Science says climate change is now accelerating as the world warms

A Wendell seal pup. Image: Mike Zupanc/Australian Antarctic Division.

The Earth is now entering a period of climate change which will likely be faster than over the last 1,000 years, according to a paper in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Steve Smith and colleagues at the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory examined historical and projected changes over decades rather than centuries to determine the temperature trends which will be felt by humans alive today.

“We focused on changes over 40 year periods, which is similar to the lifetime of houses and human-built infrastructure such as buildings and roads,” said Smith. “In the near term, we’re going to have to adapt to these changes.”

Overall, the Earth is getting warmer due to increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which trap heat.

But temperatures go up and down and it’s not understood the change in the future over time scales relevant to society, such as over a person’s lifetime.

The team calculated how fast temperatures changed between 1850 and 1930, a period when people started keeping records but when the amount of fossil fuel gases collecting in the atmosphere was low.

They compared this to temperatures reconstructed from natural sources of climate information, such as from tree rings, corals and ice cores for the past 2,000 years.

Then the team calculated 40 year rates of change between 1971 to 2020. They found the average rate of change over North America to be about 0.3 degrees Celsius per decade, higher than can be accounted for by natural variability.

The researchers can’t say exactly what impact faster rising temperatures will have on the Earth and its inhabitants.

“In these climate model simulations, the world is just now starting to enter into a new place, where rates of temperature change are consistently larger than historical values over 40-year time spans,” said Smith. “We need to better understand what the effects of this will be and how to prepare for them.”

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