Six charts on climate change that should have you very, very worried

Two major organizations released climate change reports this month warning of doom and gloom if we stick to our current course and fail to take more aggressive measures. A World Bank report imagines a world 4 degrees warmer, the temperature predicted by century’s end barring changes, and says it aims to shock people into action by sharing devastating scenarios of flood, famine, drought and cyclones. Meanwhile, a report from the US National Research Council, commissioned by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other intelligence agencies, says the consequences of climate change—rising sea levels, severe flooding, droughts, fires, and insect infestations—pose threats greater than those from terrorism ranging from massive food shortages to a rise in armed conflicts.

Here are some of the more alarming graphic images from the reports.

Most of Greenland’s top ice layer melted in four days

During a week in the summer of 2012, Greenland’s ice cap went from melting on its periphery to melting over its entire surface (World Bank)

These shots published in the World Bank report show an unusually large ice melt over a four-day period, when an estimated 97% of Greenland’s surface ice sheet had thawed by the middle of July 2012. Normally, ice sheets melt around the outer margins first where elevation is lower and allow for warmer temperatures. The event is uncommon, though not unprecedented. A similar event happened in 1889, and before that, several centuries earlier. There are indications, however, that the greatest amount of melting during the past 225 years has occurred in the last decade.

America just had its worst drought in over 50 years

Serious drought conditions across the US
Serious drought conditions across the US (World Bank / National Drought Mitigation Center)

This past summer, the US experienced its worst drought in more than a half a century—severely reducing farm yields, livestock production, and raising food prices globally. The World Bank shared this snapshot of drought conditions covering some 63% of the contiguous US on Aug. 28, 2012. Serious droughts have hit the US in the 1950s and the 1930s, with some areas experiencing worse drought than during the dust bowl. (The reason we’re not experiencing Dust Bowl II is thanks to better soil management practices.) Studies suggest we should expect severe and widespread droughts over the next few decades, if not longer, thanks to global warming.

Coral reefs are doomed

Outlook for coral reefs is bleak
Outlook for coral reefs is bleak (World Bank / Hare et al. / Rogelj et al. / Schaeffer et al.)

Coral reefs, which protect against coastal flooding, storm surges, wave damage, and also provide homes for lots of fish, are doomed on our current course, says the World Bank. Coral reefs are dissolving because of ocean acidification—the more CO2 in the atmosphere, the more gets dissolved in the oceans. The illustration shows the impact on coral reefs at various CO2 levels. Coral reefs may stop growing as CO2 concentration levels approach 450 ppm, which is expected over the coming decades. By the time the concentration reaches around 550 ppm in the 2060s, coral reefs will start to dissolve.

Wildfires are multiplying

Fires on the rise
Fires on the rise (National Research Council)

This map published in the National Research Council report shows how rising temperatures and increased evaporation will cause widespread fires in the western US. Fire damage in the northern Rocky Mountain forests, marked by region B, is expected to more than double annually for each 1.8 degree Fahrenheit increase in average global temperatures. With the same temperature increase, fire damage in the Colorado Rockies (region J) is expected to be more than seven times what it was in the second half of the 20th century.

Civil wars are on the rise

Armed conflicts spiked in 2011
Armed conflicts spiked in 2011 (Themnér and Wallensteen by Sage Publications / National Academy of Sciences)

In 2011, the world witnessed a spike in the number of active conflicts, rising to 37 from 31 in 2010. It was the largest increase between any two years since 1990—though still below the peak of 53 active conflicts in the early post-Cold War years. The growth was primarily driven by an increase in conflicts in Africa, and also to events tied to the Arab Spring. There’s conflicting evidence about whether climate change causes increasing violence, though one study found that between the years 1000 and 1900, low temperatures in Europe coincided with an elevated risk of interstate war. Over the long term, the theory is that climate-related problems such as water shortages will lead not to wars across borders, but rather to violent conflicts within states.

(And so is the study of them)

Climate change stress spurs conflict
Climate change stress spurs conflict (National Academy of Sciences)

There’s been a huge surge in the amount of empirical research linking climate change to an increase in violent conflicts within states. The idea is that shortages of food, water, and energy lead to health problems, unrest, instability, and armed conflict in affected areas. Of course, an increasing amount of research on the subject doesn’t necessarily mean the worst-case scenarios will play out. Then again, probably best not to wait and see.

And last, if talk of climate change and how it all works is baffling, here’s a helpful video that makes sense of it all:

home our picks popular latest obsessions search