Climate change is committing war crimes in the Arctic

The fisherman woke early. It was still dark, he saw, although it’s always dark here at this time of year.

He rose, got dressed, and opened the wooden door of his small red cottage to find that the darkness was really more of a twilight, as if the sun was only an hour away. Except this was northern Greenland – he wouldn’t see the sun for weeks.

His dogs rose excitedly as he unchained them and hitched them to a sled. Other dogs howled throughout the village, but the fisherman ignored them as the sled slid silently between the rows of red cottages. He didn’t mind fishing, but he longed to hunt. These days the sea ice was too thin to find walrus. Fish was all he had left, but even that seemed to be running out.

More worryingly, his movements were becoming slow and clumsy, even weak. Lately he’d also been feeling needles in his hands and feet. On the other side of the Arctic, a small Russian village was in chaos. A local boy, only twelve years old, had died. At first it seemed like a fever, just some headaches and nausea, but then he’d started vomiting blood.

The disease spread quickly, and soon ninety people were in hospital. The Russian army sent soldiers trained in biological warfare to quarantine the area. The village was evacuated.

(Photo: William Bossen)

The north is warming and people are dying. The retreat of sea ice, the destabilisation of polar weather, the disruption of ocean currents, and vast changes to marine life and melting permafrost are causing the ground to explode, buildings to collapse, releasing superbugs into the air and poisoning towns and villages. If a government were responsible for what's happening in the Arctic, we'd call it biological warfare. It would be considered a war crime.

Yet scenes like these are becoming increasingly common as climate change, the world's third superpower, heats the region faster than anywhere else on Earth. So how exactly is this happening?

The video below shows what CO2 levels look like throughout the year.

At high latitudes, temperatures have risen .6 degrees Celsius every ten years, twice the global average. This rapid rise is due to Arctic-specific positive feedback loops that occur as a result of increasing heat - a phenomenon known as ‘Arctic amplification’.

There are two positive feedback loops that are causing the Arctic to warm up faster than anywhere else. First, white sea ice reflects sunlight back into space and insulates the polar surface from ocean currents below, but the shrinking ice fields are reflecting less light each year. This video shows the extent of Arctic sea ice in 2012, which was a historic low.

The darker ocean absorbs more sunlight, and therefore more heat, which in turn melts more sea ice. This is good news for shipping and oil companies, but bad news for locals dependent on the sea ice for food and water.

The decrease in sea ice is also bad news for the rest of us. It has caused an increase in upward wind patterns, which are weakening an air current that circles the north pole known as the stratospheric polar vortex. The vortex normally keeps cold air trapped over the Arctic, but as it weakens, cold air is more likely to break out and head south.

This is why central Asia, Siberia, northern Europe, and parts of North America have experienced extreme cold events in recent years and an overall downward trend in winter temperatures. Unusual jet stream patterns are also changing the routes of northern storms.

Melting sea ice is also affecting ocean currents. Ocean circulation is driven by differences in water density – cold saltwater sinks below warm saltwater. The introduction of large volumes of freshwater dilutes salt concentrations and can prevent cold water from sinking.

This may be why the Gulf Stream, which brings warm waters from the Caribbean north and keeps Europe at relatively mild temperatures, has weakened in recent years. There is also speculation that a major Arctic ocean current known as the Beaufort Gyre will reverse direction and send an enormous volume of freshwater into the North Atlantic.

Thawing Ground The second positive feedback loop causing the Arctic to heat faster is the fact that normally frozen ground is thawing out. This is causing the remains of plants and animals, accumulated over thousands of years, to decompose and release vast quantities of carbon dioxide and methane.

In fact, there is currently twice as much carbon trapped in permafrost as there currently is in the atmosphere, and the release of this carbon will cause climate change to accelerate. Accelerated climate change will then melt more permafrost.

Thawing permafrost has complex consequences. It is causing buildings around the Arctic to collapse. In the Russian city of Norilsk, 60% of buildings have been deformed. On one occasion, an overhanging roof suddenly collapsed and broke a doctor’s legs.

In 2015, enormous holes up to half a mile wide were discovered in Siberia. They were caused by explosions of methane that accumulated underground as permafrost melted.

In 2016, a heatwave in Siberia exposed a reindeer carcass in thawing ground and released anthrax spores that had lain dormant for at least 75 years, killing a 12-year old boy, hospitalising an entire village, and requiring the deployment of Russian soldiers.

The revival of dormant diseases is well-documented; NASA researchers once revived bacteria that had been frozen in Alaska for 32,000 years.

More worryingly, a study in 2011 on the DNA of bacteria extracted from permafrost between Russia and Canada found genes encoding resistance to beta-lactam, tetracycline, and glycopeptide antibiotics. Beta-lactam antibiotics include penicillin derivatives, and glycopeptide antibiotics are often used against bacteria that demonstrate resistance to penicillin.

A methane crater in Yamal, Russia.

A crater in Yamal, Russia, created by a methane explosion. (Getty Images).

There are other consequences of a melting Arctic. Fish are moving north to remain in their preferred temperature zone. Fishermen across the north Atlantic are now catching species that used to live in the tropics.

Plants are also moving north as higher latitudes become warmer. In the process, they are releasing mercury captured from the atmosphere into rivers that empty into the Arctic Ocean. Concentrations of methylmercury, a toxic organic compound, in Arctic mammals and marine life are amongst the highest in the world. Arctic peoples get the majority of their diet from the sea and are now suffering the effects of mercury poisoning.

In Qaanaaq, a village of red cottages in northern Greenland, mercury loads are the highest in the Arctic. Symptoms include clumsiness, slowness, and feeling needles in the hands and feet.

some more reading if you're interested

AMAP Assessment, 2011. 'Mercury in the Arctic', Arctic Council.

Schuur, E.A.G., Mcguire, A.D., Schädel, C., Grosse, G., et al. (n.d.) Climate change and the permafrost carbon feedback. [Online] Available from: doi:10.1038/nature14338.

Stroeve, J.C., Markus, T., Boisvert, L., Miller, J., et al. (2014) Changes in Arctic Melt Season and Implications for Sea Ice Loss. Geophysical Research Letters. [Online] 41 (4), 1216–1225. Available from: doi:10.1002/2013GL058951.

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