10 Places Where Climate Change Is Being Felt the Fastest
By Terrell Johnson
Published: September 9, 2014
#10: South Florida
Where are the effects of global warming already having a major impact? In places like South Florida and especially Miami, which faces major long-term threats from a slow but stealthy adversary: sea level rise.
In this region, sea levels already have risen by about a foot since 1880. By the end of this century, according to the latest assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, they're expected to rise by another 1 to 3 feet, and possibly as high as 5 to 6 feet.
This poses dire threats to Miami's fresh water supplies, which already are being affected by rising seas pushing saltwater into its underground aquifers.
“Because South Florida sits on very porous limestone rock, the water doesn’t just come up over the edge – it comes in through that porous rock underneath," said Nicole Hammer Hernandez, the program manager of Florida Atlantic University's climate change initiative, in an interview with weather.com.
(MORE: How High Will Sea Level Rise in Miami?)
The bad news doesn't stop at the surface, however. Because Miami is built on a foundation largely made up of limestone -- which water passes through easily -- building higher storm surge barriers won't solve the problem of keeping seawater out. "So if you build a seawall, the wall will prevent water from coming up over that edge, but the water is still going to come in underground," she added.
That's a particularly bad omen for sensitive ecological treasures like Everglades National Park (its elevation varies from 0 to 8 feet above sea level), as it lies virtually unprotected from the expected onslaught of salt water intrusion into inland water systems.
Meanwhile, Miami's population growth hasn't stopped in recent years, rising from about 249,000 people in 1950 to more than 410,000 today, with more than 5.5 million scattered across the Miami metro area.
"Some people say, we’ll just raise the buildings, we’ll put everything on stilts, and we can manage that way," said Hernandez. "That solves one piece of the problem. But the other piece is, where are we going to get our fresh water from?"
The majority of Greenland lies within the Arctic Circle, the one place on Earth that's warming more rapidly than any other. That's making it possible to mine this ice-covered island's vast deposits of gold, uranium and diamonds, which have long been considered too difficult to access until recently.
As the ice sheet and glaciers that cover most of Greenland melt -- and they're doing so at a faster pace today than they have in decades -- they have the potential to raise global sea levels even more than they're already rising today.
In March, scientists reported that the pace of melting on parts of Greenland's ice has tripled in the last decade, suggesting that "the sleeping giant is awakening ... and given likely continued Arctic warming, that it's not going back to bed," according to glaciologist Jason Box.
Scientists point to the northeast region of Greenland's ice sheet, which had been stable for a quarter century until the first few years of this century. Around 2003, however, warming temperatures began melting it more quickly than in the past, causing the Zacharie glacier to retreat by more than 12 miles.
That's especially fast when compared with another glacier in southwest Greenland known as Jakobshavnglacier, which has taken about 150 years to retreat just over 20 miles.
The vast, frozen continent of Antarctica, which spans more than 5.4 million square miles at the South Pole, appears to be a virtual frozen fortress of snow and ice. But a closer look reveals that sections of it are melting rapidly and sliding into the ocean, which will eventually raise global sea levels even higher than they're projected today.
In May, a group of scientists from NASA and the University of California-Irvine released a study that showed portions of the West Antarctica ice sheet is melting so quickly that nothing can stop the glaciers in the area from melting completely into the surrounding ocean.
Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at U.C. Irvine and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and lead author of the study, said the glaciers there have "passed the point of no return," noting that they release roughly the same amount of ice as the entire Greenland ice sheet releases into the ocean every year.
These glaciers -- which contain enough ice to raise the world's sea level by about 4 feet -- are melting much faster than scientists had previously estimated, Rignot said. This means that forecasts for sea level rise worldwide, like those released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier this year, will have to be revised upward in a significant way.
"This sector will be a major contributor to sea level rise in the decades and centuries to come," Rignot said in a NASA press release, adding that "a conservative estimate is it could take several centuries for all of the ice to flow into the sea."
