Greenhouse gases can stay in the atmosphere for an amount of years ranging from decades to hundreds and thousands of years. No matter what we do, global warming is going to have some effect on Earth. Here are the 5 deadliest effects of global warming
Image: James Gathany
1. Spread of disease
As northern countries warm, disease carrying insects migrate north, bringing plague and disease with them. Indeed some scientists believe that in some countries, thanks to global warming, malaria has not been fully eradicated.
Image: FEMA/Mark Wolfe
2. Warmer waters and more hurricanes
As the temperature of oceans rises, so will the probability of more frequent and stronger hurricanes. We saw in this in 2004 and 2005.
Image: Mark Heard
3. Increased probability and intensity of droughts and heat waves
Although some areas of Earth will become wetter due to global warming, other areas will suffer serious droughts and heat waves. Africa will receive the worst of it, with more severe droughts also expected in Europe. Water is already a dangerously rare commodity in Africa, and according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global warming will exacerbate the conditions and could lead to conflicts and war.
4. Economic consequences
Most of the effects of anthropogenic global warming won’t be good. And these effects spell one thing for the countries of the world: economic consequences. Hurricanes cause billions of dollars in damage, diseases cost money to treat and control and conflicts exacerbate all of these.
Image: Alan Vernon
5. Polar ice caps melting
The ice caps melting is a four-pronged danger.
First, it will raise sea levels. There are 5,773,000 cubic miles of water in ice caps, glaciers, and permanent snow. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, if all glaciers melted today the seas would rise about 230 feet. Luckily, that’s not going to happen all in one go! But sea levels will rise.
Second, melting ice caps will throw the global ecosystem out of balance. The ice caps are fresh water, and when they melt they will desalinate the ocean, or in plain English – make it less salty. The desalinization of the Gulf current will “screw up” ocean currents, which regulate temperatures. The stream shutdown or irregularity would cool the area around Northeast America and Western Europe. Luckily, that will slow some of the other effects of global warming in that area!
Third, temperature rises and changing landscapes in the Artic Circle will endanger several species of animals. Only the most adaptable will survive.
Fourth, global warming could snowball with the ice caps gone. Ice caps are white, and reflect sunlight, much of which is reflected back into space, further cooling Earth. If the ice caps melt, the only reflector is the ocean. Darker colors absorb sunlight, further warming the Earth.
6. More floods
Flooding represents one of the most dangerous hazards to human settlements and is one of the most potentially momentous impacts of global warming. As the climate changes, a warming of the seas creates ‘thermal expansion’. This is where warm water begins to take up more space than cool water, making the sea’s surface level increase. Thermal expansion has already raised the height of the oceans by 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20cm), according to National Geographic.
Steadily melting glacial ice also adds significantly to the elevation in water surface level, and many low-lying or coastal communities and facilities will be under threat of eradication should the sea levels continue to rise. An increase of just a single meter (3 ft) would submerge considerable sections of the U.S. eastern seaboard, while one sixth of Bangladesh could be lost permanently by a rise of 1.5 m (5 ft), to name just two examples.
The relocation of power stations, refineries, hospitals, homes and so on would become an expensive priority. Also, warmer air can hold more water vapour, increasing the level of rainfall and bringing flooding to inland areas.
Image: John McColgan
7. Fires and wildfires
As the planet continues to warm, dry areas of land that are already susceptible to wildfires are likely to be ravaged by even more frequent and destructive episodes. In 2007, more than 3,000 fires brought destruction to Southeastern Europe thanks to a long summer that created arid and parched conditions – a situation that would become normal as a consequence of the greenhouse effect.
What’s more, the carbon dioxide and ‘black carbon’ (a very fine soot) released by these large-scale fires together with the deforestation they cause further compounds the problem of air pollution – as the gases that help to create the greenhouse effect are supplemented and less mature trees survive to draw CO2 from the atmosphere.
Image: John Kerstholt
8. Destructive storms
With ocean temperature being a key factor for hurricane formation, the consequences of global warming will inevitably include the increased generation of storms and hurricanes with greater power and frequency.
