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The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement that aimed to manage and reduce carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases. The Protocol was adopted at a conference in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 and became international law on February 16, 2005. 

What is the Kyoto Protocol?

The Protocol operationalised the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 192 nations committed to reducing their emissions by an average of 5.2% by 2012, which would represent about 29% of the world’s total emissions. 

Countries that ratified the Kyoto Protocol were assigned maximum carbon emission levels for specific periods and participated in carbon credit trading. If a country emitted more than its assigned limit, then it would receive a lower emissions limit in the following period.

Key Facts of the Kyoto Protocol

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kyoto protocol

Green- Annex B parties with binding targets in the second period; purple- Annex B parties with binding targets in the first period but not the second; blue- Non-Annex B parties without binding targets; yellow- Annex B parties with binding targets in the first period but which withdrew from the Protocol; orange- Signatories to the Protocol that have not ratified; red- Other UN member states and observers that are not party to the Protocol (Source:Wikipedia).

Developed vs Developing Nations

Recognising that developed countries are principally responsible for the current levels of GHG emissions as a result of more than 150 years of unmitigated industrial activity, the Protocol placed a heavier burden on them. 37 industrialised nations plus the EU were mandated to cut their GHG emissions, while developing countries were asked to voluntarily comply; more than 100 developing countries, including China and India, were exempted from the treaty.

The Protocol separated countries into two groups: Annex I contained developed nations, and Non-Annex I contained developing countries. Emission limits were placed on Annex I countries only. Non-Annex I countries could invest in projects to lower emissions in their countries. For these projects, developing countries earned carbon credits that they could trade or sell to developed countries, allowing the developing nations a higher level of maximum carbon emissions for that period. This effectively allowed developed countries to continue emitting GHGs.

The Protocol established a monitoring, review and verification system, as well as a compliance system to ensure transparency and hold parties accountable. All countries’ emissions had to be monitored and precise records of the trades kept through registry systems.

3 Kyoto Mechanisms

The Protocol established market mechanisms based on the trade of emissions permits. It allowed countries an additional means to meet their targets by way of three market-based mechanisms: International Emissions Trading, Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Joint Implementation (JI). 

The mechanisms encouraged GHG mitigation in the most cost-effective ways, ie. in the developing world. The idea was that as long as pollution is removed from the atmosphere, it does not matter where it is reduced, which stimulated green investment in developing countries and included the private sector to develop cleaner infrastructure and systems over older, dirtier technology. 

An Adaptation Fund was established to finance adaptation projects and programmes in developing countries that are parties to the Protocol. In the first commitment period, the Fund was financed mainly with a share of proceeds from CDM project activities. For the second commitment period, international emissions trading and joint implementation would also provide the Fund with a 2% share of proceeds. 

The International Emissions Trading mechanism allows countries that have emission units to spare – emissions permitted them but not “used”- to sell this excess capacity to countries that are over their targets.

The Clean Development Mechanism allows a country with an emission-reduction or emission-limitation commitment under the Kyoto Protocol (Annex B Party) to implement an emission-reduction project in developing countries. Such projects can earn saleable certified emission reduction (CER) credits, each equivalent to one tonne of CO2, which can be counted towards meeting Kyoto targets.

Finally, the Joint Implementation mechanism allows a country with an emission reduction or limitation commitment under the Kyoto Protocol (Annex B Party) to earn emission reduction units (ERUs) from an emission-reduction or emission removal project in another Annex B Party, each equivalent to one tonne of CO2, which can be counted towards meeting its Kyoto target.

The Doha Amendment

After the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol ended in December 2012, parties to the Protocol met in Doha, Qatar, to discuss an amendment to the original Kyoto agreement. The Doha Amendment added new targets for the second commitment period, 2012-2020. While first commitment period aimed to reduce GHG by 5%, the second amendment committed to reduce GHG emissions by at least 18% below 1990 levels.

This was short-lived; in 2015, all UNFCCC participants signed another pact, the Paris Climate Agreement, which effectively replaced the Kyoto Protocol.

