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The effects of global warming are frequently projected decades into the future, but two recent reports -- one from theU.S. Global Change Research Program
and the otherfrom the U.N.
-- put into sharp focus visible consequences of our warming planet. An increase in temperature, extreme weather, loss of ice and rising sea level are just a few of changes we can measure right now. Let's take a look at some of the most concerning trends.BLOG: War Of The Words: Climate Change Or Global Warming?
Glaciers are shrinking worldwide and permafrost is thawing in high-latitude and high-elevation areas, reports this year's Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.BLOG: Dire Outlook For Climate Impacts, New Report Says
Only a few extinctions are attributed to climate change, reports the IPCC, but climate change that occurred much more slowly, over millions of years, caused major ecosystem shifts and species extinctions. Land and sea animals are changing their geographic ranges and migratory patterns due to climate change.NEWS: Climate Change: Why Haven't We Done More?
Sea level around the world has increased by about 8 inches since 1880, reports the 2014 National Climate Assessment, which projects a 1 to 4 foot rise by the end of the century.PHOTOS: Craziest Environmental Ideas (That Could Work)
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Excess CO2 is dissolving in the ocean and decreasing the pH of seawater. The ocean is about 30 percent more acidic than it was in pre-industrial times. More acidity in the oceans makes it harder for animals to form calcium carbonate shells and skeletons and erodes coral reefs.11 Health Threats from Climate Change
The probability of a Sandy-like storm deluging New York, New Jersey and other parts of the East Coast has nearly doubled compared to 1950, according to the American Meteorological Society. Even weaker storms will be more damaging now than they were 10 years ago because of rising sea levels. Superstorm Sandy cost the nation $65 billion, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment, and 2012's Hurricane Isaac cost $2.3 billion.
The global sea level rises along with the temperature for two major reasons. For one, heat causes water to expand, which causes the existing water to take up more space and encroach on the coast. At the same time, ice at the poles and in glaciers melts and increases the amount of water in the oceans.PHOTOS: Melting Glaciers
Across the United States, heavy downpours are on the rise, especially in the Northeast and Midwest. Increases in extreme precipitation are expected for all U.S. regions, reports the 2014 National Climate Assessment.NEWS: Shrinking Greenland Glacier Smashes Speed Record
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The most recent IPCC report states with "very high confidence" that current climate-related extremes like heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones and wildfires are showing that countries around the world, at all development levels, are significantly unprepared. The American Meteorological Society estimates that approximately 35 percent of the extreme heat in the eastern United States between March and May 2012 resulted from human activities' effects on climate. The AMS warned that deadly heat waves will become four times more likely in the north-central and northeastern United States as the planet continues to warm.NASA: Global Warming Goes On
The idea of cutting harmful Earth-warming gases by switching from coal and oil to cleaner-burning natural gas seemed like a no-brainer. Natural gas produces less than half the amount of carbon dioxide, the prime greenhouse gas. And there’s plenty of it, thanks to new technologies such as hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), horizontal drilling and seismic imaging.
But there's a catch.
A new study out Wednesday says that cheap, abundant natural gas will actually harm the environment. While it will displace coal and other dirty fuels, it will also encourage people to burn more, as well as undercutting non-fossil fuel sources of energy such as wind, solar and nuclear power.
“When we looked at it, abundant gas is not going to solve the climate change problem on its own without accompanying climate policies,” said Haewon McJeon, a staff scientist at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the lead author on the study appearing in the journal Nature. “The main thing we were hoping for is that natural gas would displace coal, and would decrease emissions significantly. That’s not the only effect. It will also displace coal but also wind. We still get some reduction in (greenhouse gas) emissions, but one more effect is the first rule economics: If things are cheap, people will consume more.”
Another monkey wrench with natural gas is the production of methane during gas drilling. Methane is more powerful than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere.
The new study didn’t endorse any specific climate policies, but the implication is that renewable energy still needs some kind of subsidies or price protections if governmental leaders are serious about putting less carbon dioxide in the air.
McJeon and colleagues tackled this question with five separate models used to predict energy consumption and carbon emissions through 2050. The project included scientists from Austria, Australia, Germany, Italy and the United States.
Jae Edmonds, a principal investigator on the study and also a scientist at PNNL, says that using five different methodologies gave the study more heft.
“Rather than us trying to publish a study that was our study alone, we teamed up with a set of other colleagues, each of whom has their own unique approach,” Edmonds said. “One of the strengths is you have this qualitative consistency that emerges. It gives you more confidence than if there was just one study.”
John Weyant, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, said there still may at least one benefit to natural gas -- it will help transition away from coal.
“Abundant gas might make climate policy easier by making backing (away from) coal less costly, especially in the short run,” said Weyant, who was not associated with the study. “So abundant gas may get you on your way to a low greenhouse gas future but is extremely unlikely get you all the way there.”
McJeon and Edmonds said their study looked at global trends in both natural gas comsumption and carbon emissions. The next phase will look at regional differences between the big emitters of the United States, China and India, for example, and what role natural gas play in those economies.