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Impacts of Climate Change

As the global average temperature continues to rise, impacts of climate change are expected to increase.  What impacts can we expect to see and where?  How might society and ecosystems adapt to these changes?

Ecosystems

Ecosystems will likely experience shifts in species ranges, an increase in wildfire number and extent, displacement of forest cover, and melting of permafrost due to warming.


Displaced Southeastern U.S. Forest Cover

The Loblolly Pine and Shortleaf Pine are two tree species typical of the southeastern United States.  As the climate warms, different tree species are projected to be suitable for this region and may start to displace the existing forest.

Adaptations
By connecting landscapes, we can support migration of native species in response to climate change.  Unfortunately, some tree species may not be able to migrate as fast as the climate may change.

Locations
United States, between Louisiana and South Carolina

 

Increased Risk of Species Extinction

Climate change can contribute to a species’ extinction, especially when the species does not have easy access to cooler areas where they can escape warm temperatures.  Access to cool refuges is particularly problematic for species, like the Akiapolaau bird or Black Robin, that are located on oceanic or mainland islands. 

Adaptation
Help species disperse to cooler refuges.  Without the aid of humans, these critically endangered species will go extinct.

Locations
Hawaiian Islands (Akiapolaau bird); Chatham Islands, off New Zealand’s coast (Black Robin)

 

Loss of Wetlands

A 1.6 ft (0.5 m) rise in worldwide sea level could destroy approximately 100,000 sq mi (250,000 sq km) of wetlands through coastal erosion. Wetlands are crucial habitats that have also been negatively affected by human development.

Adaptation
Create physical barriers to prevent ocean water from entering estuaries and wetlands. Allow wetlands to migrate inland and reduce diversions from coastal rivers.

Locations
Global along coasts

 

Increased Permafrost Warming

By 2050, the depth of permafrost thaws is projected to increase more than 50% in some regions. Thawing may lead to loss of infrastructure such as roads and homes. Furthermore, warming permafrost releases large amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

Adaptation
Identify vulnerable areas and infrastructure. Where vulnerable, revise design criteria and standards for roads, bridge foundations, runways, and rail lines to reflect loss of permafrost.

Locations
Siberia, Northern Canada

 

Increased Wildfire Extent

In the western United States, the area burned by wildfire is estimated to increase by a factor of about 3 per 1.8°F (1°C) increase for the West, with some areas increasing by a factor of 7 or more.

Adaptation
Offer incentives to discourage building in wildfire-prone areas. Manage wildfires with controlled burns and fire suppression.

Locations
Western United States

 

Shift in Animal Habitats

Many species of mammals and birds will increasingly migrate up in elevation and towards the poles in response to climate change.  For example, in the early 20th Century, the America pika, a small mammal, could be found only in areas up to 7900 ft (2400 m) in elevation. In 2004, its habitat had shifted to as high as 9500 ft (2900 m).

Adaptation
Increase habitat availability and reduce stressors to capture the full geographical, geophysical, and ecological ranges of species on as many refuges as possible. Unfortunately, species may not be able to migrate as fast as the climate may change.

Locations
Mountains of western North America

 

Affected Polar Marine Species

Due to invasion of warm water species and high local extinction rates, marine species in the Arctic and Southern Ocean will continue to shift geographic ranges and many will die off.

Adaptation
Marine species are generally adapting by migrating down to deeper, cooler waters.

Locations
Arctic and Southern Oceans

 

Loss of Nursery Habitats

Rising sea level could harm coastal wetlands and estuaries, coral reefs, and salt-marshes, which are important nursery habitats for larval and juvenile life-stages. These environments are already threatened by human actions.

Adaptation
Protect vital habitats with appropriate measures.

Locations
Global

 

Increased Risk of Polar Bear Extinction

Species are threatened by hunting, land-use change, and invasive species. Climate change, including loss of sea ice, is now another factor contributing to the possible extinction of many species, including the polar bear.

Adaptation
Enhance the strength and resilience of the species by protecting habitats, particularly in areas most affected by climate change.

Locations
Arctic

 

Changes in Northeastern U.S. Forest Cover

Maple, birch, and beech are tree species typical of the northeastern United States.  As the climate warms, different tree species are projected to be suitable for this region and may start to displace the existing forest.

Adaptation
By connecting landscapes, we can support migration of native species in response to climate change. Unfortunately, some tree species may not be able to migrate as fast as the climate may change.

Locations
Northeastern United States

 

Decreased Sea Ice Habitat

The average thickness of Arctic sea ice has declined markedly over the past few decades. It is estimated that the thickness will further decrease by approximately 15% for every 1.8°F (1°C) of global warming. Arctic sea ice is vital for seals, polar bears, and walruses to hunt and rest.

Adaptation
It is uncertain whether animals that are dependent on sea ice habitats could adapt to a significant loss of sea ice.

Locations
Arctic

 

Earlier Breeding Season

Temperature-related shifts in budding and breeding events have already been documented in the United States. These events are projected to occur even earlier in the season. If needed resources do not shift along with shifting species, earlier budding or breeding could cause a decline in breeding success.

Adaptation
Improve our understanding of the dynamics of social and ecological systems.

Locations
Global

 

Increased Wildfire Frequency

The frequency of wildfires will continue to increase in many parts of the world.

Adaptation
Allow natural fires to burn where appropriate, thereby reducing wildfire fuel build-up. Manage wildfires with controlled burns and fire suppression.

Locations
Australia, New Zealand, the southern Mediterranean, most of Canada

 

Next: Impacts on Food & Agriculture

 

Additional Resources from the National Academies

Warming World: Impacts by DegreeWarming World: Impacts by Degree   

This 40-page booklet from the National Academies describes climate change causes, evidence, and projected impacts.

 

 

 

Disclaimer

The materials in the Koshland Science Museum’s Earth Lab exhibit are based on reports of the National Research Council and works of the U.S. government and have been vetted for scientific accuracy by a panel of expert advisors.

These projected impacts and their associated locations serve as examples and are not meant to be comprehensive.  The examples are based on current understanding and projections of climate impacts.  Each impact discussed is representative of a particular climate zone.

Climate research tells us that, in some regions, we can expect increases in dramatic events, such as flooding, droughts, and severe storms, as the climate warms. However, each dramatic event is influenced by the immediate weather conditions and in some cases by overall climate trends. Therefore, scientists don’t say that a specific event is caused by climate change. Rather, climate change makes some kinds of events in some regions more likely.