The Paris Climate Agreement

The Paris Agreement was adopted by nearly every nation- 190 states and the EU- in 2015 to address the negative effects of the climate crisis. The agreement covers around 97% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Commitments were made from all major GHG-emitting countries to cut their emissions and strengthen these commitments over time. It was arguably the first time that most of the world agreed to pursue a common cause. 

A major directive of the agreement is to cut GHG emissions so as to limit global temperature rise in this century to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, while taking steps to limit this to 1.5 degrees. It also provides a way for developed nations to help developing nations and creates a framework for monitoring and reporting countries’ climate goals transparently. 

Unfortunately, countries are not on their way to achieving the Paris Agreement- a report by the UNFCCC indicated that nations must redouble their climate efforts if they are to reach the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise by 2C—ideally 1.5C—by 2100.

How Has the Kyoto Protocol Worked Out?

In 2005, many countries, including those in the EU, planned to meet or exceed their targets under the agreement by 2011. Others, such as the US and China- the world’s biggest emitters- produced enough GHGs to mitigate any of the progress made by countries who met their targets. In fact, there was an increase of about 40% in emissions globally between 1990 and 2009. 

Why Did the United States Not Sign the Kyoto Protocol?

The US dropped out of the agreement in 2001, calling the treaty unfair because it mandated only developed countries to reduce emissions, and felt that doing so would hinder the US economy. 

Talks have been marred by politics, money, lack of leadership and lack of consensus. GHG emissions are still rising, and countries are not addressing them quickly enough.

Important Dates of the Kyoto Protocol

December 1-11, 1997 The Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC is held in Kyoto, Japan. Nearly 200 nations attend and adopt the first international treaty on managing and reducing greenhouse gases.

November 2, 1998 – In Buenos Aires 160 nations meet to work out details of the protocol and create the “Buenos Aires Action Plan.”

July 23, 2001 – Negotiators from 178 countries meet in Germany and agree to adopt the protocol, without the participation of the US. 

November 10, 2001 – Representatives from 160 countries meet in Marrakech, Morocco, to work out details of the protocol.

November 18, 2004 – The Russian Federation ratifies the protocol.

February 16, 2005 – The Kyoto Protocol comes into effect.

December 12, 2011 – Canada renounces the Kyoto Protocol, saying its goals are unworkable because the US and China never agreed to it, and says that a new pact is needed to address emissions.

December 2012 – The Kyoto Protocol is extended to 2020 during a conference in Doha, Qatar. 

June 23, 2013 – Afghanistan adopts the Kyoto Protocol, becoming the 192nd signatory.

2015 – At the COP21 summit, held in Paris, all UNFCCC participants sign the Paris Agreement that effectively replaces the Kyoto Protocol. The parties agree to limit warming to ‘well below’ 2 degrees, and below 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels if possible.

Featured image by: flickr 

National air pollution action plans devised by China have seen significant reductions in pollution levels and associated health risks.

China has lifted millions out of poverty like no other country on the planet. The price of that economic progress is demonstrated in the air pollution that has caused a public health crisis, killing more than 1.1 million people every year. It has also proved costly for the nation as the economy suffers an annual loss of $37 billion due to pollution-induced crop failure. 

China Air Pollution Solutions

After Beijing’s ‘airpocalypse’ sparked a mass outpouring of anger and frustration among citizens, China set out to clean up the air quality of its cities. The government prohibited new coal-fired power plants and shut down a number of old plants in the most polluted regions including city clusters of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and the Pearl and Yangtze Deltas. Large cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou restricted the number of cars on the road and started introducing all-electric bus fleets. The country reduced its iron-and steel-making capacity and shut down coal mines.  

The government also introduced aggressive afforestation and reforestation programmes like the Great Green Wall and planted more than 35 billion trees across 12 provinces. With investments of over $100 billion in such programmes, China’s forestry expenditure per hectare exceeded that of the US and Europe and became three times higher than the global average.

