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water vapor capacity to double the warming caused by carbon dioxide

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.

Rising Sea Levels

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.

Graph of average global sea level since 1880.

Sea levels crept up about 20 centimeters (7.9 inches) during the twentieth century. Sea levels are predicted to go up between 18 and 59 cm (7.1 and 23 inches) over the next century, though the increase could be greater if ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica melt more quickly than predicted. Higher sea levels will erode coastlines and cause more frequent flooding. (Graph ©2007 Robert Rohde.)

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.

Impacting Ecosystems

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.