Photograph by Peter Essick
What Causes Global Warming?
Scientists have spent decades figuring out what is causing global warming. They've looked at the natural cycles and events that are known to influence climate. But the amount and pattern of warming that's been measured can't be explained by these factors alone. The only way to explain the pattern is to include the effect of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted by humans. To bring all this information together, the United Nations formed a group of scientists called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. The IPCC meets every few years to review the latest scientific findings and write a report summarizing all that is known about global warming. Each report represents a consensus, or agreement, among hundreds of leading scientists. One of the first things scientists learned is that there are several greenhouse gases responsible for warming, and humans emit them in a variety of ways. Most come from the combustion of fossil fuels in cars, factories and electricity production. The gas responsible for the most warming is carbon dioxide, also called CO2Different greenhouse gases have very different heat-trapping abilities. Some of them can even trap more heat than CO2. A molecule of methane produces more than 20 times the warming of a molecule of CO2. Nitrous oxide is 300 times more powerful than CO2. Other gases, such as chlorofluorocarbons (which have been banned in much of the world because they also degrade the ozone layer), have heat-trapping potential thousands of times greater than CO2. But because their concentrations are much lower than CO2, none of these gases adds as much warmth to the atmosphere as CO2 does. In order to understand the effects of all the gases together, scientists tend to talk about all greenhouse gases in terms of the equivalent amount of CO2. Since 1990, yearly emissions have gone up by about 6 billion metric tons of "carbon dioxide equivalent" worldwide, more than a 20 percent increase.
Effects of Global Warming
Signs Are Everywhere
Photograph by Ilya Naymushin/Reuters/Corbis
The planet is warming, from North Pole to South Pole, and everywhere in between. Globally, the mercury is already up more than 1 degree Fahrenheit (0.8 degree Celsius), and even more in sensitive polar regions. And the effects of rising temperatures aren’t waiting for some far-flung future. They’re happening right now. Signs are appearing all over, and some of them are surprising. The heat is not only melting glaciers and sea ice, it’s also shifting precipitation patterns and setting animals on the move. Some impacts from increasing temperatures are already happening. Ice is melting worldwide, especially at the Earth’s poles. This includes mountain glaciers, ice sheets covering West Antarctica and Greenland, and Arctic sea ice. Researcher Bill Fraser has tracked the decline of the Adélie penguins on Antarctica, where their numbers have fallen from 32,000 breeding pairs to 11,000 in 30 years. Sea level rise became faster over the last century.
Some butterflies, foxes, and alpine plants have moved farther north or to higher, cooler areas. Precipitation (rain and snowfall) has increased across the globe, on average. Spruce bark beetles have boomed in Alaska thanks to 20 years of warm summers. The insects have chewed up 4 million acres of spruce trees. Other effects could happen later this century, if warming continues. Sea levels are expected to rise between 7 and 23 inches (18 and 59 centimeters) by the end of the century, and continued melting at the poles could add between 4 and 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters). Hurricanes and other storms are likely to become stronger.
Species that depend on one another may become out of sync. For example, plants could bloom earlier than their pollinating insects become active. Floods and droughts will become more common. Rainfall in Ethiopia, where droughts are already common, could...