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Warming of the Polar Regions

The effects of climate change are not the same in all parts of the world. While Earth’s average temperature has risen 0.6°C (1.0°F) during the 20th century, some areas of our planet are warming faster than others. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as other parts of the world. In Alaska (USA) average temperatures have increased 3.0°C (5.4°F) between 1970 and 2000. The warmer temperatures have caused other changes in the Arctic region such as melting ice and shrinking polar bear habitat. In the opposite hemisphere, the Antarctic Peninsula has also warmed rapidly, five times faster than the global average. Meanwhile, temperatures of the interior of the Antarctic continent have remained stable or have cooled, which may be related to ozone depletion. Since 1945, the Antarctic Peninsula has warmed about 4.5°F (2.5°C). The Southern Ocean is also warming faster than expected.

Why are the polar regions particularly vulnerable to global warming? The ice and snow in the polar regions, because of its light color and high albedo, reflect most incoming solar energy back out to space. However, as more greenhouse gases cause our planet to warm, some of this ice and snow melts, less of the solar radiation is reflected out to space, and more of it is absorbed by the Earth’s surface and oceans. The added energy warms the polar regions, causes more ice to melt and more warming.

As the atmosphere of polar regions becomes warmer, this impacts the land, cryosphere, ocean circulation, and living things in these regions. Click the links below to discover more about the effects of global warming in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Photo: These images illustrate the magnitude of the difference in ice cover, which is about 1.6 million km2, between 1980 and 2003. The comparison shows a dramatic decrease in the Arctic’s ice cover. Scientists are currently using new technology in NASA’s ICESat satellite to measure both the thickness and extent of sea ice in the Arctic, and thereby gain a deeper understanding of the consequences of this change.

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