Andreas Späth

The Toll of Global Weirding

2011-05-25 07:22

Andreas Späth

Climate change is happening and we are responsible for it. So say the UN, Nasa, major insurance companies, the Pentagon and more than 97% of the researchers working in the field.

While scientists are still reluctant to link individual weather events to climate change, they are increasingly able to do so by using mathematical techniques which allow them to assess how frequently extreme events should occur if humans had not affected the climate. Ultimately the proof will lie in long-term global trends, but even those are becoming increasingly visible.

It’s instructive to review just a few recent climate happenings and some of the things scientists say we can expect if we don’t clean up our act very soon. Some of these are old hats while others are downright weird.

The long predicted...

• An average rise in global temperatures. Last year was the hottest year on record and the last decade was the warmest since 1850. Heat waves hit Russia and Mexico while Canada experienced its warmest and driest winter ever.

• Retreating ice and glaciers. Satellite-based research indicates that 75% of Himalayan glaciers are shrinking and ice in the polar regions is melting faster than expected. This year, the extent of Arctic sea ice was the lowest ever since the advent of satellite records.

• Rising sea-level. Current predictions forecast as much as 30cm by 2050, which might not sound a lot unless you’re one of the millions of people around the globe who inhabit low-lying coastal plains and river deltas or happen to live on ocean islands such as the Maldives, 80% of which are less than a metre above sea level.

• Precipitation. Higher global temperatures cause increased evaporation, higher levels of water vapour in the air and more precipitation in some areas while others experience droughts. This year and last have seen floods in, among other places, India, North Korea and China, the worst floods in living history in Benin, record snowfalls in parts of the USA and major flooding along the Mississippi.

• Feedback loops. Melting of carbon-rich permafrost in the arctic tundra releases more climate-changing CO2. Droughts cause die-offs in tropical rainforests turning them from carbon sinks into net sources of greenhouse gasses and leading to more temperature rises.

• Superstorms. Global satellite data show increasing wind speeds across the globe and more frequent extreme storm events such as cyclone Yasi that hit Queensland earlier in the year and a historic record number of tornadoes - 600 in April alone - in the US.

...the somewhat unexpected

• Unseasonal frost. Research indicates that increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere might reduce the ability of some plants to withstand frost damage, leading to a die-back of new growth during increasingly common unseasonal episodes of frost.

• Ocean acidification. The world’s oceans are very important absorbers of atmospheric CO2, but as levels increase, seawater is becoming more acidic, threatening many crucially important species at the bottom of the food chain that struggle to construct their soluble shells and skeletons.

• Birds. Changes in climate patterns are predicted to affect the migratory habits of birds. In the USA some have already been observed to fly further north during their winter migration.

• Ocean life. Tropical fish species have been noted to be moving into subtropical waters as a result of increasing temperatures. Stronger ocean winds are expected to cause higher waves which will affect important ecosystems such a giant kelp forests.

• Climate wars. In a 2010 report, the Pentagon warns that new weather patterns “may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict”.

• Diminished photosynthesis. Although climate change sceptics claim that more CO2 in the air will cause enhanced plant growth, increasing droughts and lack of water will lower the ability of plants to absorb the gas and photosynthesis will be inhibited.

...and the rather weird

• Allergies. In some northern states of the USA, the allergy-causing ragweed season now lasts significantly longer than in the past.

• Spiders. Studies show that the warming climate may shift the distribution of the brown recluse spider from its current habitat in the south-eastern USA to areas further north.

• Disappearing seasons. Kashmir, Uganda and Malawi appear to have lost traditional rainy seasons in recent time.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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