Effects Of Global Warming On Humans Essay Format
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The impacts of climate change include warming temperatures, changes in precipitation, increases in the frequency or intensity of some extreme weather events, and rising sea levels. These impacts threaten our health by affecting the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the weather we experience.
The severity of these health risks will depend on the ability of public health and safety systems to address or prepare for these changing threats, as well as factors such as an individual's behavior, age, gender, and economic status. Impacts will vary based on a where a person lives, how sensitive they are to health threats, how much they are exposed to climate change impacts, and how well they and their community are able to adapt to change.
People in developing countries may be the most vulnerable to health risks globally, but climate change poses significant threats to health even in wealthy nations such as the United States. Certain populations, such as children, pregnant women, older adults, and people with low incomes, face increased risks; see the section below on Populations of Concern.
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Warmer average temperatures will lead to hotter days and more frequent and longer heat waves. These changes will lead to an increase in heat-related deaths in the United States—reaching as much as thousands to tens of thousands of additional deaths each year by the end of the century during summer months.
These deaths will not be offset by the smaller reduction in cold-related deaths projected in the winter months. However, adaptive responses, such as wider use of air conditioning, are expected to reduce the projected increases in death from extreme heat.
Projected changes in several climate variables for 2046-2065 with respect to the 1981-2000 average for the RCP6.0 scenario. These include the coldest night of the year (top left) and the hottest day of the year (top right). By the middle of this century, the coldest night of the year is projected to warm by 6°F to 10°F over most of the country, with slightly smaller changes in the south. The warmest day of the year is projected to be 4°F to 6°F warmer in most areas. Also shown are projections of the wettest day of the year (bottom left) and the annual longest consecutive dry day spell (bottom right). Extreme precipitation is projected to increase, with an average change of 5% to 15% in the precipitation falling on the wettest day of the year. The length of the annual longest dry spell is projected to increase in most areas, but these changes are small: less than two days in most areas.
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Exposure to extreme heat can lead to heat stroke and dehydration, as well as cardiovascular, respiratory, and cerebrovascular disease. Excessive heat is more likely to affect populations in northern latitudes where people are less prepared to cope with excessive temperatures. Certain types of populations are more vulnerable than others: for example, outdoor workers, student athletes, and homeless people tend to be more exposed to extreme heat because they spend more time outdoors. Low-income households and older adults may lack access to air conditioning which also increases exposure to extreme heat. Additionally, young children, pregnant women, older adults, and people with certain medical conditions are less able to regulate their body temperature and can therefore be more vulnerable to extreme heat.
Human Health Risks in Your State
Our interactive map features climate-related health risks by state and actions you can take to reduce these risks.
Urban areas are typically warmer than their rural surroundings. Large metropolitan areas such as St. Louis, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cincinnati have seen notable increases in death rates during heat waves. Climate change is projected to increase the vulnerability of urban populations to heat-related health impacts in the future. Heat waves are also often accompanied by periods of stagnant air, leading to increases in air pollution and associated health effects.
This figure shows the relationship between high temperatures and deaths observed during the 1995 Chicago heat wave. The large spike in deaths in mid-July (red line) is much higher than the average number of deaths during that time of year (orange line), as well as the death rate before and after the heat wave. Source: EPA (2014)
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Air Quality Impacts
Changes in the climate affect the air we breathe both indoors and outdoors. Warmer temperatures and shifting weather patterns can worsen air quality, which can lead to asthma attacks and other respiratory and cardiovascular health effects. Wildfires, which are expected to continue to increase in number and severity as the climate changes, create smoke and other unhealthy air pollutants. Rising carbon dioxide levels and warmer temperatures also affect airborne allergens, such as ragweed pollen.
Despite significant improvements in U.S. air quality since the 1970s, as of 2014 about 57 million Americans lived in counties that did not meet national air quality standards. Climate change may make it even harder for states to meet these standards in the future, exposing more people to unhealthy air.
Increases in Ozone
Scientists project that warmer temperatures from climate change will increase the frequency of days with unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone, a harmful air pollutant, and a component in smog.
- People exposed to higher levels of ground-level ozone are at greater risk of dying prematurely or being admitted to the hospital for respiratory problems.
