This time of year, the North Pole is in “polar night.” It sees no, or at least minimal, sun for roughly half the year, and becomes one of the coldest places on Earth. Except this year, it’s not getting very cold. In fact, so far, it’s 36 degrees warmer than normal. If you’ve noticed an unusually balmy winter so far, that’s part of the reason.
But a warm polar night is doing a lot more than just killing polar bears, although for many that’s bad enough. Long term, if this isn’t reversed, and quickly, it may literally change where we live, what we eat, and how our economy functions.
The Heat Spiral
The biggest problem is that polar night is supposed to be when the Arctic ice is at its thickest. That’s consequential for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that as the ice melts and refreezes, it becomes harder and harder to restore the ice cap to its natural state.
Part of this is that as the ice melts, it forms a sort of heat spiral. White polar ice reflects the sun and its heat away from the ocean, but the less of it there is, the more heat is absorbed by the dark water of ocean, making it harder when the temperature drops for the ice to freeze. Not only that, melting Arctic ice releases methane, a relatively short-lived but powerful greenhouse gas that drives up the temperature even further.
But that’s just the start. A balmy winter right now can become a total disaster in a snap, thanks to the Arctic’s control of weather patterns. The Arctic is key to maintaining the weather patterns that we’re used to. It serves as a sort of global cooling system, releasing enormous amounts of heat from the Earth’s atmosphere. But, without the polar ice, it can’t do that job, which means warmer water across the globe. And that, in turn, means more extreme weather and more frequent weather problems.
For example, the jet streams that drive our climate are created by the heat of the sun and the rotation of Earth. Jet streams generally keep the cold air over the poles and the hotter air over the places we as a species like to live. But the hotter the sun gets, the more erratic the jet streams can be and the more dangerous weather we get. In 2012, the Arctic jet stream was unusually southerly, and Britain paid the price with record flooding as it was pounded by torrential rains.
Nor is that the only problem. Jet streams generally push weather patterns West to East; no jet stream means that weather patterns will stay in place for a while. This is thought to be one of the core problems behind California’s struggles with drought.
These are only the short-term effects, though. Long term, it might change things as basic as where we live and what, or whether, we eat. If Greenland melted tomorrow, the oceans would rise roughly six meters. That would be enough to wipe most US coastal cities off the map and possibly give California an inland sea. This likely wouldn’t happen all at once, but over time, it would indeed shift where people lived. It would also mean that quite a bit of farmland and food infrastructure would suddenly be underwater, not to mention the pollution leaking into the water as buildings and facilities that shouldn’t be under the water are submerged.