The Air Pollution Action Plan released in September 2013 became China’s most influential environmental policy. It helped the nation to make significant improvements in its air quality between 2013 and 2017, reducing PM2.5 levels (atmospheric particulate matter) by 33% in Beijing and 15% in the Pearl River Delta. In Beijing, this meant reducing PM2.5 levels from 89.5µg/m³ (micrograms per cubic metre) down to 60. The city achieved an annual average PM2.5 level of 58µg/m³– a drop of 35%.

But even so, no cities reached the World Health Organization’s recommended annual average PM2.5 level of 10µg/m³. And as of the end of 2017, only 107 of China’s 338 cities of prefectural level or higher had reached the WHO’s interim standard of 35µg/m³.

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China air pollution
China declared war on smog and launched a five-year national air quality action plan in 2013.

As part of the second phase of its battle against air pollution, in 2018, China introduced its Three-year Action Plan for Winning the Blue Sky War.

While the 2013 Action Plan only set PM2.5 level targets for the city clusters of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and the Pearl and Yangtze Deltas, the new three-year Action Plan applies to all the cities in China. It mandates at least an 18% reduction in PM2.5 levels on a 2015 baseline in as many as 231 cities that have not yet reached the government standard- an average of 35µg/m³.

The previous plan had not addressed a primary pollutant that made the air deadly in many cities: ground-level ozone- highly irritating gas created by volatile organic compounds (VOCs) reacting with nitrogen oxides released from vehicles. Although ozone in the upper atmosphere protects the Earth by blocking solar radiation, it is extremely toxic in the troposphere and could cause asthma and respiratory tract infections among residents. The new action plan focuses more on ozone pollution as it adds targets for both VOCs and nitrogen oxides: emissions reductions of 10% and 15%, respectively, by 2020. 

The air quality over major Chinese cities has improved as of the beginning of 2020, a byproduct of the Covid-19 pandemic that originated in Wuhan in the Hubei Province that saw the nation embark on the largest lockdown measures in the world. A drop in industrial and economic activities resulted in reduced greenhouse gas emissions and improved air quality in Wuhan over the Chinese New Year, as well as Beijing, Shanghai and the Yangtze River Delta region. However, emissions will no doubt rise again once the pandemic subsides.

Air pollution levels in major cities in China at the turn of this century were almost exactly at the level of London at the height of the Industrial Revolution in 1890. But China cleaned up its air twice as fast as the United Kingdom did after the Great Smog of postwar London killed 8 000 people.

Recent research suggests that China’s fight against air pollution has laid the foundations for extraordinary gains in the country’s life expectancy. The average citizen can now expect to live 2.4 years longer on average if the declines in air pollution persist.

On August 16, Death Valley, a national park in California and Nevada, recorded a preliminary high temperature of 54.4 degrees Celsius. If verified, it could be the hottest temperature recorded in the world since 1913. 

Hottest Temperature Ever Recorded on Earth

The National Weather Service (NWS) reported the news, adding that the previous temperature record of 56.6 degrees Celsius was reported over 100 years ago, also in Death Valley. The agency is warning people who live in eastern California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah to limit their time outside to between 5am and 8am.

It comes amid a heatwave on the US’s west coast, where temperatures are forecast to rise even further this week.

Why is the Death Valley so hot?

This heat is the result of a high pressure system that has settled over much of the West Coast in the US. During this time of year, the West and southwestern US usually experience the North American monsoon, the agency says. However, the monsoon hasn’t developed as it typically does so Death Valley is getting hotter under high pressure. 

The scorching conditions have led to two days of blackouts in California, after a power plant malfunctioned on Saturday.

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According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), July was the hottest July on record for seven states along the East Coast. 

This extreme weather event is a frightening reminder that the climate crisis is not some far-off concept that most people won’t see in their lifetimes. It is happening now and it will continue to impact people all around the world in various ways- some will experience intense heat that will affect their ability to move around comfortably, while others will be forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of flooding or other extreme weather events. As always, this should be a stark warning to the world that we need to move towards a greener future- our lives quite literally depend on it.