- Ground-level ozone can damage lung tissue, reduce lung function, and inflame airways. This can aggravate asthma or other lung diseases. Children, older adults, outdoor workers, and those with asthma and other chronic lung diseases are particularly at risk.
- Smog in Los Angeles decreases visibility and can be harmful to human health. Source: California Air Resources Board (2014)Because warm, stagnant air tends to increase the formation of ozone, climate change is likely to increase levels of ground-level ozone in already-polluted areas of the United States and increase the number of days with poor air quality.
- The higher concentrations of ozone due to climate change may result in tens to thousands of additional ozone-related illnesses and premature deaths per year by 2030 in the United States, assuming no change in projected air quality policies.
Changes in Particulate Matter
Particulate matter is the term for a category of extremely small particles and liquid droplets suspended in the atmosphere. Fine particles include those smaller than 2.5 micrometers (about one ten-thousandth of an inch). Some particulate matter such as dust, wildfire smoke, and sea spray occur naturally, while some is created by human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels to produce energy. These particles may be emitted directly or may be formed in the atmosphere from chemical reactions of gases such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and volatile organic compounds.
- Inhaling fine particles can lead to a broad range of adverse health effects, including lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and cardiovascular disease.
- Climate change is expected to increase the number and severity of wildfires. Particulate matter from wildfire smoke can often be carried very long distances by the wind, affecting people who live far from the source of this air pollutant.
- Older adults are particularly sensitive to short-term particle exposure, with a higher risk of hospitalization and death. Outdoor workers like firefighters can also have high exposure.
Due to the complex factors that influence atmospheric levels of fine particulate matter, scientists do not yet know whether climate change will increase or decrease particulate matter concentrations across the United States. Particulate matter can be removed from the air by rainfall, and precipitation is expected to increase in quantity though not necessarily frequency. Climate-related changes in stagnant air episodes, wind patterns, emissions from vegetation and the chemistry of atmospheric pollutants will also affect particulate matter levels.
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Changes in Allergens and Asthma Triggers
Allergic illnesses, including hay fever, affect about one-third of the U.S. population, and more than 34 million Americans have been diagnosed with asthma. Climate change may affect allergies and respiratory health. The spring pollen season is already occurring earlier in the United States for certain types of plants, and the length of the season has increased for some plants with highly allergenic pollen such as ragweed. In addition to lengthening the ragweed pollen season, rising carbon dioxide concentrations and temperatures may also lead to earlier flowering, more flowers, and increased pollen levels in ragweed.
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Impacts from Extreme Weather Events
Increases in the frequency or severity of some extreme weather events, such as extreme precipitation, flooding, droughts, and storms, threaten the health of people during and after the event. The people most at risk include young children, older adults, people with disabilities or medical conditions, and the poor. Extreme events can affect human health in a number of ways by:
- Hurricane Katrina was one of the most devastating hurricanes in the United States, responsible for an estimated 971 to 1,300 deaths. Source: NOAAReducing the availability of safe food and drinking water.
- Damaging roads and bridges, disrupting access to hospitals and pharmacies.
- Interrupting communication, utility, and health care services.
- Contributing to carbon monoxide poisoning from improper use of portable electric generators during and after storms.
- Increasing stomach and intestinal illness, particularly following power outages.
- Creating or worsening mental health impacts such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In addition, emergency evacuations pose health risks to older adults, especially those with limited mobility who cannot use elevators during power outages. Evacuations may be complicated by the need for concurrent transfer of medical records, medications, and medical equipment. Some individuals with disabilities may also be disproportionally affected if they are unable to access evacuation routes, have difficulty in understanding or receiving warnings of impending danger, or have limited ability to communicate their needs.
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Vectorborne diseases are illnesses that are transmitted by disease vectors, which include mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas. These vectors can carry infectious pathogens, such as viruses, bacteria, and protozoa, from animals to humans. Changes in temperature, precipitation, and extreme events increases the geographic range of diseases spread by vectors and can lead to illnesses occurring earlier in the year.
- The geographic range of ticks that carry Lyme disease is limited by temperature. As air temperatures rise, ticks are likely to become active earlier in the season, and their range is likely to continue to expand northward. Typical symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash.
