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The Real-Time Impact of Greenhouse Gases
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A lot of the discussions around GHGs revolve around what might happen in the future, but here’s a look at what’s going on today.


On The Rise

GHGs play a big part in global warming. There are too many greenhouse gases in the atmosphere right now, trapping an increasing amount of heat and raising temperatures across the planet. Although it might not sound significant, the average global temperature rose between 1.1 and 1.6˚F between 1906 and 2005, and the increase in temperature since the 1880s is the largest rise in history. Why does it matter? Even minimal shifts like that can lead to dramatic changes for all sorts of life on this planet.

Chain Reaction

Effects of global warming begin with greenhouse gases trapping too much heat on earth — in the air, land, and water. While you might not notice it yourself, the effects of an overall warmer atmosphere are far-reaching. Warmer air causes increased evaporation, which leads to drought in some places, while the increased moisture in the air creates heavier rainfall or snowfall in others. Meanwhile, on land, dry earth becomes drier, and frozen land like permafrost thaws and melts. Warmer air and water thaw and melt frozen water reserves like glaciers and ice caps; as oceans absorb more GHGs and become warmer, water droplets expand and sea levels rise, and the water becomes too acidic for some marine life to survive.

Ice Melts Are Making Their Mark

Melting ice caps and glaciers aren’t a far-off threat. This is happening today, and it’s not just a problem for polar bears: Glaciers are a major source of freshwater — the only water humans can really use for drinking, agriculture, and industry. Only 3% of the earth’s water is freshwater, and 75% of that comes from glaciers. Whatever glacier water melts into the oceans becomes saltwater and is lost forever.

While ice caps and glaciers receive the lion’s share of attention, you may not have heard about the problems of melting permafrost. Permafrost is soil that was never meant to thaw, but when it does, it can release the methane that was trapped beneath it, thus adding even more GHGs into the atmosphere at a rate the earth isn’t prepared to process.

Water, Water Everywhere… Not A Drop To Drink

Unfortunately, climate changes are compounding: Sea levels are starting to rise due to the melting ice and the expansion of water as it warms. Combined with the extra moisture in the air from the increased evaporation — which results in heavier rainfall and snowfall — we become more at risk for more coastal flooding.

And while so many regions are at risk because of there being too much water, others are experiencing years-long droughts — and the two do not cancel each other out. Having too much or not enough water destroys the usability of local lands, which leaves its mark on everything from farming to displacing animals and plants (or even forcing them to go extinct all together).

Whose Problem Is This, Anyway?

While our everyday lives may only be marginally impacted by an increase in GHGs right now, everyone is affected in indirect ways. Economists, scientists and even the national intelligence community all posit that over time, we’ll all start feeling the full impact excess GHGs have on the environment in more tangible ways.

This could take shape in a number of ways — for example, damaged land that’s rendered unfarmable can lead to less produce and an increased cost of groceries, while increased flooding and stronger storms can cause more damage to roads and buildings, requiring schools, businesses and other public institutions to close, losing time and money not only from the cost of repairs, but also the loss of productivity. In extreme cases, the changes can lead to political unrest. Take that unfarmable land: As more and more land becomes inhospitable to crops, people are forced to move; as masses of “climate refugees” migrate in search of food and jobs, social unrest and more political instability arises.

In recent memory, the effects of a few strong storms that have hit close to home help illustrate the possible disruption. When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012, it destroyed an estimated 1.8 million structures and homes, and led to $65 billion worth of economic losses. So while it may seem distant when the U.N. notes that around 20 million people a year are displaced by climate changes like global warming, the fact that our friends, family and neighbors are all starting to feel the impact here at home may make this a more relatable issue in which we all have a vested interest.

The Way Forward

The only thing worse than doing nothing is thinking that you can’t help play a part in the solution. In reality, when we all work together to do a little bit more to make the world a cleaner, greener place, those small actions can add up to make a big difference. Try to lower your greenhouse gas footprint by doing things that reduce your reliance on fossil fuels — anything that saves energy and reduces the amount of waste in landfills is a good start. Think carpooling, turning off and unplugging devices when not in use, eating less meat, and recycling. On a bigger scale, you could consider switching to alternative energy sources like solar or wind, or even purchasing an electric or hybrid vehicle the next time you’re in the market for a new car.

SOURCES
The Atlantic
BBC
British Geological Survey
Earth Observatory
EPA
EPA
NASA
National Geographic
NSIDC
NSIDC
Reuters
The Royal Society
The Royal Society
Union of Concerned Scientists
Union of Concerned Scientists
The Washington Times


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