The polar regions are the control centre for our climate system, and they are undergoing rapid change that drives global risk for all of us.
Earth scientists have identified 16 key climate tipping points and nine out of those 16 are in the polar regions. Five of the six that are closest to tipping (highlighted in red on the map) are in the poles.
Explore the global risks by clicking the content below.
The latest science links Arctic climate change to extreme weather across the Northern Hemisphere with more certainty than ever before. Events exacerbated by Arctic warming include wildfires, drought, heat waves, persistent cold, and persistent rainfall leading to flooding. One key factor is that a warmer Arctic is associated with a wavier jet stream through reduced differences in temperature between the Arctic and the more southerly latitudes that drive hemispheric air circulation. This wavier pattern means that areas of high and low pressure can stall, bringing both persistent dry weather as well as long-duration rain events.
Extreme drought and heat make wildfires more likely, examples of which have been experienced in western U.S. states and also across Europe in recent years (Poyau, 2022). In 2021, when record-breaking events were recorded over northwestern North America, Europe, and the Middle East. This heat was linked to the extreme fires experienced across the western US states and in Canada in the same year. Like heatwaves, coldwaves can also cause loss of life and productivity, such as that in 2021 in Texas that resulted in at least US$20 billion in damages and nearly 150 deaths.
In September 2022, four tropical cyclones, Fiona, Merbok, Nanmadol and Muifa, continued a summer of record-setting extreme weather events. Together, these four storms caused billions of dollars in damages and ruined thousands of lives. While each was born in the tropics, their destruction has also affected high-latitude areas not accustomed to the consequences of such storms. A warmer Earth combined with a moister atmosphere — from a thicker blanket of greenhouse gases and vicious feedback cycles involving the loss of Arctic ice and snow — make these storms more powerful, and allow them to stay stronger as they head northward. Indeed, analysis suggests that global warming increased the heavy precipitation associated with 2017’s Hurricane Harvey by at least 15%. Higher sea levels, also accelerated by Arctic melting, expand the inland reach of storm surges and flooding. If we do nothing to curtail the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we can expect to see more intense storms.
The IPCC found that more intense and frequent extreme sea level events, together with trends in coastal development, will increase expected annual flood damages by 2-3 orders of magnitude by 2100 in the absence of costly adaptation efforts. While adaptation can be effective – e.g. New Zealand has published its own comprehensive plan – many communities in low-income or rural regions cannot fund it.
Rapid Arctic warming speeds up melting of the Greenland ice sheet that contains the equivalent of 7.4m of sea level rise, and for the past two decades has been the single largest contributor to rising sea levels. Research published in August 2022 details how Greenland’s contribution to global sea level rise is significantly greater than models have forecasted, and establishes an absolute minimum sea level rise commitment from Greenland above 27cm, a figure set only to grow as climate warms (Box, Hubbard et. al., 2022). Low-lying countries around the world, like Bangladesh, are highly vulnerable to rising sea levels.
“It’s an understatement that the societal stakes are high and the risk is very real going forward”
– Professor Alun Hubbard
Nearly 600 million people live in coastal zones worldwide. As sea levels rise, they will be increasingly vulnerable to dislocation, threatening approximately US$1 trillion of global wealth. High population tropical cities like Jakarta, key grain producing regions like the Mekong river delta and low lying states in the Pacific Region and the Caribbean are extremely vulnerable as well as other coastal areas facing the threat of saltwater intrusion such as Egypt.
If all of Antarctica were to melt, global sea level rise could rise about 58m. Some of this, we now know, is unavoidable, even without further emissions–and if we succeed in keeping global temperatures under 1.5C. A new study in Nature by researchers at the British Antarctic Survey and Northumbria University, looks at committed melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). The main driver of this committed melt stems from the warming waters of the Amundsen Sea off the WAIS, which holds the equivalent of 5.3m of sea level rise. The WAIS largely comprises glaciers that are grounded beneath the ocean–meaning that warm water is melting them from underneath. The researchers show that the Amundsen Sea has become exponentially warmer in recent decades, and the trajectory of that warming is unlikely to change in this century, even if all emissions were cut. Thus, the WAIS will continue to melt from within.
