How Does Polar Ice Melting Affect the Environment?

By Laurie Brenner; Updated June 27, 2017
If humans don’t stop adding to global warming, in a mere hundred years, the world as it is now known won’t be the same at all.

When most people think of ice melting at the North and South poles, they automatically think of sea levels rising. But the melting of the ice sheets – and lower ice extents during the winter months – means much more than just additional water in the oceans, as the lack of ice at the poles also changes the ocean’s water currents, the jet streams and how weather forms across the planet. How fast polar ice disappears depends upon the world’s effectiveness at reducing pollution. Without effective programs in place to regulate, reduce and eliminate greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone – oceans across the globe may change more than just sea level.

Ice Sheets and Sea Water

Most people may not know that arctic ice in the North pole has little to do with rising seas because the ice sheet there floats atop the water, already displacing it with its size. As the arctic melts, the sea level stays the same, but the weather changes. The real threat in sea level increases come from the Greenland and the Antarctic ice sheets, which contain close to 99 percent of all the world’s fresh water. When the Antarctic melts, climate experts state that sea levels can rise to 200 feet and more. Greenland’s melting ice sheet will add another 20 feet to sea level rise.

Disappearing Seaboards

According to National Geographic’s projections of a 216-feet increase in sea level, the entire Eastern seaboard, the Gulf Coast and Florida would disappear. The hills of San Francisco would become a series of islands, with an inland sea forming in California’s Central Valley. Los Angeles and San Diego would be underwater, along with Seattle, parts of Portland, Oregon and British Columbia in Canada.

A recent report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that by the time a person born in 2017 reaches 33, sea levels could rise as much as 2 to 4 1/2 feet, doubling by 2100. After 2050, how fast sea levels rise depend on multiple factors. With a climate that continues heating up – and coastal erosion – these numbers could radically increase. This not only affects coastal communities around the world, covering London and other low-lying areas, but it damages global economies as well, requiring citizen evacuations and relocation of major shipping ports and businesses.

Polar Ice, Weather and Global Economies

The National Snow and Ice Data Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to scientific ice sheet research and backed by NASA, NOAA and the National Science Foundation, says that “The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets also influence weather and climate. Large high-altitude plateaus on the ice caps alter storm tracks and create cold downslope winds close to the ice surface.”

Arctic sea ice helps to regulate the climate by keeping it cool. As this sea ice melts, heat from the sun is absorbed by the oceans – instead of being reflected into space – contributing to warming oceans, water expansion and jet stream changes. Even small temperature changes in the Arctic can drastically effect weather all over the world.

Polar Ice and the Environment

As more heat is absorbed by the oceans, it creates a “positive feedback loop” that essentially changes the atmosphere’s and ocean’s circulation. The salt content of ocean water changes when polar ice melts, because it doesn’t contain any salt. When glaciers melt in the ocean, the freshwater tends to stay on top because salt water is heavier.

This affects ocean currents that normally move the warm water at the equator back to the arctic in a heat-and-salt-water process called t__hermohaline circulation. The completion of the cycle occurs when the colder water at depth begins to move south and then rises again at the equator as it warms. One well-known current that would be affected by this is the Gulf Stream. Changes in the Gulf Stream affects North America and Europe, and could lead to cooler weather over time and radical changes in some weather patterns in just weeks. While the Dennis Quaid movie, “The Day After Tomorrow” referenced this scenario, scientists feel it unlikely that rapid changes that result in a new ice age are unlikely, as the oceans don’t move heat and cold as quickly as the atmosphere does.

Changes to Wildlife and Indigenous Peoples

Images of emaciated polar bears floating on small ice blocks represent some of the more radical effects polar ice melt has on wildlife. But polar bears aren’t the only ones affected. Inuits in the Northern Hemisphere are experiencing reduced hunting seasons because of increased early spring ice melts. Because they mostly live in the coastal regions near the arctic, they depend on sea ice as a means for transportation and hunting. As the ice melts, their means to support themselves decrease. Tribal leaders also point to the last few decades where increased ice melt and global weather changes no longer allow them to accurately predict weather by using clouds, winds and ocean currents.

Melting Permafrost

In areas where the ground has stayed frozen for centuries, as in Alaska and Siberia, melting permafrost is also suspected as the cause of new outbreaks of diseases. Anthrax erupted in a small corner of Siberia in August 2016, caused by melting permafrost scientists and doctors theorize. More than 2,000 reindeer became infected and dozens of people hospitalized after a 75-year old reindeer corpse melted and released the spores across the Yamal Peninsula.

Anthrax is not the only virus frozen beneath the permafrost. Scientists posit that the bubonic plague and smallpox are also buried in Siberia’s frozen ground. Lands within the arctic circle’s also trapped methane and other gases when the ground froze. As it thaws, these greenhouse gases get released back into the atmosphere, and add to the global warming cycle. The only way to stop this vicious cycle is for all governments around the world to adhere to regulations that reduce and finally eliminate the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. If humans don’t stop adding to global warming, in a mere hundred years, the world as it is now known won’t be the same at all.

About the Author

As a native Californian, artist, businessperson, contractor, journalist and published author, Laurie Reeves began writing professionally in 1975. She has written for newspapers, magazines, online publications and sites. In 2003, she and her husband moved into the home she designed, they built and decorated. Reeves graduated from San Diego's Coleman College.