A rise in sea levels and the associated increased risk of storm surges – such as the devastation Hurricane Sandy wreaked on low-lying coastal areas of the northeastern United States – are a leading example of the global consequences of a changing Arctic. Meltwater run-off from the Greenland ice sheet, in particular, is a sensitive contributor to the rise in global sea levels. Air temperatures in Greenland can rise above freezing in summer and trigger melting at the lower elevations of the ice sheet (the much larger Antarctic ice sheet is far too cold to melt, even during the southern hemisphere summer).

Both the extent and intensity of surface melting in Greenland have increased, most recently in July 2012 when extraordinarily warm air temperatures thawed nearly the entire ice sheet for the first time in modern history. Thousands of aqua-blue river channels developed on top of the ice to carry the resultant meltwater run-off into moulins (sinkholes) plunging into the depths of the ice sheet. The reemergence of this run-off in rivers and fjords downstream triggered extreme flooding, and the destruction of one of Greenland’s most important bridges, en route to the global ocean.

Greenland’s contribution to global sea level rise is only one example of the transforming Arctic’s global impact. Others include global shipping opportunities and climatic feedbacks of shrinking summer sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean (a new low was set in September 2012), global economic consequences of developing mineral and fossil fuel resources in the region, and geopolitical consequences of expanding marine access and offshore sovereignty zones of the Russian Federation, Norway, Canada, Greenland/Denmark, and (perhaps) the US into the central Arctic Ocean basin.

The rapid physical and economic forces now transforming the Arctic thus offer a range of threats and opportunities both for the region and the world, requiring collective expertise in economics, resource development, transportation and geopolitics as well as climate science. Through its new Global Agenda Council on the Arctic, the World Economic Forum has brought together a diverse mix of global perspectives to work towards addressing the challenges posed by this unique region.

Author: Laurence C. Smith is a UCLA Professor and Vice-Chair of Geography and member of the Global Agenda Council on the Arctic

Image: Snow-covered mountains look over the Isfjord in Svalbard REUTERS/Reuters Staff