Do you want to know more about sea level rise, its global hotspots and the role of the Arctic? Find out more.
The IPCC identified a range of disruptions to global trade as a result of climate change.
Shipping routes, port activity, roads, railways and other coastal infrastructure are compromised by sea-level rise, hurricanes and severe storms.
For example, a McKinsey analysis found that the probability of a hurricane of sufficient intensity to disrupt semiconductor supply chains is set to grow two to four times by 2040. The changing Arctic amplifies the risk of storms and other extreme weather.
Risks to food supply chains are also elevated by Arctic warming through changes to global precipitation and weather systems.
Arctic change has been linked to droughts, floods, land degradation, sea level rise, storms, and other extreme weather events that pose a direct threat to global food supplies.
Arctic warming disrupts the jet stream, and research reveals that changes to the jet stream heighten the risk of simultaneous crop failures in multiple grain-producing parts of the world (Kornhuber et al., 2020). Grain production is already highly concentrated: only five regions account for about 60% of global grain production, meaning climate hazards could damage already-low resilience. The war in Ukraine is one example of how disruptions to one of the world’s breadbaskets can have global impacts. This brought shortages and increased prices to consumers worldwide, exposing the fragility of our food systems. Arctic warming adds yet another layer on top of existing threats to food security.
Food insecurity poses significant humanitarian costs and massive challenges for sustainable development across the globe. Read more on food insecurity here.
Sea level rise from melting glaciers in Greenland increases the risk of saltwater intrusion into freshwater supplies. This in turn threatens both food and water security, as highlighted in our Pacific region stories. Extreme drought, such as that experienced in Europe in summer 2022, also has a huge impact on water availability. Other regions at high risk of drought include large parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the west coast of the USA.
Melting snow and glaciers in the Himalayas have also resulted in changes in the seasonality of the hydrological cycle. These cause significant problems for agriculture, hydroelectric power distribution, and drinking water supplies in urban and rural centres that rely on meltwater.
To learn more, visit our water insecurity page.
Unprecedented drought in Africa, Afghanistan, and India has resulted in acute malnutrition, food shortage and humanitarian crises. These events drive the mass displacement of people, who are often forced into crowded and/or unhygienic conditions which facilitate the spread of disease.
Warmer atmospheres are able to hold more moisture (IPCC AR6 WG1, 2021), providing more breeding grounds and favourable conditions for pathogens like malaria and cholera. Despite a 40% reduction of malarial deaths in the past twenty years, more than 562,000 people die annually, 96% from the African continent. Direct costs associated with lost productivity top US$12 billion.
Vector-borne diseases are a consequence of not just long-term temperature increase, but also extremes in temperature and precipitation associated with global warming; flooding provides breeding habitat for mosquitoes that carry diseases like dengue and malaria. Drought can also contribute to mosquito reproduction as people increase their storage of still water in reservoirs.
Nevertheless, stagnant water following heavy rainfall and flooding is the biggest contributor to increased transmission of mosquito-borne disease. Warming also extends the mosquito breeding season, allows mosquitoes to expand their range, and increases the likelihood that a bite from an infected mosquito will transmit disease. Similarly, ticks in North America and Europe are able to reproduce more efficiently and expand habitats with longer shoulder seasons.
With regional increases in temperature projected in the range of 2-4°C, vector-borne diseases are expected to sharply increase in the absence of vector control management, disease surveillance, early warning systems, and vaccine development.
Furthermore, changing environments increase the likelihood of animal-human disease spread, the spread of disease across geographies, the growth of toxic algae blooms that damage water access, and the spread of moulds that can damage the lungs and brain. Permafrost thaw and degradation also pose the threat of releasing bacteria resistant to antibiotics from permafrost soils.
According to data from the European Drought Observatory, in summer 2022 63% of European Union and United Kingdom land – approximately the size of India – were given drought warnings or alerts (Said-Moorhouse and Dewan, 2022).