A new study using satellite mapping technology has revealed 11 previously unknown emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica, increasing the number of known colonies by 20%. The results provide a vital benchmark for monitoring the impact of environmental change on the populations of penguins.

Published in the journal Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation, researchers from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) used images from the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite to locate the Emperor penguins. They were spotted by the distinctive red-brown guano patches the birds leave on the ice. 

Three of the 11 new Emperor penguin colonies had been previously identified but never confirmed, taking the number of colonies around the world to 61. Surprisingly, two of the colonies were discovered on sea ice that has formed around icebergs grounded in shallow water, which has never been observed before. 

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new emperor penguin colonies

The smudges on the ice show the new emperor penguin colonies. Image taken from the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite.

Emperor penguins need ice to breed and as such, are located in areas that are difficult to study because they are remote and often impossible to access with temperatures as low as -50°C. 

Dr Peter Fretwell, a geographer at BAS and lead author of the study, says, “This is an exciting discovery. The new satellite images of Antarctica’s coastline have enabled us to find these new colonies. And whilst this is good news, the colonies are small and so only take the overall population count up by 5-10% to just over half a million penguins or around 265 500- 278 500 breeding pairs.”

Unfortunately, most of the new Emperor penguin colonies are situated in locations that are likely to be lost as the climate warms. The researchers warn that these birds may be the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ and so need to be studied carefully to determine changes in the environment.

By next month, the researchers will direct satellites with very high, 30cm-resolution cameras over the colonies to enable the penguins to be counted. 

Previous studies say that 80% of colonies will decrease by more than 90% by 2100 if sea ice in Antarctica decreases by half. Even if temperatures increase by 1.5°C, the best case scenario, the population will decrease by at least 31% over the next three generations. 

A 2020 study has predicted that polar bear extinction will occur in the Arctic by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions remain on their current trajectory. Further, polar bears are likely to experience reproductive failure by 2040, reducing the number of offspring needed for population maintenance.

Will Polar Bears Go Extinct?

The study, published in Nature Climate Change, analyses how polar bears will be affected under two greenhouse gas emission scenarios. 13 of the world’s 19 polar bear subpopulations were examined, representing about 80% of the species’ total population.

The researchers found that under a ‘business as usual’ emissions scenario, polar bears will most likely only be found in the Queen Elizabeth Islands – an archipelago in Canada – by the end of the century. 

In a scenario of moderately mitigated emissions, it is still likely that polar bear populations in Alaska and Russia will experience reproductive failure by 2080

The researchers modelled polar bears’ energy use, in addition to body mass, to derive the threshold number of days they can persevere without food before adult and cub survival rates decline. Following this, they combined the thresholds with the projected number of future sea ice-free days to establish how and where populations will be affected in the Arctic.

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Peter Molnár, biologist and lead author of the study, says, “Even in the case where greenhouse gas emissions are mitigated, some subpopulations will go extinct by the end of the century, including those polar bears in the vulnerable, southernmost ice areas of western Hudson Bay, Davis Strait and southern Hudson Bay, but we would have substantially more populations persisting by the end of the century, even with reduced reproduction, compared with a business-as-usual emissions scenario.”  

The researchers noted that their study, at most, models a conservative ‘best-case-scenario’ projection such that the figures and impacts outlined are more lenient than the harsh realities of the extinction of polar bears. “The impacts we project are likely to occur more rapidly than the paper suggests,” Steven Amstrup, co-researcher of the study says. 

The IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group estimates that there are less than 26,000 polar bears left in the world, comprising 19 different subpopulations that inhabit places like Svalbard, Norway, Canada and Alaska. Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt for food, however, with sea ice melting as a result of global warming, polar bears are more likely to go hungry due to lack of hunting ground availability.

Molnár outlined that it was always inevitable polar bears would suffer under the pressures of the climate crisis, “but what was not fully clear was when we would expect major declines in the survival and reproduction of polar bears that could ultimately lead to their extirpation. We didn’t know whether that would happen early or later in this century.”

