Imperial College London

Record-breaking temperatures in the Arctic, what this means for climate change

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Orange sunrise over a city and landscape (Dmitry Karyshev CC-BY-2.0)

Q&A with Prof Martin Siegert on the impacts of a six-month Siberian heatwave, which scientists say would have been impossible without global warming.

A record-breaking heatwave in Siberia in the Arctic Circle has seen temperatures over the past six months reach as high as 38°C, and 5°C above the average for the region.

Professor Martin Siegert, Co-Director of the Grantham Institute - Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College london, was interviewed by BBC News about a report by scientists from the UK Met Office, who say the worrying situation have been impossible without global warming.

Siberia is a by-word for the coldest of cold conditions, so a heatwave in Siberia just doesn’t seem right, does it?

It certainly is cold in the wintertime, but it does warm up in the summer, just not usually at the extreme level we’ve seen over the last six months or so. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet. So, while the global average is about 1°C of warming since 1850, we’ve now seen an average of 2°C of warming in the arctic. All this is because human activities are putting carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere.

Is this one of the strongest pieces of evidence you’ve ever seen for man-made climate change?

People that I spoke to about this weather in the Arctic immediately linked it to human-made climate change because it’s just so extreme. But, having a hunch isn’t good enough, and that’s why the scientists in the Met Office have crunched the numbers and demonstrated that it’s just about impossible to have these temperatures in the Arctic without human-made global warming.

  • Young man sits in forest undergrowth as fire burns behind him

    Fighting a forest fire in Siberia (Tatiana Bulyonkova CC-BY-2.0)

  • People peer through smoky forest scene

    Fighting a forest fire in Siberia (Tatiana Bulyonkova CC-BY-2.0)

  • Forest fire

    Fighting a forest fire in Siberia (Tatiana Bulyonkova CC-BY-2.0)

  • Sillhouette of man in smoke filled forest darkness

    Fighting a forest fire in Siberia (Tatiana Bulyonkova CC-BY-2.0)

  • Young woman pulls up undergrowth in smoky forest

    Fighting a forest fire in Siberia (Tatiana Bulyonkova CC-BY-2.0)

What are the consequences for the rest of the world and specifically for the UK?

We’re very close to the Arctic here in the UK, in fact we’re the most northerly non-Arctic state. We have had extreme weather events before that are linked to conditions in the Arctic. People will remember the ‘Beast from the East’ from a few years ago where very cold Arctic air moved south and west across the UK. And at other times [very high pressure in the Scandinavian Arctic] caused storm after storm after storm to come over us instead of passing further to the North. So, we know that we are affected by the situation in the Arctic.

What we are less certain of is precisely how future changes in the Arctic will affect us. It stands to reason that they will, but in fairness we don’t understand the precise details. […] Indeed, it’s a bit of a gap in our scientific knowledge at the moment. We think the UK certainly has a strategic need to know more about [how its weather will change as a consequence of further Arctic warming].

people on a packed UK train carriage, bundled up in coats and hats
Beast from the East: severe winter storms cause travel chaos in 2018 (Rob Glover CC-BY-2.0)

We know that there are lots of greenhouse gases trapped in permafrost in the Arctic, what happens if that melts?

Methane that will be released from permafrost is a very potent greenhouse and that will do a lot of damage if it’s released.

But it’s more serious than that because we know that the Arctic sea ice – this thin layer of ice covering the Arctic Ocean - is reducing by about 13% per decade, and it has been since we’ve been able to measure it in the 1970s. At the moment, it’s a reflective white surface that’s bouncing back the sun’s energy back into space, but if it melts then it’s replaced by a dark [heat absorbing] surface. So, the more sea ice we lose, the more the Arctic heats up - it’s a feedback process.

But there’s another reason that’s also important. The Arctic sea ice is basically a lid on the ocean protecting it from the winds that blow above it. If you think about the North Sea, where winds whip up waves, that doesn’t really happen in the Arctic because the layer of ice protects [the water beneath]. But as the lid is slowly being removed, we start to mobilise the ocean, and the frightening thing is that there’s lots of warm water [a few hundred meters] below the surface – and as the water starts to get whipped up then this warm water may come to the surface. If it does, we’ll see even more Arctic warming.

We know what to do to counteract climate change. Do you have any feeling that we’re making any inroads into dealing with the problem?

Wall cavity insulation being installed at a UK home
Wall cavity insulation reduces the amount of energy needed to heat homes, a priority for UK policymakers ( George Redgrave CC-BY-2.0)

The situation is well understood at a gross level, that we are causing climate change, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is over 400 ppm, and it hasn’t been that high for something like four million years, when temps were 3-4°C higher and the sea level was 20m higher, so given enough time that’s where we’ll be.

We know this is the case, and the international scientific community has established a plan to make sure that we reduce global emissions to net zero within 30 years. It’s a colossal effort and I’m pleased to see the UK understands that. We have a legally binding commitment to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050.

Other countries need to follow this. Although it will change the way we live and a lot of the ways we do things, we have to do it [to allow future generations to live on the planet as we would wish to].

Governments have been distracted by coronavirus, although some are talking about green recoveries. Where does that leave us?

It’s really good to see that some countries are seeing that they can get their economies back on track, but that doesn’t mean a return to what we had before, because it’s not good enough from a climate change perspective. This situation isn’t the way we wanted things to happen, but it’s an opportunity to start to form an economy that’s also a very low carbon emissions economy.

In the UK we have an R&D [research and development] roadmap that has climate change written all over it, we have a recovery from covid-19 report that again establishes the need to really invest in solutions to climate change.

The European Union [has its Green New Deal] as well and [presidential candidate] Joe Biden would have the United states make the same efforts to really invest in solutions to climate change. These are major economies that understand, and are committed to, making things change over the next 20-30 years. Now is the time for action to make it happen.

[Some comments have been edited for clarity and brevity]

Download: The Arctic and the UK: climate, research and engagement

This Grantham Institute discussion paper explains how the UK’s climate is linked to conditions in the Arctic, and why a UK Arctic science strategy is integral to understanding how global warming will change the Arctic and affect the UK.

'Learning from ice': Listen to a Planet Pod podcast with Professor Siegert

This podcast discusses what studying core samples from over 2.5 million years ago can tell us about the likely impact of climate change today.

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Images credits:

Sunrise on the last day of Indian summer (Bugry, Novosibirsk Oblast, Russia, August 2019) Dmitry Karyshev

Yugansky nature reserve fire Tatiana Bulyonkova

Rail network closing down due to Beast From the East! Rob Glover

Cavity wall insulation George Redgrave

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Simon Levey

Simon Levey
The Grantham Institute for Climate Change

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Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 5650
Email: s.levey@imperial.ac.uk

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