10 devastating signs of climate change satellites can see from space
Climate change is affecting Earth so seriously, its consequences can be seen from space.
In August, climate scientists from around the world wrote the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report, a state of affairs of human-caused climate change.
And in this report, scientists reaffirm the disastrous consequences that climate change’s effects will continue to have. They show that as the globe continues to warm, weather patterns are becoming more severe, the seas more unruly and disasters more unpredictable.
These effects are even visible to Earth-observing satellites, watching from space. Satellites see climate change's impact in the form of wildfires, melting ice, shifts in the seasons, growing floods and much more.
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Climate change has many devastating impacts. Now, scientists are finding that it's causing fire seasons to become longer and individual wildfires to burn more ground, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Now more than ever, humans are facing more severe wildfire threats.
In the image above, captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite on July 1, 2018, you can see a plume of smoke produced by the County Fire wildfire in northern California, which burned for nearly three weeks.
Some factors causing the increase in wildfire threats, like land use and forest management, are tied to human actions beyond just the carbon emissions that are fueling climate change. But climate change plays a primary role in these effects, as it makes fire-prone regions both hotter and drier, leaving the landscape more vulnerable to out-of-control fires. In turn, wildfires then contribute to climate change as well, since the fires convert plant matter into carbon dioxide.
2. Devastating floods
Many of the world’s largest cities — Tokyo, Jakarta, Manila and New York — may have to make similar adaptations in efforts to stave off floods and inundation.
Flooding is also intensifying as a result of climate change. Rising sea levels pressing against coasts can increase the threat of flooding there and the warming atmosphere can also increase flood risks. As the atmosphere warms, it can hold more moisture. In some areas of the world, that leads to more rain and flooding especially near rivers and lakes.
In 2020, heavy rains accentuated flooding along the Niger River's inland delta in Mali. Standing water turned black in the eyes of NASA's Terra satellite. In the shallow waters, grass and other plants began to grow, turning the typically arid riverbanks green.
3. Stronger storms
Natural disasters are predicted to continue to intensify and worsen with climate change.
In addition to worsening monsoons, hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean also show the fingerprints of climate change. Researchers looking at records from the past several decades have found evidence that climate change is making hurricanes more intense and more unpredictable.
4. Heat waves
Earth’s warming won’t just boost average temperatures; it will make extremes even more extreme. Heat waves are more than just a nuisance; they’re among the most dangerous weather-related disasters, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Extreme heat can be particularly deadly for the elderly.
Record-breaking heat waves, like the one that struck the Pacific Northwest in July 2021, are predicted to only grow longer, more severe, and more frequent.
And the heat isn’t just hitting North America. In 2018, a severe heat wave struck Europe, lasting for the better part of a month, scouring areas such as Germany and Scandinavia with record temperatures and dry spells. Much of the continent, normally lush and green, quickly turned brown, as can be seen in the image above, taken by the polar-orbiting weather satellite Suomi NPP.
5. Disappearing glaciers
As the globe warms, parts of the planet that are home to snow and ice warm even faster. And when snow melts, there is less snow to reflect sunlight which keeps more warmth in, worsening the warming problem. In fact, the Arctic has warmed twice as fast as the entire planet on average.
Glaciers around the world are feeling the heat. Everywhere from Antarctica to the Alps, glaciers are receding as they can no longer stay frozen. This means that even more water is melting into the seas.
Already, many glaciers are fading into memory. Iceland's Okjökull once covered an entire volcano. But by 2019, from space, all that the Earth-observing Landsat 8 satellite could see of it are a few patches of ice clinging on.
6. Strange weather patterns
While it might seem counterintuitive, our warming planet will also worsen winters.
For one, warmer poles could lead to more extreme cold snaps, such as the "polar vortices" that regularly afflict North America. Also, more moisture in the air that leads to more flooding can just as well lead to more snowfall if the conditions are right. The unseasonably snowy winter of 2013-14 in the Pyrenees, between France and Spain, has been suspected to be exacerbated by climate change, for example.
Strange, unseasonal winter weather is not limited to places that regularly get snow either. In this picture above, taken by the Landsat 8 satellite in December 2016, a peculiar patch of snow glows bright white from the deep sands of Algeria. In 2016, this little quarter at the edge of the Sahara Desert saw its first snowfall in nearly four decades.
7. Reduced winter snowfall
As winters worsen, with rising temperatures, they're also getting shorter. In temperate climes around the globe, summers are eating into winter. Geophysicists have found that, on average, summers lengthened by over two weeks between 1952 and 2011.
With shorter winters comes less snow, which isn't good news for rivers around the world that rely on melting snow to feed them. In Central Asia, for instance, snow-fed rivers have lost nearly a sixth of their water since the 1970s, raising worries about water insecurity. With shorter winters also comes earlier springs and more time for ice to melt.
In the image above, as seen by the Landsat 8 satellite in 2018, streaks of green and spots of blue dot the white of Greenland's ice. This splatter painting is the sign of an unseasonably early melt. As ponds of meltwater form on the surface of the ice, they make the ice absorb more heat, and that only drives more melting.
8. Invasive species
Climate change can also have undue effects on local ecosystems, thanks to letting invasive species run amok.
Human migration has, while intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, spread all kinds of life across the world. But that isn't always good. Caught in a habitat that they didn’t evolve for, invasive species like kudzu in North America and rabbits in Australia can overrun and devastate local ecosystems.
The image above, captured by the Landsat 8 satellite shows Mexico's Valsequillo Reservoir, near the city of Puebla, painted red with the blooms of water hyacinths. Native to South America, these plants have long since spread around the world. They can coat bodies of water, plunging life below into shadow and becoming hotbeds for mosquitoes.
In a changing global climate, more species are expected to migrate. For instance, in mountainous regions, many species are moving to higher altitudes in a search for more hospitable conditions as their traditional habitats are irrevocably changed.
9. That Atlantic current (Gulf Stream) weakening
The Gulf Stream is important. This current sends warm water from the Caribbean, up North America’s East Coast and across the sea to Europe. In fact, the Gulf Stream is critical to keeping Europe’s climate relatively mild for its high latitudes.
The Gulf Stream is also showing some troubling signs of losing its strength. As freshwater ice melts in places like Greenland, it disrupts the ocean by making it less salty. Those disruptions are preventing the Gulf Stream from flowing as well as it should. From studying historical data, scientists now think that the Gulf Stream is at its weakest moment in 1,600 years.
Destabilizing the Gulf Stream would be highly disruptive to Atlantic coastal regions. It could lead to even more sea level rise in eastern North America, as water isn't being carried away as quickly. It could also lead to more extreme weather in Europe, without the stabilizing effect the Gulf Stream brings.
10. Methane release (from tundra)
There's a veritable trove of methane stored in Earth’s polar regions. That methane comes in two forms. The first is what scientists call methyl clathrates: essentially, methane molecules frozen within ice crystals like flies in amber. The second comes from methane in dead plants and animals who get trapped in permafrost, soil whose temperature never goes above freezing.
But, troublingly, those polar regions are the ones warming up most dramatically. And, as that happens, temperatures start to go above freezing, and the ice starts to thaw. The trapped methane now has nowhere to go but to fizzle into the atmosphere.
Methane is the second most common human-created greenhouse gas. While you might not hear about it as much as you hear about carbon dioxide, in the short term, it's much more potent than carbon dioxide at causing warming.
Unless humans drastically cut back on the amount of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere, these effects will only continue to worsen as decades go on into the 21st century.