CAUSES AND EFFECTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE

What causes climate change? And how does it relate to global warming? Learn about the impact and consequences of climate change and global warming for the environment and our lives.

The planet is warming, from North Pole to South Pole. Since 1906, the global average surface temperature has increased by more than 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius)—even more in sensitive polar regions. And the impacts of rising temperatures aren’t waiting for some far-flung future–the effects of global warming are appearing right now. The heat is melting glaciers and sea ice, shifting precipitation patterns, and setting animals on the move.

Many people think of global warming and climate change as synonyms, but scientists prefer to use “climate change” when describing the complex shifts now affecting our planet’s weather and climate systems. Climate change encompasses not only rising average temperatures but also extreme weather events, shifting wildlife populations and habitats, rising seas, and a range of other impacts. All of these changes are emerging as humans continue to add heat-trapping greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Scientists already have documented these impacts of climate change:

<p>An iceberg melts in the waters off Antarctica. Climate change has accelerated the rate of ice loss across the continent.<br> </p>

An iceberg melts in the waters off Antarctica. Climate change has accelerated the rate of ice loss across the continent.

Photograph by Paul Nicklen, Nat Geo Image Collection

Other effects could take place later this century, if warming continues. These include:

  • Sea levels are expected to rise between 10 and 32 inches (26 and 82 centimeters) or higher by the end of the century.
  • Hurricanes and other storms are likely to become stronger. Floods and droughts will become more common. Large parts of the U.S., for example, face a higher risk of decades-long "megadroughts" by 2100.
  • Less freshwater will be available, since glaciers store about three-quarters of the world's freshwater.
  • Some diseases will spread, such as mosquito-borne malaria (and the 2016 resurgence of the Zika virus).
  • Ecosystems will continue to change: Some species will move farther north or become more successful; others, such as polar bears, won’t be able to adapt and could become extinct.

Read next: Is Global Warming Real?

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