Polar bears rely on energy reserves built up over the winter hunting season to endure the lean summer months on land or time spent on ice with scarce prey around. Despite their innate ability to fast for long periods of time, their body condition, reproductive capacity and survival will suffer if they are starved for too long. 

Polar bear numbers have already dropped 25-50% in Alaska’s southern Beaufort Sea population, and 30% since 1987 in western Hudson Bay in Canada. 

Future of Polars Bears

Polar bear extinction can be curtailed and saved through habitat protection, unlike other species threatened by hunting or deforestation. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale will help deter some of the negative effects of the climate crisis, and will subsequently assist in maintaining sea ice integrity, preventing sea levels from rising and ensuring polar bears are able to feed and nourish themselves as well as their cubs. Moreover, future research should aim to build on the investigation of Molnár and colleagues to help further identify global-warming-induced projections, what is causing such projections and how they can be managed or mitigated.

A new study has found that the South Pole warmed at a rate three times the global average over the past three decades. Temperatures at the Amundsen-Scott research station in Antarctica rose by 1.8 degrees Celsius between 1989 and 2019; by comparison, global temperatures rose 0.5 to 0.6 degrees Celsius during the same period. This warming of the South Pole, one of the coldest and most isolated places on Earth, shows that it is starting to feel the impacts of the climate crisis.

Published in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand analysed 60 years of weather station data and used computer modeling to determine the cause of the accelerated warming. They determined that warming at the South Pole happened at a rate of 0.61 degrees Celsius per decade, and was caused by warm ocean temperatures in the western tropical Pacific Ocean and anthropogenic global warming driven by greenhouse gas emissions. 

These warmer ocean temperatures had lowered atmospheric pressure over the Weddell Sea in the southern Atlantic over the decades, which increased the flow of warm air directly over the South Pole. 

Previously, the Antarctic plateau had been cooling while global temperatures were rising, but the researchers found that this is no longer the case. Kyle Clem, a polar scientist and lead author of the study, says, “The South Pole is now one of the fastest warming regions on the planet, warming at an incredible three times faster than the global average rate.”

While human-caused climate change also likely played a role in this warming, it is not clear to what extent and the researchers have found that the dominant driving factor is likely to be the natural swings in Antarctica’s climate. 

The researchers attributed the change to a phenomenon known as the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO). The IPO cycle typically lasts for roughly 15-30 years and alternates between a ‘positive’ state- where the tropical Pacific is hotter and the northern Pacific is cooler than average- and a ‘negative’ state where the opposite occurs. The IPO flipped to a negative cycle at the beginning of the century, leading to a flow of warmer air right over the South Pole. 

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What is the General Climate in the South Pole?

While temperatures at the South Pole still generally range from -50 to -20 degrees Celsius, the study shows that even the coldest and most isolated parts of Antarctica are starting to feel the impacts of the climate crisis. The study illustrates how complex the Antarctic climate is and how it is influenced by climate cycles in completely different regions of the world. Climate change in the region is difficult to determine as different regions of the continent often experience different climate trends at the same time. 

For example, while the South Pole was cooling in previous decades, West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula was melting; now that the South Pole is heating up, warming on the peninsula has declined. Additionally, sea ice in the Southern Ocean was expanding for most of the last 35 years, but from 2014, this reversed and scientists aren’t entirely sure why, although they have postulated that these shifting patterns could be due to natural climate cycles, like the IPO or El Niño, and the influence of the climate crisis on oceanic and atmospheric currents around Antarctica. 

Unfortunately, these natural climate variabilities make it difficult to link human-caused climate change and global warming. Nevertheless, it is still vital to decrease greenhouse gas emissions as Antarctica’s seaside glaciers are rapidly melting from the bottom up as warm ocean water seeps beneath the ice, which could have disastrous impacts on rising sea levels globally. 

Warming ocean temperatures caused by the climate crisis have a profound effect on the ocean’s ability to function optimally. Besides sea level rise, other dangers facing the oceans include increased algal and seaweed growth in some areas, loss of coral reefs and impacts on fish location, abundance and migration patterns.

Warming Ocean: Effects on Marine Life

Higher-than-normal temperatures are often the main trigger for the growth of harmful algal blooms which occur in lakes, rivers and oceans. Only a few of these blooms produce toxins, however, many more have a significant negative impact on the ecosystems around them as they act as canopies, reducing light reaching the species below and affecting their ability to grow. Algal blooms typically appear just off the continent in relatively warm water, near enough to the surface to receive sunlight. Although algae photosynthesise and produce oxygen, when they accumulate in large quantities, they begin to take in more oxygen through respiration than they emit. This has a knock-on effect for fish as they are consequently deprived of oxygen. Additionally, these blooms consume other minerals, such as nitrogen and phosphorus which other species require, therefore limiting the growth of these other species.

Harmful algal blooms often occur in coral reefs, as these waters often contain the ideal minerals for algae to grow. These blooms prevent sunlight from reaching the coral, a harmful impact as corals require sunlight for the different types of algae inside of them to photosynthesise in order to provide the reefs with oxygen.

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Further, anthropogenic climate change is causing bleaching of coral reefs. The Great Barrier Reef has been subject to bleaching over the recent years, with three intense coral bleaching events in five years. More than 50% of the reef has already been lost, with another 40% likely to disappear within 10 years.

Bleaching causes coral to turn white because its algae disappear or lose its ability to photosynthesise (as shown in the picture above). Further, as more greenhouse gases are emitted, sea temperatures rise, which put the coral under stress, causing them to expel the algae which live within them. As the algae provides energy for the coral, this causes the coral reefs to die. The Great Barrier Reef lost between 29% and 50% of its coral between 2014 and 2016 alone. To add to this, between 2016 and 2017, the number of new corals on the reef decreased by 89%.

Seaweeds, or macroalgae, are thriving in the environments that cause corals to become bleached. Corals grow in clear and low-nutrient waters. They survive through symbiosis with microalgae that live within the coral. The coral produces nutrients and carbon dioxide, which is used by the algae. Along with sunlight, the algae use these wastes to photosynthesise to produce oxygen and sugars that are used by the coral. However, as nutrient levels increase through pollution, ocean acidification and other factors, the environment becomes less suited for corals and more suited for seaweeds, a process that will exacerbate as warming intensifies.

Additionally, with rising temperatures comes the inability of fish to adapt to the changing conditions, which is causing the global distribution or migration of fish to change, as well as causing the extinction of some species altogether. With this warming, fish are migrating north to cooler waters; two areas where fish are migrating to are the North Atlantic and North Pacific. This migration has also caused cod populations in the North Sea to decline, affecting fisheries in the region.

As fish stocks are declining globally, two thirds of the fish stocks in the world are being overfished or fished to their limit. Overfishing has caused fish stocks to decline by 90% in recent years.

Ocean species are less capable of adapting to changing conditions than land species are, which is causing ocean species to be lost at a much faster rate. Many marine species are cold-blooded and rely on the surrounding temperature to adjust their body temperature, unlike land species; this, coupled with the lack of adequate shelter in the oceans from the dangers of these rising temperatures, is responsible for this difference in adaptability. 

Researchers have called for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, ceasing overfishing and limiting ocean habitat destruction. Because humans are better able to adapt to warming temperatures, we forget about the ocean dwellers, which are not so lucky, however we rely on the ocean for food, tourism and trade, so it is therefore in our best interest to protect the oceans and all that live in it from these dangers. 

Algae blooms are causing ‘green snow’ along the coastlines of Antarctica and are likely to spread as temperatures rise, according to a study that has created the first large-scale map of the organisms and their movements. 

What is green snow?

The study, published in the Nature Communications journal, used European Space Agency satellite data gathered between 2017 and 2019 as well as on-the-ground observations over two summers in Antarctica’s Ryder Bay, Adelaide Island, the Fildes Peninsula and King George Island, which allowed scientists to map the microscopic algae as they spread across the snow of the Antarctic Peninsula, forming ‘green snow’. 

The data reported is a conservative estimate since it only included green algae. The satellite is only capable of picking up green, which means the data ignored the red and orange algae that accompany it. 

Scientists identified 1 679 separate blooms of green algae on the snow surface, covering an area of 1.9 sq km, equating to a carbon sink of around 479 tons per year. Patches of green snow algae can be found along the coastlines of Antarctica, usually in ‘warmer’ areas, where average temperatures are a little above zero degrees Celsius during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months of November to February.

Warming temperatures could create environments more favourable for the algae, which need slushy, wet snow to thrive.

Dr Andrew Gray, lead author of the paper, and a researcher at the University of Cambridge, says, “As Antarctica warms, we predict the overall mass of snow algae will increase, as the spread to higher ground will significantly outweigh the loss of small island patches of algae.”

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green snow antarctica

A map showing the areas in Antarctica where the ‘green snow’ is present (Source: Andrew Gray, Monika Krolikowski, Peter Fretwell, Peter Convey, Lloyd S. Peck, Monika Mendelova, Alison G. Smith, Matthew P. Davey. Nature Communications, 2020; 11 (1)).

Dr Gray added that while an increase in snow melt could lead to more algae growing, the distribution of the organisms is heavily linked to bird populations, whose excrement acts as a fertiliser to encourage growth. He says, “As bird- particularly penguin- populations are affected by warming temperatures, the snow algae could lose sources of nutrients to grow.” Over 60% of blooms were found near penguin colonies and others were found near birds’ nesting sites. 

Dr Gray says that an increase in the blooms could also lead to further snow melt. “It’s very dark- a green snow algal bloom will reflect about 80% of the light hitting it, so it will increase the rate of snow melt in a localised area,” he says.

Researchers found that almost two-thirds of the bloom were on small, low-lying islands. The researchers say that as the region warms due to the climate crisis, these islands could lose their summer snow cover and algae- although in terms of mass, the majority of snow algae is found in areas where they can spread to higher ground when snow melts. 

The Antarctic Peninsula is the part of the region that has experienced the most rapid warming in the latter part of the last century, the researchers say.

The region experienced an unprecedented heatwave in the beginning of the year- on February 9, a research station recorded a temperature of 20.75°C, the continent’s first time to exceed 20°C in recorded history.

The algal blooms in Antarctica are equivalent to about the amount of carbon that’s being omitted by 875 000 average UK petrol car journeys. Matthew Davey, one of the researchers of the study says, “That seems a lot but in terms of the global carbon budget, it’s insignificant. It does take up carbon from the atmosphere but it won’t make any serious dent in the amount of carbon dioxide being put in the atmosphere at the moment.” 

The ice sheet covering Greenland experienced dramatic melting in the summer of 2019, researchers have confirmed, in a study that reveals the loss was largely down to atmospheric circulation patterns that have become more frequent in the region, a phenomenon that is not being incorporated into climate models and suggests that scientists are underestimating the melt rates of the Greenland ice sheet.

Greenland Ice Sheet Melting: Facts

The Greenland ice sheet melted at a near record rate in 2019 and much faster than the average of previous decades. The sheet lost about 560 gigatons of water last year, which would contribute about 1.5mm of sea-level rise according to the study published in The Cryosphere, a scientific journal. The surface mass balance, the amount of ice the sheet gained from rain and snowfall minus the amount lost through meltwater run-off and evaporation, was 54 gigatons a year- about 320 gigatons lower than the average across earlier decades, and the greatest such drop recorded.

Marco Tedesco, a research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont- Doherty Earth Observatory and leader of the study, says, “We’re destroying ice in decades that was built over thousands of years. What we do here has huge implications for everywhere else in the world.”

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The team used satellite data, climate models and global weather patterns to investigate the melting of the surface of the ice sheet in 2019. Among their findings, the team report that almost 96% of the ice sheet experienced meeting at some time in 2019, compared with an average of just over 64% between 1981 and 2010.

