Earth’s cryosphere, the snow and ice, provides a unique habitat for life and is an integral part of the Earth system.
The bright white colour makes the cryosphere highly reflective and so plays a significant role in the energy balance of the planet.
As climate changes due to the build-up of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, there will be significant consequences for the cryosphere, in both polar and alpine regions.
As glaciers and ice sheets recede, sea-ice extent declines and snow-covered regions become more limited, global warming could accelerate. But there are many other consequences of changes in the cryosphere, particularly for biological systems, including human societies.
In 2011, IGBP’s coastal zone project (LOICZ) published an assessment on changes to Arctic coastal zones, State of the Arctic Coast 2010, Scientific Review and Outlook.
• The Arctic is the fastest warming region on the planet.
• Arctic summer sea-ice minimum reached a record low in 2007.
• In 2011, scientists examining satellite data going back 20 years reported the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica are losing more and more ice year on year.
• The stability of the ice sheets is one of the major uncertainties in climate-change research.
• Ice-covered seas play an important role in the ocean food web; sea-ice loss due to rising temperatures will have cascading effects on the food chain in those regions and beyond. These changes will be compounded by the additional organic-rich runoff from adjacent land areas.
• Snowfall in mountain regions supplies freshwater to ecosystems and communities far downstream. Loss of mountain snow and glaciers will change the availability and seasonality of soil moisture and runoff, and eventually lead to changes in ecosystems and a permanent reduction in water supplies.
• Peatlands cover vast areas of polar regions, and these are waterlogged in summer due to permafrost which impedes drainage. Degradation of permafrost and thawing of the active layer to greater depths in summer will result in changes to surface water hydrology and the biogeochemistry of lakes and river systems throughout the polar regions. These changes will affect aquatic ecosystems over large areas, as well as coastal waters into which the rivers drain.
• Changes in river ice melt patterns may result in ice dams and flooding, with detrimental effects on societal infrastructure.
A recent report entitled “State of the Arctic Coast 2010: Scientific Review and Outlook” provides a comprehensive picture of the status and current and anticipated changes in the most sensitive Arctic coastal areas. The assessment leading up to the report was initiated after a 2007 workshop organised by the LOICZ project in conjunction with the International Permafrost Organisation (IPA) and the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC).
The assessment takes a social-ecological approach that explores the implications of change for the interaction of humans with nature. The report is a first step towards a continuously updated coastal assessment and to identify key issues for scientific enquiry in an international Earth system research agenda.
Physical State of the Circum-Arctic Coast
Ecological State of the Circum-Arctic Coast
Social, Economic and Institutional State of the Circum-Arctic Coast
Integrated Approaches to Coastal Change in the Arctic
Monitoring, Detecting and Modelling Coastal Change
Vulnerability, Adaptation, Adaptive Capacity and Resilience
Governance and Adaptation
• Management needs to be flexible;
• Decision-making must be integrated and science-based;
• National commitment is required for effective management;
• Area-based approaches and trans-boundary perspectives are
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