Everybody seems to know that the Earth is warming up. All across the news we see stories of Climate Marches, movements for climate policy, and conversations of 1 or 2 or 4 degrees Celsius increase. But what does that impact? Certainly, we could just turn down our air-conditioners a few degrees, or wear lighter clothing, and adapt to a few degrees temperature change just fine, right? The truth is, there are several impacts that climate change is having on our planet that are not solvable by clothes or air conditioners. Several of these effects are changing our ecosystems, which then impact us indirectly.
So what are some of the major effects that climate change is having on our Earth’s ecosystems beyond ‘turning up the heat’?
1) Ocean Acidification:
This phenomenon is a result of the main compound that impacts climate change: CO2 or Carbon Dioxide. The oceans and the atmosphere are always exchanging gasses, trying to reach equilibrium. This means that there is going to be the same proportion of gas, for example oxygen or carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere and in the ocean. When this Carbon Dioxide enters the ocean, it goes through a chemical reaction and turns into an acid.
All the animals that live in the ocean rely on the water’s chemistry to survive. Perhaps the most vulnerable species to this acidification are animals that make shells/skeletons of calcium carbonate. These are animals like Oysters or Corals! These animals are vital to creating habitat for our oceans, supporting fish populations, and in the case of oysters, even feeding humans directly!
Click here to see what NOAA's Ocean Acidification Program (OAP) is doing to monitor this!
2) Shifting/Shrinking Climate regions
The animals on the planet at this time are specifically adapted to living in the climates/habitats available right now. As the Earth warms, we are seeing changes in the temperature and rainfall patterns across the world. This changes the ecosystems that are available to animals, and also changes were certain ecosystems are found. For example, as the Earth is warming, deserts are increasing, pushing out grasslands and forests at their edges. Also, a warmer overall Earth drives many animals toward the North and South poles (the coldest parts of our planet) to stay in a comfortable temperature. This is seen in several marine species such as sharks. We are seeing animals venture into regions they are not traditionally found, impacting human use of these regions, as well as ecosystem interactions.
This shift is also causing a shrinking climate region for plants and animals living on a mountain. Plants that live on mountains can be very specifically adapted to their region, and their height on the mountain. As the Earth warms up, species are moving up these mountains (toward the colder mountain-top) to find the same temperatures they’re adapted to. This is a concern for animals and plants that take advantage of the mountain-top ecosystems, as they have nowhere to shift and are going to be exposed to increasing warmth. Read more about what the US Geological Survery has to say on this here!
3) Sea Level Rise
The sea levels are rising for two main reasons: Sea Ice Melt and Water Expansion. The sea ice melt is increasing the amount of water that is in the ocean, while water expansion is increasing the amount of space this water takes up.
Heat and Cold affect water volume kind of like how they affect the air in your tires. When the temperature outside drops suddenly, the air in your tires become very dense and take up less volume, causing your tire pressure warning lights to light up on your dashboard. The opposite is true as well, meaning that heat causes air (and water) to expand. The increasing temperature in the atmosphere is causing the ocean water to expand, meaning that sea level would rise even if no extra water was added.
Sea level is projected to increase by at least 1 foot by 2100 if we seriously limit our emissions rates and could rise as much as 8.5 feet if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at high levels. With 40% of the whole world’s population being within 60 miles of the ocean, it is important to begin making plans and adjustments to the land-loss we will likely experience. View an interactive map by NOAA here!
4) Global Loss of Species
The climate crisis we are currently facing is one of several reasons that Earth is experiencing a dramatically increased rate of extinction. The current rate of extinction is comparable to the past 5 mass extinctions the planet has seen (one of which was the extinction event that killed the dinosaurs!). There are several reasons this is occurring, including some of the reasons we’ve already mentioned. The loss of species is concerning because whether we realize it or not, we are very dependent on animals and plants for our own survival. Plants help to give us oxygen, and animals can provide ecosystem services like keeping pest populations under control (birds of prey and small mammals) and providing us with food (like fish or deer). We also can find many compounds in nature which help us cure diseases and solve human health problems. When we lose plant and animal species, we lose our chance to discover things about the world, and our chance to learn things that may help us be healthier.
Read more about this here!
5) Spread of Disease
Several diseases which cause harm to human population are what is known as ‘vector borne’ diseases. This means that these diseases spread by infecting a carrier. A great example of this is Zika in mosquitoes. As the world warms up, more of our Earth is experiencing things like long periods of heat, more rainfall, and fewer hard freezes. All of these allow mosquitoes to travel to and live in regions they never have before. As these insects travel far and wide, they bring with them diseases which have previously been uncommon or non-existent in these areas. This poses a threat to people in these regions who do have rarely been exposed to these diseases and have no immunity. Because of this, climate change can affect the infection rates around the world, making diseases like Zika, Malaria, and Dengue a threat to human health around the world. Read about what Stanford scientists have to say about that here!
So as you can see there are lots of impacts that climate change can have on the world besides just increasing the temperature. Helping to reduce all of these impacts could be costly and very challenging, but luckily the world is making moves toward a healthier future in lots of ways! Read blogs under our Technology Tab to learn about how advanced technology can reduce climate change effects, or head over to our Policy blogs to find out what some of the world leaders have to say about the future of climate policy. As always, stay tuned for blogs, podcasts, and social media interaction coming up!