The high pressure conditions lasted for 63 of the 92 summer days in 2019, compared with an average of 28 days between 1981 and 2010. A similar situation was seen in 2012, a record year for melting of the ice sheet. Levels of snowfall and reflection of sunlight, as well as cloudiness and absorption of sunlight were all influenced by the persistent high pressure zone over the sheet last summer. 

These anti-cyclonic conditions blocked the formation of clouds over southern Greenland, causing unfiltered sunlight to melt the ice sheet surface. Fewer clouds also meant less snow, which exposed darkened, soot-covered ice which absorbs heat instead of reflecting it. The study showed that conditions were different, but no better in the northern and western parts of Greenland, due to warm, moist air pulled up from lower latitudes. 

Tedesco says, “These atmospheric conditions are becoming more and more frequent over the past few decades.” 

Crucially, the team of researchers says that the climate models of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have not incorporated these unusual conditions into climate models. If these high pressure zones persist, future melting could be twice as high as currently predicted, which would have catastrophic consequences for sea-level rise. 

Over the last few decades, Greenland contributed between 20 and 25% of global sea level rise. If carbon emissions continue to increase, this share could rise to around 40% by 2100, not taking into account the ice melt in Antarctica, the largest ice sheet on Earth. 

Greenland’s ice sheet covers 80% of the island and is currently predicted to raise global sea levels by up to 7 metres if it melts entirely. 

Average temperatures in the Arctic region have risen two degrees Celsius since the mid-19th century, twice the global average.   

Featured image by: Kitty Terwolbeck

A new study shows that the Arctic will have ice-free summers by 2050, threatening the Arctic ecosystem with devastating consequences and escalating sea-level rise. 

Published in Geophysical Research Letters, the study involved 21 research institutes from around the world, where researchers analysed recent results from 40 different climate models. Using these models, the researchers assessed the progression of Arctic sea-ice cover in scenarios with high CO2 emissions and little climate protection. In these simulations, summer Arctic sea-ice disappeared quickly.

An Ice-Free Arctic

In most of these simulations, the Arctic sea-ice was reduced to less than a million sq kms- a level that is ‘practically sea-ice free’, according to the researchers- in September for the first time before 2050. 

Surprisingly, researchers also found that ice disappeared in some simulations where CO2 emissions were rapidly reduced, but that ice-free years would occur ‘only occasionally’. With higher emissions, the Arctic Ocean will become ice-free in most years.

Bruno Tremblay, Associate Professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at McGill University and co-author of the report, says, “While the Arctic sea-ice extent is decreasing during this transition to an ice-free Arctic, the year-to-year variability in extent greatly increases, making life more difficult for local populations and ice-dependent species.

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Sadly, there is enough ‘locked in’ global warming that even if carbon emissions are drastically reduced, there will still be a significant melting of sea-ice.

When will the Arctic melt completely?

Dirk Notz, who leads the sea-ice research group at University of Hamburg and coordinated the study, says, “If we reduce global emissions rapidly and substantially, and thus keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels, the Arctic will nevertheless be occasionally ice-free in summers even before 2050. This really surprised us.”

Currently, the North Pole is covered by sea-ice all year. Each summer, the area of sea-ice coverage decreases and grows again in winter. However, as a result of rising temperatures, the area of the Arctic Ocean covered by sea-ice has reduced rapidly over the past few decades. 

This affects the Arctic ecosystem and climate significantly. The sea-ice cover is a hunting ground and habitat for polar bears and seals and keeps the Arctic cool by reflecting sunlight.

The climate crisis is warming the Arctic more than twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet. Seas are now rising an average of 3.2 mm per year globally, and are predicted to climb to a total of 0.2 to 2m by 2100. In the Arctic, the Greenland Ice Sheet poses the greatest risk for sea levels because melting land ice is the main cause of rising sea levels.

This is made all the more concerning considering that last year’s summer triggered the loss of 60 billion tons of ice from Greenland, enough to raise global sea levels by 2.2mm in just two months

The researchers emphasise that humans determine how often the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in the summers, depending on the future level of emissions. It is vital that countries cooperate on a global scale to lower emissions to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown that will render hundreds of millions of people without homes. 

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