Sci&Tech Editor Gwydion Elliott reports on the shocking temperatures recorded at the poles and examines how feedback loops make climate change all the more dangerous
In a stark warning about the climate crisis, unprecedented heatwaves were recorded in both the north and south poles last month, with temperatures reaching 40C above normal in Antarctica.
Arctic temperatures also reached 30C above normal, with Mark Maslin, professor of earth system science at University College London, saying ‘I and colleagues were shocked by the number and severity of the extreme weather events in 2021 – which were unexpected at a warming of 1.2C. Now we have record temperatures in the Arctic which, for me, show we have entered a new extreme phase of climate change much earlier than we had expected.’
At this time of year, meteorologists expect to see the Antarctic rapidly cooling off after its summer, and the Arctic only slowly beginning to warm as days lengthen. Increasingly, extreme weather events such as this are predicted to become more common as greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere. The melting of white polar ice into dark seawater will increase the amount of heat the Earth’s surface absorbs from the sun and further accelerate the pace of warming, causing further melting of the ice.
This is one of many feedback loops that, once triggered, could lock in vicious cycles of rapid and unstoppable warming of the climate. As another example, the deforestation of the Amazon is approaching a threshold at which the lack of moisture could lead to a total dieback of the rainforest as the whole area converts to grassland. Countless species would be lost, with huge amounts of carbon released into the atmosphere.
According to the IPCC, climate change threatens to devastate the natural world and make many areas of the globe unliveable. As the ecological systems on which we depend collapse, famines and water shortages, poverty and displacement will become more and more common. These changes will be permanent. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, described February’s IPCC report as “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership”. According to Hans-Otto Pörtner, a co-chair of working group 2 of the IPCC: “Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”
Last year, a summer heatwave in Europe led to thousands of excess deaths. Sicily experienced the hottest temperatures ever recorded in Europe – 48.8C. Environmental journalist Jill Pole said of the heat: “When I wasn’t in the car or inside a building, I felt short of breath; it was like my lungs couldn’t take in the air they needed.” Consequently, wildfires raged in the Mediterranean, destroying property and livelihoods, and killing at least 86 people.
Soon after, world leaders met in Glasgow for the COP26 climate change conference. The event, to which the fossil fuel industry brought more delegates than any single country, has been described by many as a failure. Amnesty International’s Secretary-General Agnès Callamard criticised world leaders for “discarding the most marginalised communities around the world as expendable collateral damage.” Delegates failed to make commitments to limit planetary warming to 1.5C, the threshold beyond which scientists agree climate impacts will be catastrophic, and also fell short of their promise to provide developing countries with $100 billion to fund climate mitigation and adaptation.
As warming continues, and its impacts batter both the environment and human life, it is an open question whether world leaders will change course and provide the support and leadership that experts say is desperately needed.
For more Sci&Tech, check out these stories: