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The impact of increased surface temperatures is significant in itself. But global warming will have additional, far-reaching effects on the planet. Warming modifies rainfall patterns, amplifies coastal erosion, lengthens the growing season in some regions, melts ice caps and glaciers, and alters the ranges of some infectious diseases. Some of these changes are already occurring.
For most places, global warming will result in more frequent hot days and fewer cool days, with the greatest warming occurring over land. Longer, more intense heat waves will become more common. Storms, floods, and droughts will generally be more severe as precipitation patterns change. Hurricanes may increase in intensity due to warmer ocean surface temperatures.
It is impossible to pin any single unusual weather event on global warming, but emerging evidence suggests that global warming is already influencing the weather. Heat waves, droughts, and intense rain events have increased in frequency during the last 50 years, and human-induced global warming more likely than not contributed to the trend.
The weather isn’t the only thing global warming will impact: rising sea levels will erode coasts and cause more frequent coastal flooding. Some island nations will disappear. The problem is serious because up to 10 percent of the world’s population lives in vulnerable areas less than 10 meters (about 30 feet) above sea level.
Between 1870 and 2000, the sea level increased by 1.7 millimeters per year on average, for a total sea level rise of 221 millimeters (0.7 feet or 8.7 inches). And the rate of sea level rise is accelerating. Since 1993, NASA satellites have shown that sea levels are rising more quickly, about 3 millimeters per year, for a total sea level rise of 48 millimeters (0.16 feet or 1.89 inches) between 1993 and 2009.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that sea levels will rise between 0.18 and 0.59 meters (0.59 to 1.9 feet) by 2099 as warming sea water expands, and mountain and polar glaciers melt. These sea level change predictions may be underestimates, however, because they do not account for any increases in the rate at which the world’s major ice sheets are melting. As temperatures rise, ice will melt more quickly. Satellite measurements reveal that the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets are shedding about 125 billion tons of ice per year—enough to raise sea levels by 0.35 millimeters (0.01 inches) per year. If the melting accelerates, the increase in sea level could be significantly higher.
More importantly, perhaps, global warming is already putting pressure on ecosystems, the plants and animals that co-exist in a particular climate zone, both on land and in the ocean. Warmer temperatures have already shifted the growing season in many parts of the globe. The growing season in parts of the Northern Hemisphere became two weeks longer in the second half of the 20th century. Spring is coming earlier in both hemispheres.
This change in the growing season affects the broader ecosystem. Migrating animals have to start seeking food sources earlier. The shift in seasons may already be causing the lifecycles of pollinators, like bees, to be out of synch with flowering plants and trees. This mismatch can limit the ability of both pollinators and plants to survive and reproduce, which would reduce food availability throughout the food chain.
See Buzzing About Climate Change to read more about how the lifecycle of bees is synched with flowering plants.
Warmer temperatures also extend the growing season. This means that plants need more water to keep growing throughout the season or they will dry out, increasing the risk of failed crops and wildfires. Once the growing season ends, shorter, milder winters fail to kill dormant insects, increasing the risk of large, damaging infestations in subsequent seasons.
In some ecosystems, maximum daily temperatures might climb beyond the tolerance of indigenous plant or animal. To survive the extreme temperatures, both marine and land-based plants and animals have started to migrate towards the poles. Those species, and in some cases, entire ecosystems, that cannot quickly migrate or adapt, face extinction. The IPCC estimates that 20-30 percent of plant and animal species will be at risk of extinction if temperatures climb more than 1.5° to 2.5°C.
The changes to weather and ecosystems will also affect people more directly. Hardest hit will be those living in low-lying coastal areas, and residents of poorer countries who do not have the resources to adapt to changes in temperature extremes and water resources. As tropical temperature zones expand, the reach of some infectious diseases, such as malaria, will change. More intense rains and hurricanes and rising sea levels will lead to more severe flooding and potential loss of property and life.
Hotter summers and more frequent fires will lead to more cases of heat stroke and deaths, and to higher levels of near-surface ozone and smoke, which would cause more ‘code red’ air quality days. Intense droughts can lead to an increase in malnutrition. On a longer time scale, fresh water will become scarcer, especially during the summer, as mountain glaciers disappear, particularly in Asia and parts of North America.
On the flip side, there could be “winners” in a few places. For example, as long as the rise in global average temperature stays below 3 degrees Celsius, some models predict that global food production could increase because of the longer growing season at mid- to high-latitudes, provided adequate water resources are available. The same small change in temperature, however, would reduce food production at lower latitudes, where many countries already face food shortages. On balance, most research suggests that the negative impacts of a changing climate far outweigh the positive impacts. Current civilization—agriculture and population distribution—has developed based on the current climate. The more the climate changes, and the more rapidly it changes, the greater the cost of adaptation.
Ultimately, global warming will impact life on Earth in many ways, but the extent of the change is largely up to us. Scientists have shown that human emissions of greenhouse gases are pushing global temperatures up, and many aspects of climate are responding to the warming in the way that scientists predicted they would. This offers hope. Since people are causing global warming, people can mitigate global warming, if they act in time. Greenhouse gases are long-lived, so the planet will continue to warm and changes will continue to happen far into the future, but the degree to which global warming changes life on Earth depends on our decisions now.