Editor’s note: On March 28, Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill are hosting a conference to discuss “Who ‘owns’ the Arctic?” The event will focus on political, economic and cultural issues triggered by continuing environmental issues in the Arctic. Apurva Dave, co-coordinator of Duke’s Ocean Policy Working Group outlines his “Top 5 Reasons” why changes will affect a lot more than just polar bears.

5. The cryosphere is warming!

Maybe it’s not as dire as Chicken Little’s warning, but the cryosphere (which encompasses the areas of the Earth where frozen water exists) is definitely heating up. In the Arctic, scientists have observed increases in temperature and reductions in the three main components of the cryosphere: sea ice, permafrost and continental ice sheets and glaciers. These changes will affect virtually every aspect of the Arctic environment, although not always in easily predictable ways.

4. The clathrate gun

This dramatic bit of jargon describes a simple hypothesis: as the Arctic warms, frozen greenhouse gas deposits (clathrates) on the ocean floor will thaw and be released into the atmosphere, where they will further intensify the warming. This potential feedback is just one example of a number of internal processes that might amplify or dampen the response of the Arctic system to climate variability.

This ‘non-linear’ behavior makes it difficult to predict the rate at which changes will occur and of their precise spatial patterns. Even with all of the unknowns, however, the high degree of inter-connectedness between the different parts of the Arctic environment virtually assures that continued warming will result in dramatic changes.

3. Ecosystems will be affected

Arctic change will affect habitats on land and in the ocean, as well as the organisms that live in them. For example, marine species dependent on sea ice, including seals, walruses and polar bears, are very likely to decline as the ice retreats. Terrestrial (land) species will also likely be affected by the changes in temperature and precipitation, and also from the profound landscape and vegetation alterations that would accompany warming.

In addition to climate change, other stresses arising from human activities, such as chemical pollution and habitat destruction will also change Arctic ecosystems. It’s important to remember, however, that ecosystem disruptions ultimately redirect back to human society.

2. Human communities will be affected

Changes in the Arctic will also affect human communities. Reductions in sea ice and degradation of marine ecosystems will present a major cultural and economic challenge to indigenous societies. The loss of sea ice is also expected to impact the international community in the Arctic by increasing marine transport and enhancing access to (and competition for) offshore mineral resources, thus raising important issues of sovereignty, security and safety in the region.

On land, the thawing of frozen ground is expected to disrupt transportation and destabilize buildings and other infrastructure. Although all of these potential outcomes would be confined to the Arctic, the ramifications will be felt more broadly.

1. You will be affected

The polar regions are an integral part of the natural and human global environment, and so Arctic change and its consequences are expected to have worldwide implications. The warming at high latitudes will affect weather and climate experienced by those of us living at lower latitudes. Biodiversity and ecosystems around us will be affected by changes in the Arctic, where many migrating species spend part of their lives.

And in a world where economic and political connections span the globe, the as-yet-unresolved issues of sovereignty and security in the remote North will ultimately affect communities everywhere.