Research finds (Lenton et al., 2023) that climate change has already put around 9% of people outside the ‘human climate niche’ — the temperature conditions where population density shows humans have historically thrived. That’s equivalent to more than 600 million people.
High temperatures are linked to increased mortality, decreased productivity, problems with agriculture, increased conflict, and the spread of infectious diseases.
As temperatures rise, the research estimates that by 2030 more than 2 billion people could be outside the niche. By 2090, that’s estimated to increase to around 40% of people, or around 3.7 billion.
The research shows that reducing global warming from 2.7 to 1.5 °C – the Paris Agreement target – would reduce the population left outside the niche from 3.7 to 2.7 billion people.
The Arctic is the planet’s heatsink – and loss of ice and snow amplifies the risk of global heatwaves, meaning more intense heat stress in already-hot parts of the world. Arctic amplification of global warming can alter jet stream patterns, which in 2022 led to extended periods of heat stress throughout much of Europe and Asia.
One study found that in South Asia, where one quarter of the world’s population lives, 2°C of global warming will more than double the population’s exposure to unsafe labour temperatures, and exposure to lethal temperatures will rise 2.7 times.
As well as the humanitarian consequences, South and Southeast Asia’s role as a manufacturing hub means major disruptions both the local economy and global supply chains if its cities periodically become too hot to work in.
A separate analysis, looking at the likely rise in labour days lost because workers will be unable to perform physical activity, found that by 2050, Southeast Asia could lose 16% of its labour capacity due to rising heat stress (Verisk Maplecroft, 2017). The report estimates Singapore would see a 25% productivity drop, with losses of 24% for Malaysia, 21% for Indonesia, and 16% for Cambodia and the Philippines. It also identified risks for Manaus in Brazil, Cartagena in Colombia, and Panama City, among other cities.
Arctic warming enhances the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, ecosystem disruption and sea levels. These challenges are illustrated through loss of productivity, food and water insecurity, supply chain disruptions and high risks of sovereign defaults among others (Cevik and Jalles, 2022). An analysis by Swiss Re found that by 2050, Arctic breakdown will contribute to climate change expected to cause global economic impacts of up to $23 trillion under mitigation levels consistent with national pledges at the time of the research.
The extreme weather triggered by loss of Arctic ice and spring snow cover is already causing significant economic losses. The cost of extreme weather events during 2020 was about $190 billion globally according to Swiss Re.
Widespread wildfires in Canada (2023), along with floods in Germany (2021) and hurricanes in the US (2022), have each caused billions of USD worth of economic damage.
As cities expand and climate risks rise, the economic costs of extreme weather grow rapidly. Estimates suggest that Ho Chi Minh City could experience 5 – 10 times the economic impact from an extreme flood in 2050 versus today.
New government-backed reinsurance schemes point to increasing uninsurable risks due to more extreme weather.
McKinsey research found that in Florida, flood losses could devalue vulnerable homes by $30 – 80 billion by 2050, affecting property tax revenue in some counties by 15 – 30%.
Arctic Indigenous communities are finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with the rapid changes in the Arctic climate and weather. They face pressures including damage to infrastructure from thawing permafrost and increased risk of wildfires, and difficult reindeer herding conditions in winter due to extreme swings in weather. They are facing threats to their subsistence economies and way of life as the Arctic sea-ice melts, glaciers recede, permafrost thaws and the Arctic becomes greener.
Some Arctic communities experience difficulty accessing clean drinking water and sufficient, safe and nutritious food because of permafrost thaw, sea ice loss, changes in seasonality in surface water availability, and resource development and extraction. In 2021, Iqaluit, Nunavut, experienced a water crisis where 8000 residents were without access to clean tap water for two months due to fuel contamination.
The Arctic plays a bigger role in the success of all 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals than has ever been considered. To achieve the SDGs we need the Arctic.
The following gauges show up-to-date data regarding key indicators in the Arctic. These indicators clearly point to the crisis at hand.