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Apr. 08, 2011

Evidence of climate change … or something exactly like it.

by Neil Wagner

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“How can scientists know what happened 100,000 years ago? I’m not buying it!”
“The planet’s not getting warmer — in fact, it’s getting colder!”
“Any changes we see are because of natural cycles.”

If you have made these statements, or ones like them, then you are skeptical about anthropogenic climate change, and today’s “What on Earth?” is dedicated to you. We’re featuring a list of facts, incidents and trends from recent times — mostly from the last 50 years or so. These are things that people have recently been able to see, count, photograph, record, and pass along over the course of just a few generations. And if you’re convinced everything in the list below is simply the result of natural cycles, please explain how these cycles (or would “spirals” be a better word?) haven’t led the ideal climate humans have enjoyed for so long to go off the rails long ago.

FIRE & ICE

In 1850, Glacier National Park had 150 glaciers. Today there are 26.
BREAKING NEWS: Ellen Blickhan of Glacier National Park has just contacted me to announce the park has lost another one. GNP is now home to 25 glaciers. Thanks Ellen!
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Sea ice thickness decreased 43% between the 1970s and the 1990s.
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The Arctic’s 2011 maximum sea ice coverage (which occurred on March 7th) is tied with 2006 for the lowest recorded annual maximum.
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Large wildfire activity increased dramatically in the mid-1980s, with higher large-wildfire frequency, longer wildfire durations, and longer wildfire seasons.
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In 2008 the North Pole became an island for the first time in human history. Satellite images showed open water surrounding the Arctic, making it possible to circumnavigate the North Pole for the first time.
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Longer, dryer summers have resulted in western U.S. wildfires that consumed 6 times more land in the last two decades than those in the two preceding decades.
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The overall volume of glaciers in Switzerland has decreased by two-thirds.
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Greenland lost up to 250 cubic kilometers (60 cubic miles) of ice annually between 2002 and 2006; Antarctica lost about 152 cubic kilometers (36 cubic miles) of ice between 2002 and 2005.
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Major glaciers have entirely disappeared from the Andes, and the Himalayas have lost a third of their snow.
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Annual blooms of phytoplankton — tiny plants and algae critical the Arctic food chain — are now peaking up to 50 days earlier than they did 14 years ago, due to melting ice cover.
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WATER

Global sea level rose about 17 centimeters (6.7 inches) in the last century, but the rate in just the last decade is nearly double that of the last century.
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The top 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) of ocean warmed 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969.
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Global mean sea level has risen 3.5 mm/year annually since 1993.
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The Maldives — 1,200 islands and atolls near India — are setting funds aside to buy a new homeland since the current pace of sea level rise has convinced their government their islands will eventually end up underwater.
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A 30 year dispute between India and Bangladesh over New Moore Island ended when rising sea levels completely submerged the island. Game over.
Learn more in the second comic strip on the page

A study of New England’s ground water levels over 60 years found a significant increase in the water table over the last 10 years, increasing the chance of flooding.
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WEATHER & CLIMATE

2010 had more rainfall than any year on record and was among the top ten for number of tornadoes in the U.S. (since 1950).
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2010 saw Russia’s worst heat wave in the 130 years since records began. (October, 2010)
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Australia has warmed 0.9 degrees C since 1950.
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Earth’s 20 warmest years on record have occurred since 1981–the 10 warmest in the past 12 years.
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The first freeze in the Northern Hemisphere occurs 10 days later than 150 years ago, and spring thaw begins 9 days earlier.
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Minnesota’s average temperature has risen almost one degree Fahrenheit over the past century.
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U.S. climate extremes have been rising over the last four decades.
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Since 1950, the number of record high temperature events in the U.S. has been increasing and the number of record low temperature events has been decreasing. The U.S. has also witnessed increasing numbers of intense rainfall events.
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Fairbanks, Alaska is 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer & 11% drier than 100 years ago.
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GREENHOUSE GASES

The carbon dioxide content of the Earth’s oceans is currently increasing about 2 billion tons per year. Ocean acidity has consequently increased by about 30 percent.
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Switzerland has lost 20% of its glacier ice in the last 15 years. Overall, Europe has lost 50% of its alpine glacier ice in the last century.
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AGRICULTURE

Two decades of warm summers have led to a dramatic increase in the number of Spruce bark beetles, resulting in the destruction of 4 million acres of spruce trees.
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40 consecutive years of research at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory show flowers are blooming a month earlier than just 10 years ago — some early enough to be killed off by frost.
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A nationwide citizen science effort shows a number of popular ornamental plants in the U.S. are blooming earlier than ever before recorded, some by several weeks.
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One Oregonian grape grower notes that he can successfully grow his grapes at elevations that are 400 feet higher than 15 years ago. “I’ve definitely noticed over the last 20 years or so better and better ripening periods [due to] more heat” he said.
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Warner Canadian temperatures led to an unprecedented increase in the number of pine beetles, resulting in the destruction of 13 million hectares of forest between 1997 and 2007.
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LIVING CREATURES

50% of North America’s 305 bird species spend winters 35 miles north of where they made their winter homes 40 years ago.
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Between the 1930′s and the 1990′s Monterey Bay warmed and its marine population shifted substantially from cold-loving species to warm-water species.
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Over 30 years, Antarctica’s Adélie penguin population has fallen from 32,000 breeding pairs to 11,000.
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The extra CO2 being absorbed by our oceans has had the curious effect of making some fish reduce their efforts to avoid predators.
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The winter arrival dates of 20 migratory bird species in North America were up to 21 days earlier in 1994 than 1965.
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The Coffee Berry Borer Beetle is moving to new locations because of warmer temperatures, leading to more than $500 million in damages annually.
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Until recently, 90% of Pacific brant geese wintered in Mexico, but now up to 30% spend their winters in Alaska since the Arctic is warming.
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Gray whales are arriving at their winter destination–Monterey Bay–10 days later than they did 20 years ago.
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A warmer Arctic has encouraged the red fox to live farther north, preying on the Arctic fox. Meanwhile, the Arctic fox is finding that warmer temps make locating its own prey more difficult.
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MISC

Some mountains are growing taller at a record rate because snow caps and glaciers are melting, reducing the weight that had been pressing down on them.
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Satellites are staying aloft longer because the increase in CO2 molecules help to make the air around them in the outer layers of the atmosphere less dense. Less density means less drag.
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Heat-related illnesses and death, incidences of tropical diseases, and tick-borne Lyme disease are all increasing due to warmer temperatures around the globe. Warmer temperatures have fostered an 800% increase in occurrences of mosquito-borne dengue fever in the Americas between 1980 and 2006. The increase in Mexico has been 600% since 2001.
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LEARN MORE ABOUT WHAT ON EARTH?…

Interview: Katie Kline, Communications Officer at Ecological Society of America interviewed me via Skype for the ESA’s Ecotone blog. Read and hear it here.

Video: Bebbo and Kito were featured in one of Jim Parks’ terrific Today’s Green Minute episodes. See the video! Learn more about it.

About Neil Wagner

Neil Wagner's What on Earth? comic strip uses humor to discuss global warming.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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