The destructive power of hurricanes has increased by some 50% in the last 30 years, a figure that is closely connected with the rising temperature of the ocean. Warmer water leads to greater evaporation, which in turn helps to not just ‘prime’ the coalescence of hurricanes and cyclones but also to maintain their vigour once extant.
Simply put, warmer oceans make for more extreme weather including devastating storms.
Image: Fidel Gonzalez
9. Death by smog
A powerful combination of vehicular fumes, ground-level ozone, airborne industrial pollution and the stagnant hot air associated with heat waves, smog represents an immediate and chronic health threat to those living in built-up urban areas.
It exacerbates pre-existing health conditions that affect the respiratory system such as emphysema, bronchitis and asthma, and in general impedes the immune system’s ability to fight against infection and disease.
A hotter climate tends to lead directly to an increase in the levels of ozone, with smog-related deaths predicted to rise by “about 4.5 percent from the 1990s to the 2050s,” according to relevant studies undertaken by Columbia and Johns Hopkins universities.
How global warming affects desertification is not entirely understood, yet it is clear that an elevation in atmospheric and ground-level temperatures is likely to aggravate soil and vegetation loss in already hot climes. An increase in evapotranspiration and the accompanying decrease in rainfall mean that already semi-arid and sub-humid areas found across the world would face a future barrenness that is almost irreversible. This would negatively affect biodiversity and have a major impact on local human cultures and wildlife.
Image: David Rydevik
Although global warming does not directly influence the formation of tsunamis, they can be generated by events that are brought about by an amplification of the planet’s temperature. One example is the melting of ice sheets. Being extremely heavy, massive glaciers apply a considerable amount of pressure to the Earth’s surface underneath them. This anchorage decreases as the glaciers diminish, resulting in a ‘freeing up’ of tectonic masses that can lead to massive earthquakes and significant volcanic activity, both of which are capable of creating deadly tsunamis.
12. Cold Waves
A cold wave is characterized by a major plunge in temperature over a 24 hour period. It can be a devastating shock for crops and commerce, and also bring death and injury to humans and animals through accidents, hypothermia and starvation. Damage to pipelines and property can be costly, and, particularly if snowfall accompanies the cold wave, transport systems can grind to a halt, adversely affecting the distribution of food, water and medical supplies.
More than 150 people lost their lives during the 2009 to 2010 winter after record low temperatures and abundant snowfall caused disruption to much of Europe – which doesn’t take into account the many thousands more excess winter deaths that were caused indirectly. It was the UK’s coldest winter for three decades.
It may seem illogical at first to attribute harsher cold weather to global warming, but a change in atmospheric patterns brought about by receding glacial ice can lead to the redirection of polar air currents and the sun’s rays being absorbed by the larger areas of dark blue sea, while critical phenomena like the Gulf Stream can be affected by changing ocean temperatures as well.
Image: R. Clucas
13. Increased volcanic activity
As already noted, melting glaciations can usher in new, more frequent and more dangerous episodes of volcanic activity. The shifting pressures brought about by the lightening of the vast ice sheets allows the Earth’s crust to ‘bounce back’ and can cause eruptions in unexpected places – like the one experienced during Iceland’s Gjálp eruption, where magma reached the surface at an unusual intermediary point between two volcanoes. Potent or sustained volcanic activity can have an immense impact on human life even if the activity is centred away from dense population centres. It also has the potential to affect the planet’s climate by injecting tons of gases and solids into the atmosphere that can remain there for weeks.
14. More dangerous thunderstorms
A consequence of the increased amounts of humid air generated by global warming is that more thunderstorms will be triggered. Research into the dynamic between climate change and thunderstorm power and frequency suggests that by the end of the century the occurrence of major thunderstorms could rise by over 100% in some places. Not only that, but this increase would generally occur during the existing storm season and not at times when such storms might provide beneficial rainfall to arid areas. Thunderstorms are also a common way of starting the devastating wildfires mentioned above.
Image: Mark Knobil
15. Migration, conflict and wars
It is possible that future centuries could see increased friction between nations and ethnic groups as dwindling resources lead to migration and conflict. Countries and factions would seek to control precious, dwindling resources and provide safety and shelter for their own people – perhaps at the cost of others.
