How’s Planet Earth Doing?

Unisphere – Flushing Meadows, Queens New York

Every week there is an item in the newspaper called “Earthweek”.  It’s usually near the end of the first section and occupies the top third of the page.  It’s described as “A Diary of the Planet” and contains 5 or 6 events affecting planet earth that occurred in the past week. Earthquakes, cyclones, floods, record temperatures, oil spills, and other notable stories are summarized in a few sentences and the locations are spotted on a map of the world.   

Earthweek is an environmental column featured in about 100 newspapers worldwide that focuses on weather stories and global warming issues.  One recent story was about climate allergies and, according to the U.S. EPA: “The annual hay fever season is getting longer and worse as higher levels of man-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere cause plants to grow more and release more pollen.”  The “allergy season is now up to 25 days longer than in 1995”…. because the warmer climate has lengthened the pollen production of some plants, which are also growing taller.  Ragweed, “typically 5 or 6 feet tall could shoot up to 10 or 20 feet by 2050 as CO2 concentrations soar”.  Whoa! To borrow a line from the movie Ghostbusters, “that’s a big (twinkie) ragweed.”  Now if you don’t suffer from allergies, this isn’t a big deal, but if you do, then be prepared for increasing symptoms every year. 

Looking at longer-term trends instead of the weekly events, scientists at NASA believe there are regional impacts associated with climate change that are currently visible throughout the U.S. and will continue to affect the country. In general, temperatures will continue to rise; there will be changes to precipitation patterns; there will be more droughts and heat waves; the intensity and frequency of hurricanes will increase; sea levels will rise; and by mid-century, the arctic ocean is expected to be ice free during summers. Regionally:

In the Northeast, heat waves, heavy downpours and sea level rise pose growing challenges to many aspects of life including infrastructure, agriculture, fisheries and ecosystems – all of which will be increasingly compromised.

In the Northwest, changes in the timing of stream flow reduce water supplies for competing demands. Sea level rise, erosion, inundation, risks to infrastructure and increasing ocean acidity pose major threats. Increasing wildfire, insect outbreaks and tree diseases are causing widespread tree die-off.

In the Southeast, sea level rise poses widespread and continuing threats to the region’s economy and environment. Extreme heat will affect health, energy, agriculture and more. Decreased water availability will have economic and environmental impacts.

In the Midwest, extreme heat, heavy downpours and flooding will affect infrastructure, health, agriculture, forestry, transportation, air and water quality, and more. Climate change will also exacerbate a range of risks to the Great Lakes.

In the Southwest, increased heat, drought and insect outbreaks, all linked to climate change, have increased wildfires. Declining water supplies, reduced agricultural yields, health impacts in cities due to heat, and flooding and erosion in coastal areas are additional concerns.

To see city-specific predictions, Nature Communications, an open access journal that publishes scientific research, recently produced an interactive map of North America which predicts what 540 urban areas will be like in 60 years.  Click the highlight and it will take you to the link and you can try out the map. This map is a good way to translate global climate forecasts into impact that are intuitive – in other words, how will this affect me where I live?  The map offers two scenarios: one in which current environmental trends continue, and the other in which CO2 emissions are reduced from current trends and peak in 2040.  For example, under current trends, in 60 years, Houston’s future winter weather will be like the current weather in Ciudad Mante, Mexico – namely 15.50F hotter and 84% dryer.  Here are some more examples I pulled from the map.

  Current CO2 Trend Reduced CO2 Trend
Houston, Texas 15.50F hotter; 84% dryer 2.40F hotter; 36.2% dryer
      In 60 years will be like: Ciudad Mante, Mexico Kingsville, Texas
Columbus, Ohio 10.50F hotter; 62% wetter 4.70F hotter; 5.4% dryer
      In 60 years will be like: Jonesboro, Arkansas Evansville, Illinois
New York City, New York 80F hotter; 10.8% wetter 4.50F hotter; 1.2% wetter
      In 60 years will be like: Jonesboro, Arkansas Lakeshore, Maryland
San Francisco, California 6.90F hotter; 40% dryer 4.50F hotter; 42% dryer
      In 60 years will be like: Palos Verdes Estate, CA Palos Verdes Estate, CA
Traverse City, Michigan 7.20F hotter; 29.8% wetter 4.10F hotter; 13.6% wetter
      In 60 years will be like: Chester, Pennsylvania Avon, Ohio

This map has been featured is many news stories recently with headlines like “NY City will be like Arkansas” or “Want to Escape Global Warming? These Cities Promise Cool Relief” which identifies Duluth as a possible best option. Duluth has the added benefit of plenty of fresh water – a key to survival.

Returning to the original question: “How’s Planet Earth Doing” the short answer not too good, and getting worse.  Under our current trend and even moderated CO2 emissions, we can expect more extreme weather patterns and the resultant impacts on agriculture, health, the economy, air and water quality, and our way of life.   We can expect weekly Earthweek items to continue to post record temperatures or more frequently report other “natural disasters”. 

It concerns me when I hear things like “what’s the big deal” or “it probably won’t affect me”.   Well, I believe it will affect all of us and we need to do all we can to change these outcomes or we’ll be dealing with more than just giant ragweed.

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