Arctic & Antarctica
Petermann Glacier in northwest Greenland.

ARCTIC - Arctic amplification is destabilizing the delicate balance of the ecosystem

The Arctic, a hotspot for climate change, is once more grabbing headlines. This remote region is warming faster than any other part of the world, creating a domino effect called Arctic amplification.

ESA-developed satellites are stepping up, offering vital data that shed light on this complex phenomenon and its far-reaching implications for people and wildlife alike.

The phenomenon of Arctic amplification involves the Arctic warming at a rate that surpasses the global average. It’s driven largely by feedback loops that intensify the warming effect of greenhouse gases.

This isn’t just disrupting the fragile equilibrium of the Arctic ecosystem, but it’s also having a significant impact on global climate patterns, human populations, and wildlife.

The ESA’s Science for Society Arktalas Hoavva project, whose name means Arctic Ocean in the northern Sami language, is focused on studying Arctic amplification using satellite data.

Remote sensing satellites are documenting the effects

A recent paper published in the journal Remote Sensing details how these satellites are providing invaluable insights into this remote region. These satellites have captured the effects of amplification on everything from phytoplankton productivity to human infrastructure.

Take for example the incident in May 2020. A power plant reservoir near Norilsk in Russia leaked some 20,000 tons of diesel, declaring a state of emergency. This oil spill contaminated the Ambarnaya River and Lake Pyasino.

A pillar collapse, caused by thawing permafrost destabilizing the ground, resulted in a disaster with costs exceeding $2 billion. Scientists, using data from the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission along with field photographs and historical data, attributed this accident to the Arctic amplification of global warming.

But the repercussions don’t stop at infrastructure. Thawing permafrost also releases vast quantities of methane and carbon dioxide, creating a dangerous feedback loop that intensifies global warming.

Disappearance of sea ice is biggest concern

Central to Arctic amplification is the disappearance of sea ice, which has plummeted to alarmingly low levels. Sea ice forms when seawater freezes into freshwater ice. The freezing process expels cold saline water, which then sinks into the deep ocean, driving global ocean thermohaline circulation. If sea ice formation stops, this process halts, leading to changes in global ocean circulation.

With less ice, the exposed ocean surface absorbs more heat, accelerating warming and ice loss. Moreover, winds over the open ocean increase surface waves, which in turn inhibit refreezing by mechanically eroding the forming ice, possibly driving new and more energetic ocean circulation patterns across the Arctic Ocean.

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