FAQ 3.1: How do changes in the Polar Regions affect other parts of the world?

Climate change in the Arctic and Antarctic affect people outside of the polar regions in two key ways. First, physical and ecosystem changes in the polar regions have socio-economic impacts that extend across the globe. Second, physical changes in the Arctic and Antarctic influence processes that are important for global climate and sea level.

Among the risks to societies and economies, aspects of food provision, transport, and access to nonrenewable resources are of great importance. Fisheries in the polar oceans support regional and global food security and are important for the economies of many countries around the world, but climate change alters Arctic and Antarctic marine habitats, and affects the ability of polar species and ecosystems to withstand or adapt to physical changes. This has consequences for where, when, and how many fish can be captured. Impacts will vary between regions, depending on the degree of climate change and the effectiveness of human responses. While management in some polar fisheries is among the most developed, scientists are exploring modifications to existing precautionary, ecosystem-based management approaches to increase the scope for adaptation to climate change impacts on marine ecosystems and fisheries.

New shipping routes through the Arctic offer cost savings because they are shorter than traditional passages via the Suez or Panama Canals. Ship traffic has already increased and is projected to become more feasible in the coming decades as further reductions in sea ice cover make Arctic routes more accessible. Increased Arctic shipping has significant socio-economic and political implications for global trade, northern nations, and economies strongly linked to traditional shipping corridors, while also increasing environmental risk in the Arctic. Reduced Arctic sea ice cover allows greater access to offshore petroleum resources and ports supporting resource extraction on land.

The polar regions influence the global climate through a number of processes. As spring snow and summer sea ice cover decrease, more heat is absorbed at the surface. There is growing evidence that ongoing changes in the Arctic, primarily sea ice loss, can potentially influence mid-latitude weather. As temperatures increase in the Arctic, permafrost soils in northern regions store less carbon. The release of carbon dioxide and methane from the land to the atmosphere further contributes to global warming.

Melting ice sheets and glaciers in the polar regions cause sea levels to rise, affecting coastal regions and their large populations and economies. At present, the Greenland Ice Sheet and polar glaciers are contributing more to sea level rise than the Antarctic Ice Sheet. However, ice loss from the Antarctic Ice Sheet has continued to accelerate, driven primarily by increased melting of the underside of floating ice shelves, which has caused glaciers to flow faster. Even though it remains difficult to project the amount of ice loss from Antarctica after the second half of the 21st century, it is expected to contribute significantly to future sea level rise.

The Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica is the main region globally where waters at depth rise to the surface. Here, they become transformed into cold, dense waters that sink back to the deep ocean, storing significant amounts of human-produced heat and dissolved carbon for decades to centuries or longer, and helping to slow the rate of global warming in the atmosphere. Future changes in the strength of this ocean circulation can so far only be projected with limited certainty.