change directly affects the local communities, and the marine and land animals in the Arctic and Subarctic. Most local communities have a long association with their land and its environment. Their livelihood is inextricably linked to the Russian Arctic. Shifting conditions put them under enormous pressure as most resources they rely on get depleted.
Both Yablokov and Tepes agree that action is necessary at every level; local, national, and global, to save the Russian Arctic region and the communities that subsist on them.
The vested interests of various countries are coming in the way of a coordinated effort to tackle this challenge, says Tepes. Yablokov points to the importance of the region in reflecting global climatic patterns. The Russian Arctic has to be protected and for that to happen, the world has to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.
But Russia plans to explore the region for its vast oil reserves. Tepes laments that policymakers seldom factor in coping strategies that would be effective at both global and local levels. Only decisions based on hard scientific facts can achieve that.