Climate change could affect every area on Earth

Around the world, climate change will continue to affect both man and nature increasing threats to species and to human livelihoods, throughout the twenty first century, according to the second part of a major report by international climate change experts.

The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has followed up its report from last month, which forecasted that air temperatures could rise by as much as 5.8°C over the next 100 years (see related story), with a new report predicting that the physical and biological impacts of climate change will be felt everywhere on Earth.

Africa is expected to experience worsening desertification, and many Asian countries will also experience declining agricultural productivity and diminishing food security, says the IPCC. Asia will also experience sea level rise, and an increase in the intensity of tropical cyclones, which could displace tens of millions of people in low-lying coastal areas. Meanwhile, Australia and New Zealand are likely to be affected by water shortages.

The current flooding across Europe is likely to increase, whilst in North America, sea level rise is expected to increase coastal erosion and the risk of storm surges, particularly in Florida and along much of the Atlantic Coast. In Latin America both floods and droughts will become more frequent, allowing vector-borne infectious diseases to spread polewards.

As has been widely reported over recent months (see related story), small island states are likely to be among the countries that are most seriously affected by climate change, though developing nations throughout the world will find it difficult to adapt to the changes, according to the IPCC’s new report.

“Climate change is a stress that will be superimposed over expected population and other environmental stresses,” said Professor G.O.P. Obasi, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which, together with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), launched the IPCC in 1988. “Life as we know it today on the planet will be forced to respond to the shift to a warmer world. We have to use mitigation and adaptation strategies to face the changes while not forgetting to improve our knowledge basis. Every natural and socio-economic system appears to be vulnerable to climate change. However, it is the least developed countries that are the most vulnerable.”

The report also outlines the changes around the world that are already attributable to global warming. As well as the widely reported shrinking of both the Arctic and Antarctic sea ice over past years (see related story), the consequences of global warming includes the fact that ice on lakes and rivers in mid to northern latitudes now lasting for two weeks less per winter than 150 years ago. In Asia, 67% of the glaciers in the Himalayan and Tianshan mountain ranges have retreated during only the past decade, and with more precipitation falling as rain rather than snow, peak stream flows in many parts of Eastern Europe, European Russia, central Canada and California now occur in winter rather than spring.

It was also reported this week by the American Association for the Advancement of Science that in 20 years time, Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania has lost 82% of its ice cap since it was first mapped in 1912.

Ecosystems have also been exhibiting reactions to climate change, illustrated by the northward expansion of Alaska’s boreal forests at a rate of 100 km per 1°C, along with the upward migration of Alpine plants by one to four metres per decade. Even domesticated species are affected, with researchers finding that the growing season in gardens across Europe increased by 10.8 days between 1959 and 1993. Migratory birds have been found to now arrive earlier in the spring and depart later in the autumn in both the US and Europe, and insects such as butterflies, beetles and dragonflies are now being found in northern areas previously too cold for them to survive.

In response to the report, political leaders around the world that are concerned about the environment have called on others to take the threat more seriously. “This report and others from the IPCC show that it is vital that we redouble our efforts to achieve a successful conclusion to international negotiations on tackling climate change,” said British Environment Minister, John Prescott.

“In a few weeks the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report will draw conclusions on how we can respond to climate change,” he said. “We already know that we must take the necessary first step. We must finalise the Kyoto Protocol, ratify it and bring it into force. We must send the right signals to developing countries who are most vulnerable to climate change.”

Following the breakdown of the climate change talks in The Hague in November last year (see related story), the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has announced that the next round of talks will be held in June or July this year.

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