Average temperatures in Alaska, western Canada, and eastern Russia have risen at twice the global average, according to the multinational Arctic Climate Impact Assessment report compiled between 2000 and 2004.
Arctic ice is rapidly disappearing, and the region may have its first completely ice-free summer by 2040 or earlier. Polar bears and indigenous cultures are already suffering from the sea-ice loss.
Glaciers and mountain snows are rapidly melting—for example, Montana’s Glacier National Park now has only 27 glaciers, versus 150 in 1910. In the Northern Hemisphere, thaws also come a week earlier in spring and freezes begin a week later.
Coral reefs, which are highly sensitive to small changes in water temperature, suffered the worst bleaching ever recorded in 1998, with some areas seeing bleach rates of 70 percent. Experts expect these sorts of events to increase in frequency and intensity in the next 50 years as sea temperatures rise.
An upsurge in the amount of extreme weather events, such as wildfires, heat waves,and strong tropical storms, is also attributed in part to climate change by some experts.
For the people of Mongolia, temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius are not unusual during the winter season. But this past winter, Mongolia has been experiencing particularly disastrous conditions referred to locally as a ‘dzud’. Dzuds are devastating for Mongolians because over a third of the population is dependent on livestock herds for their livelihoods, and during a dzud, millions of animals – sheep, goats, camels, horses, cattle, yaks – die from starvation.
Mongolian pastoralists distinguish between three types of dzud. During a ‘white dzud’, heavy snowfall prevents animals from accessing their winter forage. An ‘ice or iron dzud’ occurs when freezing rains lock the grass away under an impenetrable layer of ice. The ‘black dzud’ happens after a dry summer, when the herds have already grazed pastures down to the bare earth, and then a bitter cold winter brings on starvation.
Although dzuds are not uncommon, a first-hand observer reports that “people say they haven’t seen such a freezing winter in 30 years. It isn’t only a problem for the livestock and herders, but also for the common people who are struggling to find a source of heat.” During January and February, temperatures dropped to -48 degrees Celsius and the Government of Mongolia has declared disaster status in 12 of 21 provinces across the country.
For herders, their animals provide not only meat and milk, but also cash income from the sale of cashmere wool, and fuel in the form of dried dung. The herds are also a source of prestige and the family heirloom. With the loss of their herds, families are forced to migrate to urban centres, a situation for which both herders and the Mongolian job market are ill-prepared.
The severity of this year’s dzud has been compounded by other factors. Mining operations have decreased access to good grazing areas and climate change has accelerated desertification. At the same time, increases in herd size have put available pastoral lands under extreme pressure. Whereas traditionally, grasses were cut and stored during the summer to act as a buffer during harsh winter months, today herders find it difficult to locate sufficient fodder to set aside for the winter.
Far from Mongolia, Sami reindeer herders in northern Sweden have also been experiencing an increased frequency of difficult winters. During the last six years, three winters have been disastrous due to what Sami call ‘tjuokke’ – the locking away of pastures under an impenetrable sheet of ice. When this occurs, whole reindeer herds may perish unless they can be moved rapidly elsewhere or fed on industrially-produced food.
According to a Swedish government report, difficult winter conditions will become increasingly common as climate change advances. As in Mongolia, options for Sami herders to respond to severe winter conditions are dangerously narrowed by competition with mining, forestry, hydropower and expanding urban areas, which increasingly occupy their traditional winter pasturelands. Climate change will exacerbate an already difficult situation for Sami herders.
Are the communities that you know facing unusual or extreme climatic conditions that may be related to global climate change? Are options for adaptation limited by additional social or environmental constraints, as in the examples above from Mongolia and Sweden?
Since late June 2010, central parts of European Russia have suffered scorching heat, with temperatures reaching 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in the shade. A farmers’ group said the heat had destroyed crops in an area the size of Portugal.
The drought and heatwave have dominated state-run media for weeks but many Russians remain sceptical about climate change. Green groups say the apathy has allowed the government to avoid tough measures to cut carbon emissions and produce more clean energy.
“The heatwave of the past two months is a consequence of climate change and Greenpeace experts have found evidence of this,” the organisation said in a statement. “The government of Russia, one way or another, will have to take measures to combat the effects of climate change.”
Greenpeace said the drought was compounded by an unusually dry 2009, which sapped moisture from the earth in important agricultural regions, including Volgograd and Voronezh in the south of European Russia.
Spring 2009 was unusually dry and a dry early winter sucked the remaining moisture from the earth, Greenpeace said. The snow that fell in mid-winter was unable to soak into the frozen soil and was washed away by spring floods.
Alexei Yablokov, head of the Green Russia political movement and an adviser to the Russian Academy of Sciences, said this summer’s heatwave had broken all records.
“This is linked to global warming, though of course you can’t say it’s the only cause … Such episodes are very important to convince people, but I am not sure anything will change quickly,” he said.
Russia’s national weather service was more doubtful, saying that, despite evidence of a gradual rise in winter temperatures in recent years, there was not enough evidence yet to prove that global warming was changing Russia’s climate.
“One episode is not enough to prove the link with global warming,” said Dmitry Kiktev, deputy head of Russia’s state weather agency.
“The long-term statistics show that our winters have definitely become warmer over the past 30 years. But there is no clear sign of the same thing happening with our summers.”
President Dmitry Medvedev said last year that by 2020, his country would reduce emissions by between 10 and 15 percent from 1990 levels. In reality, this means a 30 percent rise from current levels since emissions tumbled after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline of its smokestack industries.
Russia was the fourth biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in 2009, according to data from the energy firm BP.
Political analyst Maria Lipman at the Carnegie Centre think tank in Moscow said she had seen no sign yet that the heatwave would cause significant political pressure for tougher action on carbon emissions.
“Climate change has never been a big public issue in Russia and there are powerful interests who are against any sharp change in policy,” she said.