Flowers in the Arctic

March 1, 2019 Blog 0

By Randall Amster

Co-Director Environmental Studies, Co-Director Justice & Peace Studies at Georgetown University


Green is good when it comes to sustainability, but like anything else being green has its appropriate time and place. Take for instance the arctic regions, which decidedly aren’t associated with things being very green; while there are in fact some plant species that grow there, clearly the landscape is more frozen tundra than verdant valleys. And while it might make for a perverse political slogan to “Make Greenland Green Again,” it doesn’t play very well if one is concerned about the gathering storm of climate change and the habitability of the earth. Green may be virtuous, yet even a humble plant can represent a cataclysmic scenario in the wrong light.

To set the baseline: there are actually hundreds of plant species in the Arctic, and they are in fact amazingly colorful and diverse (note that we’re talking about the polar north here; Antarctica has only two native plant species, along with various mosses and lichens). These arctic plants generally have shallow roots since not much of the soil defrosts each year, and with a short growing season most of them don’t get very tall. Species such as caribou, oxen, hares, bears, and geese use some as a food source, while others are used medicinally by indigenous communities. To the extent that arctic plants represent a source of food and medicine, their proliferation might not be such a bad thing. That is, if we ignore the global warming trends that are driving more thawing and thus more potential plant growth.

In this light, comprehensive studies of satellite images and other data over nearly three decades confirm a marked “Arctic greening” and indicate that within this time period “there was a 16.4-percent decline in areas of the Arctic where cold temperatures once prevented certain species of plants to grow.” NASA’s assessment of these trends makes the connections explicit: “In a changing climate, almost a third of the land cover — much of it Arctic tundra — is looking more like landscapes found in warmer ecosystems.” As the researchers who conducted the landmark study of satellite images from 1984-2012 succinctly concluded, “the greening trend was unmistakable.”

Again, usually the mention of a “greening trend” would be something to be optimistic about; in many quarters, such a notion potentially would be welcomed when it comes to politics and economics. But reality has a way of subverting this logic, and in the case of the Arctic it turns out that “seeing green” applies mostly to a potential land grab and the profits that might inhere through more opportunities for resource extraction. It has been well-reported that as arctic ice melts, nations are seeking to expand their footholds and gain a competitive advantage as to resources including oil, gas, and minerals that are being rendered accessible (along with more conducive shipping lanes) by virtue of global warming.

Fast forward to today, and the news cycle contains odd juxtapositions such as this: “Greenland’s Melt Will Drive Up Sea Levels … But Also Give Us Sand.” Yes, there apparently is a global sand shortage, and a thawing Greenland is primed to be a major player in the market. In addition to industrial uses such as glass and electronics production, sand also is needed in coastal regions to bolster shorelines against rising sea levels. And if that isn’t alarming enough (sand from a thawing Greenland being used to bolster other places being swamped as ice melts), a recent report in Nature detailing the “promises and perils of sand exploitation in Greenland” recounts how sand mining is associated with many issues common to extractive industries, and can contribute to both human conflicts as well as species and habitat loss.

In other words, the greening of Greenland may be a positive feedback loop (with positive meaning “mutually amplifying” rather than “good”), in which a warming world opens up more opportunities for extraction, which in turn threatens to drive further warming, and so on. This vicious cycle can be exacerbated by more species of plants finding a foothold in the Arctic due to warming, disrupting ecosystems and promoting the growth of taller plants in the region, thus serving to make arctic ice less reflective and preventing the soil from freezing as quickly. Researchers have already drawn a connection between thawing and the release of carbon and methane from permafrost; adding in the contributions of more plants, we see that “the overall effect of this could potentially lead to an increase in the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and, consequently, an acceleration of global warming.”

recent study explains the feedback loop at hand, generously including a section laying it out in plain language: “Because the world is getting warmer, permanently frozen ground around the arctic, known as permafrost, is thawing. When permafrost thaws, the ground collapses and sinks. Often a wetland forms within the collapsed area. Conversion of permanently frozen landscapes to wetlands changes the exchange of greenhouse gases between the land and atmosphere, which impacts global temperatures.” And if that isn’t sufficiently clear, Inside Climate News summarized the dilemma in the title of their recent article: “Arctic Bogs Hold Another Global Warming Risk That Could Spiral Out of Control.”

In this light, a greening Arctic is a harbinger of a ravaged world, one rendered uninhabitable in large swaths or at least unrecognizable compared to what we have known during this era of unprecedented growth and development. Shakespeare may have written “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but perhaps not if that rose were to bloom in the Arctic. The specter of potential runaway effects in the offing leaves scant room for hope or escape; likewise in the book Flowers in the Attic (which inspired the title of this essay), the beset children ultimately flee to Florida — which today is close to ground zero for the impending effects of climate change. Indeed, it really isn’t easy being green, yet it is incumbent upon us to do so with full awareness of the intricacies and points of leverage at hand.

Sometimes when grappling with monumental issues like climate change, there’s a tendency (with good reason) to focus on the dramatic events and ruptures in our midst: floods, fires, droughts, storms, and more. Likewise, political interventions (when they exist at all) often are conceived at the scale of macroscopic policy initiatives and remote global phenomena (such as carbon levels or temperature thresholds) that can be hard to process. These efforts are indeed critical if we are to avert cataclysm, yet at times it’s worth recalling the subtler effects, emblematized by the presence of an innocuous flower.