The publication of the research coincided with a torrent of climatic cataclysms around the globe, as floods displaced and killed thousands in Ethiopia, Kenya and India, forest fires continued to wreak havoc in Spain and Portugal, and China’s persistent drought menaced harvests and water supplies.

Such extreme events will become increasingly common over the next two hundred years, even in the unlikely event of an immediate halt to greenhouse gas emissions, researchers from Bristol University found.

By analysing the results of over 50 climate model simulations, they showed how damage to ecosystems is likely to distribute itself around the globe.

Tree cover is most likely to be lost in Eurasia, eastern China, Canada, Central America and the Amazon rainforest, the scientists said. They pointed to Amazonia, along with the far north and semi-arid regions, as likely to be hardest hit by wildfires.

The probability of ‘dangerous’ climate change will grow substantially as the strength of the warming increases, with a one degree difference in the warming -3 C instead of 2 – doubling the probability of forest cover loss.

More intense droughts in West Africa, Central America, but also southern Europe and eastern USA will affect access to freshwater, while tropical Africa and northwest South America suffers more flooding caused by the destruction of forests.

Marko Scholze, who led the research, said his results should help quantify what is meant by ‘dangerous’ climate change, and how this relates to temperature rise.

“Most importantly we show the steeply increasing risks, and increasingly large areas affected, associated with higher warming levels. This analysis represents a considerable step forward for discussions about ‘dangerous’ climate change and its avoidance,” he said.

Another worrying result was the prediction that carbon sinks – such as oceans and forests – could release stored carbon, thus accelerating the warming effects by creating a positive feedback loop.

Dr Shotze’s team conducted the study as part of the QUEST (Quantifying and Understanding the Earth System) project, a cooperation between the Bristol University and the University of Southampton.

Goska Romanowicz

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