(MORE: Loss of West Antarctic Glaciers "Unstoppable" Now)
Sometimes called "ground zero" for climate change, low-lying Bangladesh is among the world's most threatened nations when it comes to sea level rise. Already today, millions who live along its coasts are affected by salt water in their drinking water, largely due to intense cyclones and storm surges that push seawater into its groundwater supplies.
Storms also regularly displace hundreds of thousands of people, inundating villages along the Ganges River Delta. But millions more – by some counts as many as 10 to 20 million people – will be forced from their homes permanently if Bangladesh sees the amount of sea level rise predicted by the IPCC in the coming decades, approximately 3 feet and perhaps as high as 5 to 6 feet.
“If the water goes up 1 1/2 feet, which it will in the next 20 years, about 5 1/2 million are going to have to go somewhere – they cannot stay there," said Steven Cheney, CEO of the American Security Project.
But the problem, as highlighted in the photo shown above, is that the people of Bangladesh have nowhere to go. "The border between them and India [which encircles most of the country] is an armed border, very similar to East and West Berlin. The Indians ... do not want the Bangladeshis coming into India."
The magnitude of the looming humanitarian crisis isn't lost on the Bangladeshi government, he added. "They understand it. [But] they don’t know what the solution is."
#6: Pacific Island Nations
Though many of them can trace their histories and culture back for thousands of years, Pacific island nations like Kiribati, Tuvalu, Marshall Islands and others face a highly uncertain future in the decades ahead.
That's because many of them lie only a few feet above sea level at their highest points, a fact that makes them particularly susceptible to the world's rising oceans.
For an example, look at Kiribati, whose roughly 100,000 permanent residents are scattered among more than 30 coral atolls and islands out in the middle of Pacific, just north of the equator and about 1,250 miles south of Hawaii.
Because its highest point lies at less than 10 feet above sea level – most of the country is situated somewhere between 3 and 6 feet above sea level – the people of Kiribati wake up every day to a future that becomes more and more grim.
As climate change pushes the average sea level of the global ocean slightly higher every year -- since the early 1990s, it has risen more than 2 1/2 inches worldwide -- Kiribati deals with the fallout. Increasingly frequent and dangerous storm surges in recent years have already forced resettlements to higher ground on some islands, while seawater intrusion into groundwater stores has made the drinking water unusable in parts of the country.
If this continues, years from now the people of Kiribati will be forced to leave the islands where they and their ancestors have lived since the time of the ancient Egyptians.
Blistering heat waves and wildfires have plagued large parts of Australia in recent years, enough to give the continent its hottest year on record in 2013, when every month on the calendar had a national average temperature at least 0.5°C above the historical average.
What made the record-setting heat remarkable was that it occurred during a year without an El Nino, the weather phenomenon that occurs periodically in the Pacific and can lead to warmer-than-normal temperatures in Australia.
‘‘These record high temperatures for Australia in 2013 cannot be explained by natural variability alone," David Karoly, a climate scientist at the University of Melbourne, told the Sydney Morning Herald. "This event could not have happened without increasing greenhouse gases, without climate change."
Meanwhile, dozens of wildfires spread across the continent during Australia's summer (which lasts from December through February), which scientists say climate change will bring more of in the future.
"Fuels are drier when temperatures go up," Peter Fulé, a fire ecologist at Northern Arizona University, said in an interview with LiveScience. "You have basically more evaporation, so fuels dry out more. You also have longer fire seasons."
#4: The Tropics
The world's vast and lush tropical ecosystems, like the Indonesian rainforest in the photo above, are responding to global warming in a more dramatic way than previously known, according to a January 2014 study in the scientific journal Nature.
The scientists who conducted the study found that the carbon cycle in tropical regions -- the uptake and release back into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide by trees and other plants in jungles like the one above -- had become much more sensitive to Earth's warming temperatures in recent decades.
Compared with the 1960s and 1970s, a one-degree rise in average temperatures within tropical regions causes the rainforests and savannas there to release about 2 billion more tons of CO2 into the air every year.
