Climate Change Is Turning the Arctic Brown

We often hear the Earth is experiencing an overall increase in temperature due to climate change. And sometimes these statements are qualified with the fact that this is an overall average — with not every part of the planet warming at the same rate or experiencing the same degree of environmental effects.

The Arctic is a good example of this. It’s not only warming at twice the rate of the planet as a whole, but it’s also particularly vulnerable to climate effects due to the uniquely balanced nature of its ancient ecosystems.

So it’s extremely concerning that each year we have one climate-related event after another that we have not previously seen. For example, we saw the opening of the once-mythical Northwest Passage a few years back. And then there was the recent polar vortex, giving the Midwest the kind of cold that used to be more common decades ago at the expense of taking that chill away from the Arctic where it belongs.

Now, the latest report focuses on the Arctic. Researchers have compared satellite imagery over the past several years, which revealed that parts of the Arctic are turning brown.

How did this happen, and what does it mean? First, some background.

The fragile ecological balance of Arctic flora, fauna and microbes can be found in other parts of the world. Deserts, generally speaking, have less diversity than high-precipitation areas, such as rainforests. And less-diverse ecosystems are like textiles with lower thread counts. Fewer connections among species and lower redundancy in ecological roles mean less resilience to change.

For example, what if you lose one of the main decomposers in an already low-diversity environment? This would have ripple effects on soil quality, impacting vegetation growth, the herbivorous animal population and ultimately predators.

The Arctic is an example of a desert, due to its low annual rain and snowfall. But it’s also a system that for millennia has experienced an annual autumn frost and spring thaw at more or less the same time each year. The plants are used to this growing season, as are the animals. For instance, polar bears are used to having accessible ice crossings for a certain portion of the year for migrations and hunts.

What is happening now with the accelerated warming trend is more vegetation is growing than usual. And insects are taking advantage of both the food source and the longer seasons to move farther north into uncharted and relatively defenseless territory.

The changing climate opens up new territory for various species, which can throw their new homes out of ecological balance. The Arctic browning is the result of a pestilence on existing and newly expanded vegetation that climate change is making possible. And the people living in this region have noticed the changes — being unable to harvest food sources, such as berries, as a result.

This is already a radically different Arctic than we are used to. Even if warming were immediately stopped, the knock-on effects from the changes thus far may well still prove disastrous for this particularly beautiful but breakable part of our living planet.

Photo credit: Getty Images


Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson26 days ago

Thank you.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara27 days ago

let's do our best

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara27 days ago


Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara27 days ago


Cindy M. D
Cindy M. D28 days ago

I hope this visual is enough for the world to start caring about our future and making sure there actually is a future. As for tRUMP... SAD SIGH :(

Muriel Servaege
Muriel Servaege28 days ago

Scary. How much time before the end of the world?

Berenice Guedes de Sá

This is really sad adn upset! Weshoul all be concerned and worried about these changes in the poles!

Rita Delfing
Rita Delfing29 days ago

Well according to many it's not warming, it's normal.......those folks will never believe what others are seeing and that the acceleration is clear, it's heart breaking to see what is happening to this planet.

Marija M
Martija Mohoric29 days ago

so very sad...

Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld29 days ago

Dorre R.,
You missed the other major contributor - deforestation. Cutting down trees removes the largest carbon sink from the surface of the planet. Not to mention, cities absorb much more incoming radiation than forests.