The planet is warming, from North Pole to South Pole. Since 1906, the global average surface temperature has increased by more than 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius)—even more in sensitive polar regions. And the impacts of rising temperatures aren’t waiting for some far-flung future–the effects of global warming are appearing right now. The heat is melting glaciers and sea ice, shifting precipitation patterns, and setting animals on the move.
Many people think of global warming and climate change as synonyms, but scientists prefer to use “climate change” when describing the complex shifts now affecting our planet’s weather and climate systems. Climate change encompasses not only rising average temperatures but also extreme weather events, shifting wildlife populations and habitats, rising seas, and a range of other impacts. All of these changes are emerging as humans continue to add heat-trapping greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.Today’sPopular Stories
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Scientists already have documented these impacts of climate change:
- Ice is melting worldwide, especially at the Earth’s poles. This includes mountain glaciers, ice sheets covering West Antarctica and Greenland, and Arctic sea ice. In Montana’s Glacier National Park the number of glaciers has declined to fewer than 30 from more than 150 in 1910.
- Much of this melting ice contributes to sea-level rise. Global sea levels are rising 0.13 inches (3.2 millimeters) a year, and the rise is occurring at a faster rate in recent years.
- Rising temperatures are affecting wildlife and their habitats. Vanishing ice has challenged species such as the Adélie penguin in Antarctica, where some populations on the western peninsula have collapsed by 90 percent or more.
- As temperatures change, many species are on the move. Some butterflies, foxes, and alpine plants have migrated farther north or to higher, cooler areas.
- Precipitation (rain and snowfall) has increased across the globe, on average. Yet some regions are experiencing more severe drought, increasing the risk of wildfires, lost crops, and drinking water shortages.
- Some species—including mosquitoes, ticks, jellyfish, and crop pests—are thriving. Booming populations of bark beetles that feed on spruce and pine trees, for example, have devastated millions of forested acres in the U.S.
An iceberg melts in the waters off Antarctica. Climate change has accelerated the rate of ice loss across the continent.
… Read MorePhotograph by Paul Nicklen, Nat Geo Image Collection
As sea levels rise, salty ocean waters encroach into Florida’s Everglades. Native plants and animals struggle to adapt to the changing conditions. … Read MorePhotograph by Keith Ladzinski, Nat Geo Image Collection
The western U.S. has been locked in a drought for years. The dry, hot weather has increased the intensity and destructiveness of forest fires. … Read MorePhotograph by Paul Nicklen, Nat Geo Image Collection
Bunches of oil palm fruit are harvested by hand and then trucked to a mill in mainland Malaysia, where they are processed. Ancient forests around the tropics are being cut down to… Read MorePhotograph by PASCAL MAITRE, Nat Geo Image Collection
In the high plains of Bolivia, a man surveys the baked remains of what was the country’s second largest lake, Lake Poopó. Drought and management issues have caused the lake to dry up. … Read MorePhotograph by MAURICIO LIMA, Nat Geo image Collection
Climate change is impacting flora and fauna across the Arctic. Although scientists don’t know specifically what killed this individual polar bear, experts warn that many of the bears are having trouble finding food as the sea ice they historically relied on thins and melts earlier. … Read MorePhotograph by CRISTINA MITTERMEIER, Nat Geo Image Collection
Lake Urmia, in Iran, is a critical bird habitat and used to be a popular tourist destination. It is drying up because of climate change and management issues. … Read MorePhotograph by NEWSHA TAVAKOLIAN, Nat Geo Image Collection
The Scherer power plant in Juliet, Georgia, is the largest coal-fired power plant in the U.S. It burns 34,000 tons of coal daily, pumping over 25 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.
… Read MorePhotograph by Robb Kendrick, Nat Geo Image Collection
Ice melts on a mountain lake. Lakes around the world are freezing less and less over time, and in a few decades, thousands of lakes around the world may lose their winter ice cover entirely. … Read MorePhotograph by ORSOLYA HAARBERG, Nat Geo Image Collection
The Amazon is losing the equivalent of nearly one million soccer fields of forest cover each year, much of which is cut down to make way for agriculture. When forest is lost, the carbon it sequestered ends up in the atmosphere, accelerating climate change. … Read MorePhotograph by Frans Lanting, Nat Geo Image Collection
In Glacier National Park, forests are feeling the effects of early snowmelt and long, dry summers. The stresses on the park’s flora are exacterbated by climate change. … Read MorePhotograph by Keith Ladzinski, Nat Geo Image Collection
Other effects could take place later this century, if warming continues. These include:
- Sea levels are expected to rise between 10 and 32 inches (26 and 82 centimeters) or higher by the end of the century.
- Hurricanes and other storms are likely to become stronger. Floods and droughts will become more common. Large parts of the U.S., for example, face a higher risk of decades-long “megadroughts” by 2100.
- Less freshwater will be available, since glaciers store about three-quarters of the world’s freshwater.
- Some diseases will spread, such as mosquito-borne malaria (and the 2016 resurgence of the Zika virus).
- Ecosystems will continue to change: Some species will move farther north or become more successful; others, such as polar bears, won’t be able to adapt and could become extinct.