Climate Change – Part II – Consequential Symptoms

The Symptoms

So far, we have had a taste of the basic science behind climate change or global warming. Now, it’s time to look at the consequences. Let’s dive right in.

There is a lot that is happening now which may serve as prelude to what may happen in the future. Briefly, the major consequences of global warming would involve: extreme heat (a warmer Earth), extensive floods and droughts (but not everywhere), a big melt (say goodbye to glaciers), rising oceans and stormy weather (friendly neighborhood hurricanes and other storms), as well as ravaged ecosystems and agriculture (a price for life inclusive of all species on Earth).

Rising Temperatures 

Much of the effects of global warming comes down to discussing the effects of an average rise in the planet’s temperature. Remember, small changes in climate can equate to major effects around the world.  The “Ice Age” was caused by an average drop of just 5 degrees Celsius over a time period of thousands of years. So, what can we say about the opposite scenario? What will happen in the Earth’s average temperatures increases a few degrees in just a few hundred years?

Graph of global mean temperature from 1880 to 2009 (NASA).

Note the shorter time span. Why? Well, as humans, we have had quite the impact on the planet. Picking up around the era of industrialization, we have come far, and in our development, we have meted out a measurable influence in the biosphere. Global warming is a significant increase in the Earth’s climatic temperature over a short period of time due to human activity. We are living in the Anthropocene epoch (the term itself is yet to be deemed official).  The largest human influence has been the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, thanks to the heavy utilization of fossil fuels.

This is a big deal. To put things in perspective, natural changes in climate would follow rises, and falls in temperature amounting to 1 degree Celsius over thousands of years. The Earth’s climate can change due to volcanic activity, plant life, solar radiation, and atmospheric chemistry. Significant evidence from the IPCC now shows our role in accelerating these changes over shorter time periods.

Glaciers and Ice Shelves 

One of the most publicized effects of global warming is the melting of glaciers and ice shelves. This is quite a problem as ice plays a prominent role in reflecting solar radiation away from Earth. Thus, the loss of large surfaces areas of ice could accelerate global warming. The chain of effects, mentioned earlier, pretty much follow in response.

An immediate result of melting glaciers would be the rise in sea levels. As glaciers  melt, they are adding to the water already in the Earth’s oceans. While the rise in sea level may be modest, amounting to an inch or two, this can still cause various problems, namely the flooding of low-lying coastal areas. The scenario is particularly dire if the West Antarctic Ice sheet were to melt. This would push sea levels up to 10 meters, and many coastal areas would completely disappear.

Research predictions indicate rising sea levels up to 22 inches by the year 2100. As of now, the main big melt is occurring in the North Pole where the ice is not as nearly thick as at the South Pole. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the possibility of a summation of gradual increases in temperature to slowly, but surely, affect all corners of the planet.

A poster child for the consequences of climate change, the nation of Maldives is facing a rise in sea levels and the bleaching of its coral reefs. 

The Age of Storms

With a rise in the overall temperature of the ocean, tropical storms and hurricanes will increase in force. This is most evident in the North Atlantic where ocean temperatures have risen through long-term warming, and the cyclical nature of Atlantic currents. Think of it as a cyclic storm generator. In fact, the tropics as a whole are experiencing a general trend towards ocean warming that follows global warming.

Now, despite these projected trends, one cannot tie any single devastating hurricane or other weather event directly to global warming. This was a popular opinion when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005. While the devastation, and damage caused to the city were horrible, it is well understood that Katrina’s impact also takes into consideration the storm’s track, the weaknesses of levees, and many other factors. Nonetheless, the verdict is that for the storms to come in the future, there will be an overall strengthening of winds and rainfall.

A Changing of the Seasons 

While global warming will cause a certain lengthening of the seasons, its most devastating effects, the ones that are most difficult to predict, involve its impact on the world’s biosphere. Changing seasons may benefit certain parts of the world, while other temperate parts of the world would face long droughts, and a general decrease in precipitation.

This will be particularly influential to the ecosystems that currently thrive on the planet. Ecosystems are delicate, and even the slightest change can kill off several species. Furthermore, ecosystems are interconnected, and so what may begin as a simple symptom may develop into a chain reaction that will ravage the biosphere.

Mapping vulnerability and conservation adaptation strategies under climate change   James E. M. Watson, Sept 2013 Nature 

Life, in essence, will once again become a competition revolved around a species’ ability to adapt to the shifts in climate, though it is highly likely that many will become extinct. The most drastic example of change, in light of global warming, is actually displayed on the documentary Planet Earth where we are shown how the tundra in Northern Canada has turned mostly to forest.

Last, but not least, much of this will have a human cost. It is hard to quantify the exact amount but we can expect a greater number of medical occurrences involving heat-strokes, and other heat related trauma. Poor, and underdeveloped nations will suffer the worst effects as they do not have the financial resources to deal with the problems that follow. Prolonged droughts may lead to desertification of areas, and widespread starvation. Decreasing precipitation would limit crop growth, and coastal flooding would result in a spread of water-borne illnesses. All in all, the world’s economy will take a wallop, and so will the condition of life on Earth.

It Does Not Compute!

So, after all is said and done, why is it that some people still aren’t concerned about global warming? Despite a scientific consensus on the subject, many believe global warming to be a farce. In Part III, we shall bring this discussion series on climate change to a conclusion by addressing quite possibly the two most crucial elements of the crisis: communication, and the incentive towards action.