"Together, the findings seem to show that tropical ecosystems are becoming more sensitive to climate change," Scientific American magazine explained. "This could be another example of what engineers call positive feedback – warmer summers make forests drier and release more carbon dioxide to make summers warmer, and so on."
Meanwhile, what the world has left of its tropical rainforests -- and their ability to store carbon -- is declining rapidly in many places. Indonesia lost more than 3,000 square miles of its natural forest area in 2012, compared with about 1,770 square miles in Brazil, largely to the expansion of palm oil farming and cutting trees for paper.
Across a more than 4,000-mile-long swath of central Africa, in 11 countries from Senegal on its Atlantic coast to Ethiopia and Djibouti along the Red Sea, a wall is being built. It's not made of stone or wood, however; this wall is made of trees, shrubs and other vegetation.
It's all part of what, if completed, will become one of the planet's biggest natural defense systems: a man-made natural wall to keep the Sahara desert from expanding any further than it already has, which is happening due to a combination of climate change, poor land management and extreme weather (particularly drought and heat).
The need to build it is urgent. As the desert has expanded south, it has killed off crops and eroded the soil, posing a longer-term threat to the food security of more than 500 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. The United Nations projects that two thirds of Africa's arable land could be lost if this desertification continues, the Guardian reported.
So far, the project has seen a few hundred miles of the 9-mile-wide "wall" of trees and plants built, largely in Senegal, including more than 50,000 acres of acacia trees (an example of which can be seen in the photo above). When complete, it is expected to stretch more than 4,500 miles across Africa's Sahara-Sahel region.
#2: The Oceans
Overall temperatures in the world's oceans have been rising dramatically in recent years and rose to their highest level on record in 2013, providing yet another sign that the oft-cited global warming "pause" or "hiatus" of the past decade and a half has happened only on land, as the rest of the planet continues heating up at a rapid pace.
The chart below, from NOAA's National Oceanographic Data Center, shows the rise in global ocean heat content in the upper 6,500 feet of the oceans since the mid 1950s, with the sharpest rise occurring since about 1990:
This is already having a dramatic impact on the animals that live in the oceans, which increasingly are moving toward the poles to flee from warming temperatures and the changing chemistry of the oceans. A study last year found that more than 80 percent of the world's marine life is migrating to different places and shifting their breeding and feeding patterns.
Some species have migrated as much as 600 miles from where they were once abundant just a few decades ago, the study adds, noting that ocean species are moving to new places as much as 10 times faster than species that live on land.
"Everything from salmon to grouper to the things we catch recreationally as anglers, as well as the fish for our dinner tables and restaurants -- those are the ones that seem to be most responsive, they move the most rapidly," said Frank Schwing, an oceanographer with NOAA’s National Marine Fishery Service, in an interview with weather.com.
#1: The Arctic
As you can see in the NASA-generated image below of temperature trends between 1960 and 2013, the Arctic is the fastest-warming region on Earth, as temperatures there have been heating up about twice as fast as the rest of the planet.
This rapid warming has had a major impact already on Arctic sea ice, which has seen a dramatic overall decline in coverage since scientists began monitoring it with satellite imagery more than 30 years ago.
In July of this year, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that "ice extent is below average in nearly all sectors of the Arctic," for a total coverage of about 3.19 million square miles -- roughly 714,000 square miles below the 1981-2010 average.
That's making places like the Northwest Passage, long coveted as a shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, more easily navigable for both commercial and tourist ships. Last month, Crystal Cruises announced they're taking orders for a 32-day journey through the passage that will cost between $20,000 and $44,000, and is expected to sail in 2016.
The changes in the Arctic also are having an impact on the weather we feel at lower latitudes. According to James Screen, a climate researcher at the U.K.-based University of Exeter, the Arctic's shrinking snow and ice cover is changing the winds that blow south from there and into places like United States, and that's leading to milder winters and fewer cold days on average.
“Cold days tend to occur when the wind is blowing from the north, bringing Arctic air south into the mid-latitudes," Screen added in an interview with the International Business Times. "Because the Arctic air is warming so rapidly these cold days are now less cold than they were in the past."