- Mosquitoes thrive in certain climate conditions and can spread diseases like West Nile virus. Extreme temperatures—too cold, hot, wet, or dry—influence the location and number of mosquitoes that transmit West Nile virus. More than three million people were estimated to be infected with West Nile virus in the United States from 1999 to 2010.
The spread of climate-sensitive diseases will depend on both climate and non-climate factors such as land use, socioeconomic and cultural conditions, pest control, access to health care, and human responses to disease risk. The United States has public health infrastructure and programs to monitor, manage, and prevent the spread of many diseases. The risks for climate-sensitive diseases can be much higher in poorer countries that have less capacity to prevent and treat illness.
West Nile virus is maintained in transmission cycles between birds (the natural hosts of the virus) and mosquitoes. Human infections can occur from a bite of a mosquito that has previously bitten an infected bird. Warmer winters, longer frost-free season, and earlier spring arrival may influence the migration patterns and fledgling survival of birds that are the natural host of West Nile virus. In addition, rising temperature, changing precipitation patterns, and a higher frequency of extreme weather events are likely to influence the distribution and abundance of mosquitoes that transmit West Nile virus. Source: USGCRP (2016)
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People can become ill if exposed to contaminated drinking or recreational water. Climate change increases the risk of illness through increasing temperature, more frequent heavy rains and runoff, and the effects of storms. Health impacts may include gastrointestinal illness like diarrhea, effects on the body's nervous and respiratory systems, or liver and kidney damage.
- Climate impacts can affect exposure to waterborne pathogens (bacteria, viruses, and parasites such asCryptosporidium and Giardia); toxins produced by harmful algal and cyanobacterial blooms in the water; and chemicals that end up in water from human activities.
- Changing water temperatures mean that waterborne Vibrio bacteria and harmful algal toxins will be present in the water or in seafood at different times of the year, or in places where they were not previously threats.
- Runoff and flooding resulting from increases in extreme precipitation, hurricane rainfall, and storm surge will increasingly contaminate water bodies used for recreation (such as lakes and beaches), shellfish harvesting waters, and sources of drinking water.
- Extreme weather events and storm surges can damage or exceed the capacity of water infrastructure (such as drinking water or wastewater treatment plants), increasing the risk that people will be exposed to contaminants.
Water resource, public health, and environmental agencies in the United States provide many public health safeguards to reduce risk of exposure and illness even if water becomes contaminated. These include water quality monitoring, drinking water treatment standards and practices, beach closures, and issuing advisories for boiling drinking water and harvesting shellfish.
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Food Safety and Nutrition
Climate change and the direct impacts of higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are expected to affect food safety and nutrition. Extreme weather events can also disrupt or slow the distribution of food.
- Higher air temperatures can increase cases of Salmonella and other bacteria-related food poisoning because bacteria grow more rapidly in warm environments. These diseases can cause gastrointestinal distress and, in severe cases, death. Practices to safeguard food can help avoid these illnesses even as the climate changes.
- Climate change will have a variety of impacts that may increase the risk of exposure to chemical contaminants in food. For example, higher sea surface temperatures will lead to higher mercury concentrations in seafood, and increases in extreme weather events will introduce contaminants into the food chain through stormwater runoff.
- Higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air can act as a "fertilizer" for some plants, but lowers the levels of protein and essential minerals in crops such as wheat, rice, and potatoes, making these foods less nutritious.
- Extreme events, such as flooding and drought, create challenges for food distribution if roads and waterways are damaged or made inaccessible.
The food system involves a network of interactions with our physical and biological environments as food moves from production to consumption, or from "farm to table." Rising CO2 and climate change will affect the quality and distribution of food, with subsequent effects on food safety and nutrition. Source: USGCRP (2016)
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Any changes in a person's physical health or surrounding environment can also have serious impacts on their mental health. In particular, experiencing an extreme weather event can cause stress and other mental health consequences, particularly when a person loses loved ones or their home.
- Individuals with mental illness are especially vulnerable to extreme heat; studies have found that having a pre-existing mental illness tripled the risk of death during heat waves. People taking medication for mental illness that makes it difficult to regulate their body temperature are particularly at risk.
- Even the perceived threat of climate change (for example from reading or watching news reports about climate change) can influence stress responses and mental health.
- Some groups of people are at higher risk for mental health impacts, such as children and older adults, pregnant and post-partum women, people with pre-existing mental illness (see above), people with low incomes, and emergency workers.
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Populations of Concern
Climate and Health Factsheets
Learn about how climate change will affect your health over the course of your life, and see its impacts on eight different populations of concern.
View the factsheets »
Some groups of people are more vulnerable than others to health risks from climate change. Three factors contribute to vulnerability: sensitivity, which refers to the degree to which people or groups are affected by a stressor such as higher temperatures; exposure, which refers to physical contact between a person and a stressor; and adaptive capacity, which refers to an ability to adjust to or avoid potential hazards. For example, while older adults are sensitive to extreme heat, an older person living in an air-conditioned apartment won't be exposed as long as she stays indoors, and as long as she can afford to pay for the electricity to run the air conditioner. Her ability take these actions is a measure of her adaptive capacity.
Some populations are especially vulnerable to climate health risks due to particular sensitivities, high likelihood of exposure, low adaptive capacity, or combinations of these factors.
- Communities of color (including Indigenous communities as well as specific racial and ethnic groups), low income, immigrants, and limited English proficiency face disproportionate vulnerabilities due to a wide variety of factors, such as higher risk of exposure, socioeconomic and educational factors that affect their adaptive capacity, and a higher prevalence of medical conditions that affect their sensitivity.
- Children are vulnerable to many health risks due to biological sensitivities and more opportunities for exposure (due to activities such as playing outdoors). Pregnant women are vulnerable to heat waves and other extreme events, like flooding.
- Older adults are vulnerable to many of the impacts of climate change. They may have greater sensitivity to heat and contaminants, a higher prevalence of disability or preexisting medical conditions, or limited financial resources that make it difficult to adapt to impacts.
- Occupational groups, such as outdoor workers, paramedics, firefighters, and transportation workers, as well as workers in hot indoor work environments, will be especially vulnerable to extreme heat and exposure to vectorborne diseases.
- People with disabilities can be very vulnerable during extreme weather events, unless communities ensure that their emergency response plans specifically accommodate them.
- People with chronic medical conditions are typically vulnerable to extreme heat, especially if they are taking medications that make it difficult to regulate body temperature. Power outages can be particularly threatening for people reliant on certain medical equipment.
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Other Health Impacts
Other linkages exist between climate change and human health. For example, changes in temperature and precipitation, as well as droughts and floods, will affect agricultural yields and production. In some regions of the world, these impacts may compromise food security and threaten human health through malnutrition, the spread of infectious diseases, and food poisoning. The worst of these effects are projected to occur in developing countries, among vulnerable populations. Declines in human health in other countries can affect the United States through trade, migration, and immigration and has implications for national security.
Although the impacts of climate change have the potential to affect human health in the United States and around the world, there is a lot we can do to prepare for and adapt to these changes—such as establishing early warning systems for heat waves and other extreme events, taking steps to reduce vulnerabilities among populations of concern, raising awareness among healthcare professionals, and ensuring that infrastructure is built to accommodate anticipated future changes in climate. Understanding the threats that climate change poses to human health is the first step in working together to lower risks and be prepared.
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1. USGCRP (2016). Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. Crimmins, A., J. Balbus, J.L. Gamble, C.B. Beard, J.E. Bell, D. Dodgen, R.J. Eisen, N.Fann, M.D. Hawkins, S.C. Herring, L. Jantarasami, D.M. Mills, S. Saha, M.C. Sarofim, J.Trtanj, and L.Ziska, Eds. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC. 312 pp. dx.doi.org/10.7930/J0R49NQX.
2. USGCRP (2016). Luber, G., K. Knowlton, J. Balbus, H. Frumkin, M. Hayden, J. Hess, M. McGeehin, N. Sheats, L. Backer, C. B. Beard, K. L. Ebi, E. Maibach, R. S. Ostfeld, C. Wiedinmyer, E. Zielinski-Gutiérrez, and L. Ziska, 2014: Ch. 9: Human Health. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment, J. M. Melillo, Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and G. W. Yohe, Eds., U.S. Global Change Research Program, 220-256. doi:10.7930/J0PN93H5.
