Up to 1.5 million homes in the UK could face a higher flood risk by 2080 due to rising seas caused by melting Arctic ice – with government ministers coming under fire for failing to pay attention to “drastic” environmental changes.
Increasing sea levels are set to erode British coastlines and place homes in jeopardy, with the Thames Barrier – designed to protect the capital from flooding – likely to need an upgrade to cope with higher tides.
Dramatic changes to the landscape could see future governments forced to choose where they build defences and where they allow flooding to happen.
The low-lying seaside village of Fairbourne in Wales could be submerged, with the local council fearing it could be uninhabitable by 2050.
Residents have been urged to leave so the area can be dismantled and turned into marshland.
Scientists told the Environmental Audit Committee’s sub-committee on polar research that greenhouse gases have already warmed the atmosphere enough to cause a global sea level rise of between 17.5mm and 52.4mm by 2100.
Any further warming will only exacerbate the problem, they warned.
And the faster Arctic ice melts, the more rapidly it disappears, in a process known as the Albedo effect.
This means that more of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the darker ocean, rather than being reflected by white ice back into space.
Arctic temperatures are rising four times as quickly compared to the global average, unleashing chaos on wildlife and the people who depend on the rapidly melting ice to survive.
Dwindling ice could destabilise a North Atlantic current known as the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (Amoc) which means the UK has milder winters compared to Russia and Canada.
But if enough ice thaws it could change the salt levels and temperature in the ocean – causing Amoc to collapse and plunge the UK into a much colder climate.
It could also accelerate warmth in the tropics – with some scientists fearing this could take place in the next century.
Further research is needed to know for sure how the UK would be impacted.
Changing Arctic ‘out of sight, out of mind’
Polar research sub-committee chair, James Gray, called on the government to send an ice-breaker ship to the Arctic and appoint a polar envoy.
For too long, the changing effects of the Arctic had been “out of sight, out of mind”, he warned – insisting the region should be treated with greater prominence.
“Before melting glaciers and ice sheets contribute to widespread flooding and irreversible weather patterns in the UK, we must throw our full toolbox at understanding changes in the Arctic better,” Mr Gray said.
He urged ministers to prioritise and earmark more funding for research, adding that the Arctic winter – which can reveal “an enormous amount” about the weather – is “understudied” compared to summer.
More collaboration is also needed among UK universities to avoid the same information being collected, as well as with international partners, Mr Gray said.
Russian invasion has inhibited research
Competition for oil, gas and minerals in the polar north, together with Russia’s war on Ukraine, has also inhibited scientific research.
“Russia has been frozen out of Western Arctic science following its invasion of Ukraine,” Mr Gray said.
“The Arctic Council, built with the purpose of boosting collaboration with Arctic nations, is becoming less influential and much of its important work has stalled.”
He described the loss of access to Russian data as “concerning”, adding that 50% of the Arctic is now “inaccessible” to Western scientists.
Four ministers in different government departments are due to meet at least once a quarter to discuss the issues raised – but have failed to do so even once.
“Whitehall has not been paying enough attention to the Arctic,” Mr Gray added.
“The fact ministers are yet to meet indicates a lack of enthusiasm on Arctic matters at the heart of government.
“They must meet quarterly given the drastic changes we are witnessing in our changing Arctic.”