Arctic Tipping Points Can Ripple Around the World

JACOBSHAVN BAY, GREENLAND - AUGUST 24: (ISRAEL OUT) Icebergs float in the Jacobshavn Bay on August 24, 2007 near the town of
JACOBSHAVN BAY, GREENLAND - AUGUST 24: (ISRAEL OUT) Icebergs float in the Jacobshavn Bay on August 24, 2007 near the town of Ilulissat, Greenland. Scientists believe that Greenland, with its melting ice caps and disappearing glaciers, is an accurate thermometer of global warming. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Recently, I was invited to Anchorage, Alaska, by the U.S. State Department to join Barack Obama, John Kerry and other world leaders to discuss Arctic resilience in the context of rising impacts from climate change.

The Arctic is one of the last remaining wildernesses. The unforgiving conditions ensure it remains sparsely populated. As a result, some of the most dramatic changes on the planet are occurring far from view. Here communities, from the Alaskan Yupik to the Greenland Inuit native tribes, have developed and adapted resilient societies for millennia. But now the Arctic is changing faster than ever before in modern history, as a result of human-caused climate change and ecosystem degradation. More worryingly, we are seeing the first signs that the Arctic is approaching tipping points that, like toppling dominos, are likely to lead to a cascade of events that will affect us all.

Without dramatic reductions in greenhouse gases, by the end of the century much of the Arctic is predicted to be more than five degrees warmer than today, and in places nine or 10 degrees. There will be no sea ice in the summer months leading to other abrupt, potentially irreversible, ecological and physical changes -- sea ice this summer has already dropped well below the long-term average. The Arctic Ocean will become more acidic, corroding anything with a shell. The stability of the Greenland ice sheet -- which contains enough water to raise sea levels globally by at least six meters -- will be in doubt. The so-called Atlantic thermohaline circulation, including the Gulf Stream and its warm waters that ensure a mild northern-European climate, is in jeopardy. And the melting permafrost is already buckling buildings, roads and pipelines and may lead to a large release of methane, a gas more than 20 times as potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

In fact, the Stockholm Resilience Centre has identified 16 potential "regime shifts" or tipping points in the Arctic, ranging from collapse of salmon stocks to a complete transition of the Inuit way of life. Twelve of these regime shifts will be difficult to reverse in a human lifetime. The reason is that feedbacks change, which causes systems to self-reinforce warming. In the case of Greenland, for example, when ice melts, the surface changes color from white, which reflects almost all incoming solar heat back to space, to a darker water surface, which absorbs heat.

These changes indicate the importance of understanding resilience in vast ecosystems like the Arctic and how to create societies that can cope with inevitable shocks. Resilience is the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals, which will be launched at the end of the month at the UN General Assembly in New York. Goal 9 focuses specifically on resilient infrastructure, sustainable industrialization and innovation.

But resilience is often misunderstood. It is not only about rolling with the punches and recovering from shocks. A resilient system, be it a city or planet, is where diversity is encouraged, connectivity is managed and new information is absorbed and used. This renewal and capacity to live with change is the foundation to weather the storm and bounce back stronger and more flexible than before.

We now know our globally connected society can expect faster changes and more shocks cascading through ecosystems and economies, where a small change in the ecology of the Arctic or the economics of the U.S. subprime housing market can ripple around the world.

In a matter of decades, we have become a big world on a small planet. We now have enough scientific knowledge to show that the stable, healthy biosphere that we have taken for granted for more than 10,000 years has reached a tipping point, where humans now dominate and its future state is, ironically, less predictable.

We will need resilient infrastructure in the Arctic to weather the expected changes. But in the lifetime of the goals, we also need to monitor closely this fragile ecosystem. This is a critical period of transition. We need to reduce the combined pressure of warming, ocean acidification, pollution and overfishing. As myself and colleagues argue in the Earth Statement, the priority is to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide to zero by 2050 and halt biodiversity loss. However, this means the race to find oil in the Arctic is a dead end. Recent research analyzing remaining fossil-fuel reserves concluded "Development of resources in the Arctic...[is] ...incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2 °C."

The Arctic will warm further and we can expect more dramatic changes in the north -- emphasizing why the new global goals are universal -- wealthy northern nations will be hit hard by environmental change. Investment in resilient infrastructure will be necessary to adapt. But we also need to focus our best minds on innovations -- both social and technological -- to provide solutions that are cognizant of the complex interconnections and cascading global effects that must somehow be managed.

The 17 goals mark a paradigm shift for humanity. They are a remarkable achievement emerging from the largest summit in UN history, Rio+20, and the result of the biggest consultation the UN has undertaken. They recognize the very real existential threat we face as a species and the new responsibility we must shoulder. But also the interconnections: if we fail on one, we risk failing them all. Our new Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Planetary Boundaries launched on September 14 provides the essential knowledge to understand why the research community is so concerned, but also how, if we act now, we can end poverty and safeguard our future and the future of Earth's life-support system.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 9.

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