3. USGCRP (2009). Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. Karl, T.R., J.M. Melillo, and T.C. Peterson (eds.). United States Global Change Research Program. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, USA.
4. CCSP (2008). Analyses of the effects of global change on human health and welfare and human systems. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. Gamble, J.L. (ed.), K.L. Ebi, F.G. Sussman, T.J. Wilbanks, (Authors). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, USA.
5. EPA (2014). Air Quality Trends. Accessed March 1, 2016.
6. NRC (2010). Advancing the Science of Climate Change. National Research Council. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, USA.
7. EPA (2009). Assessment of the Impacts of Global Change on Regional U.S. Air Quality: A Synthesis of Climate Change Impacts on Ground-Level Ozone (An Interim Report of the U.S. EPA Global Change Research Program). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, USA.
8. IPCC (2014). Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report.Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 p. (PDF, 80 pp, 4.6MB).
9. USDA (2015). Climate Change, Global Food Security, and the U.S. Food System. Brown, M.E., J.M. Antle, P. Backlund, E.R. Carr, W.E. Easterling, M.K. Walsh, C. Ammann, W. Attavanich, C.B. Barrett, M.F. Bellemare, V. Dancheck, C. Funk, K. Grace, J.S.I. Ingram, H. Jiang, H. Maletta, T. Mata, A. Murray, M. Ngugi, D. Ojima, B. O'Neill, and C. Tebaldi, 146 p.
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Global warming is expected to have far-reaching, long-lasting and, in many cases, devastating consequences for planet Earth.
Global warming, the gradual heating of Earth's surface, oceans and atmosphere, is caused by human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels that pump carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Despite political controversy about climate change, a major report released Sept. 27, 2013, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that scientists are more certain than ever of the link between human activities and global warming. More than 197 international scientific organizations agree that global warming is real and has been caused by human action.
Already, global warming is having a measurable effect on the planet.
"We can observe this happening in real time in many places. Ice is melting in both polar ice caps and mountain glaciers. Lakes around the world, including Lake Superior, are warming rapidly — in some cases faster than the surrounding environment. Animals are changing migration patterns and plants are changing the dates of activity," such as trees budding their leaves earlier in the spring and dropping them later in the fall, Josef Werne, a professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Pittsburgh, told Live Science.
Here is an in-depth look at the changes wrought by global warming.
Increase in average temperatures and temperature extremes
One of the most immediate and obvious effects of global warming is the increase in temperatures around the world. The average global temperature has increased by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius) over the past 100 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Since record keeping began in 1895, the hottest year on record worldwide was 2016, according to NOAA and NASA data. That year Earth's surface temperature was 1.78 degrees F (0.99 degrees C) warmer than the average across the entire 20th century. Before 2016, 2015 was the warmest year on record, globally. And before 2015? Yep, 2014. In fact, 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have happened since 2001, according to NASA.
For the contiguous United States and Alaska, 2016 was the second-warmest year on record and the 20th consecutive year that the annual average surface temperature exceeded the 122-year average since record keeping began, according to NOAA.
Extreme weather events
Extreme weather is another effect of global warming. While experiencing some of the hottest summers on record, much of the United States has also been experiencing colder-than-normal winters.
Changes in climate can cause the polar jet stream — the boundary between the cold North Pole air and the warm equatorial air — to migrate south, bringing with it cold, Arctic air. This is why some states can have a sudden cold snap or colder-than-normal winter, even during the long-term trend of global warming, Werne explained.
"Climate is, by definition, the long-term average of weather, over many years. One cold (or warm) year or season has little to do with overall climate. It is when those cold (or warm) years become more and more regular that we start to recognize it as a change in climate rather than simply an anomalous year of weather," he said.
Global warming may also lead to extreme weather other than cold or heat extremes. For example, hurricane formations will change. Though this is still a subject of active scientific research, current computer models of the atmosphere indicate that hurricanes are more likely to become less frequent on a global basis, though the hurricanes that do form may be more intense.