Simultaneously, previously heavily populated places would become uninhabitable due to heat or other factors, displacing millions of people. These refugee hordes might be corralled into semi-permanent camps, or even suffer at the hands of unwelcoming native groups.
Even now, relocations are taking place. Mumbai’s population is estimated to become swollen by a further 7 million people by the year 2050 as global warming renders villages and hamlets uninhabitable or unprofitable, either through flooding or drought. More land pollution would be an inevitable by-product of these changes in habitation and the availability of resources.
16. More outbreaks of deadly diseases
As suggested, with warmth comes disease. Climate greatly influences some of the most deadly and widespread diseases currently affecting millions of people across the world. With disease-bearing insects such as mosquitoes able to multiply in staggering numbers thanks to even small rises in temperature, global warming looks set to facilitate the spread of diseases like Malaria, West Nile virus and Dengue fever to parts of the planet usually untouched. The increased number of sick people could even overwhelm public health services – especially in poor or unprepared countries.
The Deadly Dozen is a group of 12 diseases that have been identified as those most likely to spread due to global warming. It includes Avian ‘Flu, Cholera, Plague, Ebola and Tuberculosis. Other sources of serious illnesses are exacerbated by the effects of pollution and the release of CFCs that harm the ozone layer.
Image: Ansgar Walk
17. Loss of biodiversity and animal extinction
Loss of habitat for polar-ice edge communities such as polar bears is perhaps the most obvious consequence of having a warmer climate. Animals that are entirely dependent on cold environments will retreat to more northerly locations as the planet heats up – leading to encroachment upon other eco-systems and displacement of other animals from their natural habitat. A strong connection between oceanic warming, declines in reproduction and increases in mortality rates among seabirds, seals and sea lions has already been observed.
Acid rain has also been identified as having an adverse influence. One example of this is the death of large amounts of snails in areas prone to acidic precipitation. Birds dependent upon the snails as a calcium-rich food source and, without a suitable replacement for this loss to their diet, lay eggs with a much higher amount of defective shells.
Image: Jeff T. Alu
18. Death of ocean life
The world’s oceans absorb roughly 30% of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide that seeps into the atmosphere, and so inevitably, as more fossil fuels are burned, ocean life will continue to suffer the negative consequences of global warming.
One of the most critical changes brought about by global warming is the ongoing reduction of phytoplankton. These tiny plants are an integral food source for ocean life and are responsible for around half of the world’s photosynthetic activity. Essentially, they are the foundations of the oceanic food chain, so a reduction in their numbers creates a knock-on effect that ripples up the entire food chain, particularly affecting the predators at the top.
Additionally, ocean acidification and warmer surface temperatures increase the dangers to many aquatic animals, particularly crustaceans, molluscs and coral reefs. Coral reefs are very sensitive to temperature changes, with many of them already observed to have ‘bleached’ and died thanks to climate change.
Image: Günter Leitenbauer
19. Animal attacks
Animals that are driven from their natural habitats or normal migration routes by environmental factors could easily come into contact with human settlements, leading to many deaths among humans and already endangered animals.
During the serious, recent droughts that struck Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, lions began to venture out of the park in search of prey, resulting in attacks on the already decimated Maasai livestock and even trapping some people in their homes.
Attacks on humans by tigers in India are on the rise as climate change affects mangrove forests in India’s Sundarban region. Similarly, sharks are moving into new areas to find stable food sources, and some of these are heavily populated by humans. Experts say there are now more sharks in the waters off California and Florida than ever before.
Image: Dr. Lyle Conrad
20. Diminished food and water supplies
With greatly reduced rainfall, more severe droughts and loss of soil fertility, food and water supplies would soon diminish, resulting in higher prices, famine, disease, malnutrition, starvation and, ultimately, death. Politically unstable countries or badly affected areas might descend into various degrees of anarchy, with governmental collapses and shifts in authority as those in control of resources become more powerful.
Countries that still retain good food and water resources might be unwilling to part with these vital commodities or accept the millions of refugees that would seek new homes.
Ultimately these consequences would be catastrophic.
To learn what you can do that is effective to help fix global warming caused climate destabilization, click here.To learn why the term climate destabilization is replacing the terms climate change and global warming, click here.