Potential Consequences of Climate Change

Potential Consequences of Climate Change

Cracks in Dry Mud

During a drought, cracks form in dried mud.
Credit: UCAR, Carlye Calvin

Over 100 years ago, people worldwide began burning more coal and oil for homes, factories, and transportation. Burning these fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These added greenhouses gases have caused Earth to warm more quickly than it has in the past.

How much warming has happened? Scientists from around the world with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tell us that during the past 100 years, the world's surface air temperature increased an average of 0.6° Celsius (1.1°F). This may not sound like very much change, but even one degree can affect the Earth. Below are some effects of climate change that we see happening now.

  • Sea level is rising. During the 20th century, sea level rose about 15 cm (6 inches) due to melting glacier ice and expansion of warmer seawater. Models predict that sea level may rise as much as 59 cm (23 inches) during the 21st Century, threatening coastal communities, wetlands, and coral reefs.
  • Arctic sea ice is melting. The summer thickness of sea ice is about half of what it was in 1950. Melting ice may lead to changes in ocean circulation. Plus melting sea ice is speeding up warming in the Arctic.
  • Glaciers and permafrost are melting. Over the past 100 years, mountain glaciers in all areas of the world have decreased in size and so has the amount of permafrost in the Arctic. Greenland's ice sheet is melting faster, too.
  • Sea-surface temperatures are warming. Warmer waters in the shallow oceans have contributed to the death of about a quarter of the world's coral reefs in the last few decades. Many of the coral animals died after being weakened by bleaching, a process tied to warmed waters.
  • The temperatures of large lakes are warming. The temperatures of large lakes world-wide have risen dramatically. Temperature rises have increased algal blooms in lakes, provided favorable conditions for invasive species, increased stratification in lakes, and lowered water levels in lakes.
  • Heavier rainfall cause flooding in many regions. Warmer temperatures have led to more intense rainfall events in some areas. This can cause flooding.
  • Extreme drought is increasing. Higher temperatures cause a higher rate of evaporation and more drought in some areas of the world.
  • Crops are withering. Increased temperatures and extreme drought are causing a decline in crop productivity around the world.  Decreased crop productivity can mean food shortages, which have many social implications.
  • Ecosystems are changing. As temperatures warm, species may either move to a cooler habitat or die. Species that are particularly vulnerable include endangered species, coral reefs, and polar animals. Warming has also caused changes in the timing of spring events and the length of the growing season.
  • Hurricanes have changed in frequency and strength. There is evidence that the number of intense hurricanes has increased in the Atlantic since 1970. Scientists continue to study whether climate is the cause.
  • More frequent heat waves. It is likely that heat waves have become more common in more areas of the world.
  • Warmer temperatures affect human health. There have been more deaths due to heat waves and more allergy attacks as the pollen season grows longer. There have also been some changes in the ranges of animals like mosquitoes that carry disease.
  • Seawater is becoming more acidic. Carbon dioxide dissolving into the oceans is making seawater more acidic. This could cause impacts on coral reefs and other marine life.

 

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