"And even if they become less frequent globally, hurricanes could still become more frequent in some particular areas," said atmospheric scientist Adam Sobel, author of "Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future" (HarperWave, 2014). "Additionally, scientists are confident that hurricanes will become more intense due to climate change." This is because hurricanes get their energy from the temperature difference between the warm tropical ocean and the cold upper atmosphere. Global warming increases that temperature difference.
"Since the most damage by far comes from the most intense hurricanes — such as typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 — this means that hurricanes could become overall more destructive," said Sobel, a Columbia University professor in the departments of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics. (Hurricanes are called typhoons in the western North Pacific, and they're called cyclones in the South Pacific and Indian oceans.)
Lightening is another weather feature that is being affected by global warming. According to a 2014 study, a 50 percent increase in the number of lightning strikes within the United States is expected by 2100 if global temperatures continue to rise. The researchers of the study found a 12 percent increase in lightning activity for every 1.8 degree F (1 degree C) of warming in the atmosphere.
NOAA established the U.S. Climate Extremes Index (CEI) in 1996 to track extreme weather events. The number of extreme weather events that are among the most unusual in the historical record, according to the CEI, has been rising over the last four decades.
Scientists project that extreme weather events, such as heat waves, droughts, blizzards and rainstorms will continue to occur more often and with greater intensity due to global warming, according to Climate Central. Climate models forecast that global warming will cause climate patterns worldwide to experience significant changes. These changes will likely include major shifts in wind patterns, annual precipitation and seasonal temperatures variations.
In addition, because high levels of greenhouse gases are likely to remain in the atmosphere for many years, these changes are expected to last for several decades or longer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the northeastern United States, for example, climate change is likely to bring increased annual rainfall, while in the Pacific Northwest, summer rainfall is expected to decrease, the EPA said.
One of the primary manifestations of climate change so far is melt. North America, Europe and Asia have all seen a trend toward less snow cover between 1960 and 2015, according to 2016 research published in the journal Current Climate Change Reports. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, there is now 10 percent less permafrost, or permanently frozen ground, in the Northern Hemisphere than there was in the early 1900s. The thawing of permafrost can cause landslides and other sudden land collapses. It can also release long-buried microbes, as in a 2016 case when a cache of buried reindeer carcasses thawed and caused an outbreak of anthrax.
One of the most dramatic effects of global warming is the reduction in Arctic sea ice. Sea ice hit record-low extents in both the fall and winter of 2015 and 2016, meaning that at the time when the ice is supposed to be at its peak, it was lagging. The melt means there is less thick sea ice that persists for multiple years. That means less heat is reflected back into the atmosphere by the shiny surface of the ice and more is absorbed by the comparatively darker ocean, creating a feedback loop that causes even more melt, according to NASA's Operation IceBridge.
Glacial retreat, too, is an obvious effect of global warming. Only 25 glaciers bigger than 25 acres are now found in Montana's Glacier National Park, where about 150 glaciers were once found, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. A similar trend is seen in glacial areas worldwide. According to a 2016 study in the journal Nature Geoscience, there is a 99 percent likelihood that this rapid retreat is due to human-caused climate change. Some glaciers retreated up to 15 times as much as they would have without global warming, those researchers found.
Sea levels and ocean acidification
In general, as ice melts, sea levels rise. In 2014, the World Meteorological Organization reported that sea-level rise accelerated 0.12 inches (3 millimeters) per year on average worldwide. This is around double the average annual rise of 0.07 in. (1.6 mm) in the 20th century.
Melting polar ice in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, coupled with melting ice sheets and glaciers across Greenland, North America, South America, Europe and Asia, are expected to raise sea levels significantly. And humans are mostly to blame: In the IPCC report released on Sept. 27, 2013, climate scientists said they are at least 95 percent certain that humans are to blame for warming oceans, rapidly melting ice and rising sea levels, changes that have been observed since the 1950s.
Global sea levels have risen about 8 inches since 1870, according to the EPA, and the rate of increase is expected to accelerate in the coming years. If current trends continue, many coastal areas, where roughly half of the Earth's human population lives, will be inundated.
