Climate change is by far the most serious threat to Arctic biodiversity and exacerbates all other threats.
Summer temperatures in the Arctic during recent decades have been warmer than at any time in the past 2000 years, and the region is warming three times as fast as the rest of the planet. Within this century, temperatures in the Arctic are projected to increase by several degrees further from the 1980-2000 average. Changing combinations of high temperatures, winds and precipitation are likely to give rise to very different climates in the Arctic. Arctic summer sea ice cover – and particularly the amount of multi-year ice – is decreasing at an accelerating rate. The ocean is expected to become ice free in summer within a few decades. The increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are also leading to acidification of ocean waters worldwide, especially in colder Arctic waters that can dissolve more carbon dioxide. Warming is also causing loss of permafrost and glaciers, affecting hydrology, vegetation, erosion patterns and other features of terrestrial ecosystems.
The distribution of flora and fauna is shifting northwards as the Arctic continues to warm. On land, shrubs are growing taller and spreading, boreal species and ecosystems are already moving into what is now the low Arctic, and the treeline is expected to move north. While low Arctic species are expected to move into the high Arctic, some high Arctic species and ecosystems are expected to disappear or remain only as isolated fragments in high mountain areas. In the ocean, loss of sea ice is already affecting the timing and patterns of primary production, altering food webs and reducing the availability of sea ice to walrus and ice seals for resting, molting, breeding and rearing young. The total loss of some key habitats such as multi-year pack ice is expected. In the process of rapid change and transitions, new combinations of species are altering Arctic ecosystems.
By increasing the accessibility of the Arctic to humans, climate-induced changes will facilitate increased industrial activity such as oil and gas exploration and marine shipping. These changes will in turn bring other stressors to the region. For example, ships discharging ballast water into Arctic seas may introduce invasive species that may outcompete and displace resident species. The stress of climate change does not act in isolation, but works in conjunction with other stressors, yielding even greater risks to Arctic biodiversity.