4 Things to Know from The New IPCC Report on Oceans and Ice Systems

BY: Climate Nexus

MONTE CARLO, Monaco – Today, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) in the Principality of Monaco. This report, the product of a week of editing in which the scientists who authored the report took questions from delegations of 111 member nations, is the third Special Report in the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report Cycle, following the 1.5° Report in October 2018 and Lands report in August 2019.

The Special Report on Oceans and the Cryosphere offers a grim picture. We have simply waited too long to reduce emissions, and will be forced to grapple with impacts that can no longer be avoided. However, the difference between sharply reducing emissions and continuing along the “business as usual” pathway is stark: Under a low-emissions scenario, managing the impacts of climate change will be expensive but possible; doing nothing will result in unmanageably catastrophic effects.

“It’s really from the highest mountains to the oceans, the systems are directly linked to each other,” said Regine Hock, an author on this report and a professor of Geophysics at the University of Alaska. “It is very important to recognize that you cannot just go and consider one system or one in isolation, but it’s all these changes happening consistently and coherently around the world and they’re linked together.”

Here are some of the key takeaways:

  • 1) Oceans have gotten warmer, more acidic, and are losing oxygen, resulting in a cascade of negative effects that wreak havoc on marine ecosystems, threaten the collapse of the world’s fisheries, and turbocharge deadly hurricanes and tropical storms.

  • 2) Polar ice sheet loss has increased dramatically, overtaking thermal expansion and glacial melt as the predominant cause of sea level rise since the IPCC last made an assessment in 2013. Sea level rise is now accelerating and the IPCC is now forecasting higher sea levels under the high-emissions pathway. Even under a low-emissions scenario, most of the East and West Coasts of the U.S. will experience a hundred-year flood every year unless major investments are made to adapt to these coming extreme events. Globally, this investment would run up to hundreds of billions of dollars per year.

  • 3) The world has reached or is nearing critical tipping points. Polar ice sheets may now be unstable, and as a result long-term melting may now be irreversible. Meanwhile, methane and carbon released as permafrost thaws will further contribute to warming, pushing toward a tipping point that, if passed, could trap the planet in a vicious feedback loop that could unleash accelerating warming.
  • 4) Water scarcity and wildfires will become worse as glaciers melt and snowpack declines. Already, communities that rely on glacial melt and snow runoff for agriculture and drinking water are left high and dry, while wildfires have grown increasingly common in the Arctic and high mountains as permafrost and snowpack melt.