Researchers project that by 2100, average sea levels will be 2.3 feet (.7 meters) higher in New York City, 2.9 feet (0.88 m) higher at Hampton Roads, Virginia, and 3.5 feet (1.06 m) higher at Galveston, Texas, the EPA reports. According to an IPCC report, if greenhouse gas emissions remain unchecked, global sea levels could rise by as much as 3 feet (0.9 meters) by 2100. That estimate is an increase from the estimated 0.9 to 2.7 feet (0.3 to 0.8 meters) that was predicted in the 2007 IPCC report for future sea-level rise.
Sea level isn't the only thing changing for the oceans due to global warming. As levels of CO2 increase, the oceans absorb some of that gas, which increases the acidity of seawater. Werne explains it this way: "When you dissolved CO2 in water, you get carbonic acid. This is the same exact thing that happens in cans of soda. When you pop the top on a can of Dr Pepper, the pH is 2 — quite acidic."
Since the Industrial Revolution began in the early 1700s, the acidity of the oceans has increased about 25 percent, according to the EPA. "This is a problem in the oceans, in large part, because many marine organisms make shells out of calcium carbonate (think corals, oysters), and their shells dissolve in acid solution," said Werne. "So as we add more and more CO2 to the ocean, it gets more and more acidic, dissolving more and more shells of sea creatures. It goes without saying that this is not good for their health."
If current ocean acidification trends continue, coral reefs are expected to become increasingly rare in areas where they are now common, including most U.S. waters, the EPA reports. In 2016 and 2017, portions of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia were hit with bleaching, a phenomenon in which coral eject their symbiotic algae. Bleaching is a sign of stress from too-warm waters, unbalanced pH or pollution; coral can recover from bleaching, but back-to-back episodes make recovery less likely.
Plants and animals
The effects of global warming on the Earth's ecosystems are expected to be profound and widespread. Many species of plants and animals are already moving their range northward or to higher altitudes as a result of warming temperatures, according to a report from the National Academy of Sciences.
"They are not just moving north, they are moving from the equator toward the poles. They are quite simply following the range of comfortable temperatures, which is migrating to the poles as the global average temperature warms," Werne said. Ultimately, he said, this becomes a problem when the rate of climate change velocity (how fast a region changes put into a spatial term) is faster than the rate that many organisms can migrate. Because of this, many animals may not be able to compete in the new climate regime and may go extinct.
Additionally, migratory birds and insects are now arriving in their summer feeding and nesting grounds several days or weeks earlier than they did in the 20th century, according to the EPA.
Warmer temperatures will also expand the range of many disease-causing pathogens that were once confined to tropical and subtropical areas, killing off plant and animal species that formerly were protected from disease.
These and other effects of global warming, if left unchecked, will likely contribute to the disappearance of up to one-half of Earth's plants and one-third of animals from their current range by 2080, according to a 2013 report in the journal Nature Climate Change.
As dramatic as the effects of climate change are expected to be on the natural world, the projected changes to human society may be even more devastating.
Agricultural systems will likely be dealt a crippling blow. Though growing seasons in some areas will expand, the combined impacts of drought, severe weather, lack of accumulated snowmelt, greater number and diversity of pests, lower groundwater tables and a loss of arable land could cause severe crop failures and livestock shortages worldwide.
North Carolina State University also notes that carbon dioxide is affecting plant growth. Though CO2 can increase the growth of plants, the plants may become less nutritious.
This loss of food security may, in turn, create havoc in international food markets and could spark famines, food riots, political instability and civil unrest worldwide, according to a number of analyses from sources as diverse as the U.S Department of Defense, the Center for American Progress and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
In addition to less nutritious food, the effect of global warming on human health is also expected to be serious. The American Medical Association has reported an increase in mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever, as well as a rise in cases of chronic conditions like asthma, most likely as a direct result of global warming. The 2016 outbreak of Zika virus, a mosquito-borne illness, highlighted the dangers of climate change. The disease causes devastating birth defects in fetuses when pregnant women are infected, and climate change could make higher-latitude areas habitable for the mosquitos that spread the disease, experts said. Longer, hotter summers could also lead to the spread of tick-borne illnesses.