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Identifying Future Climate Impacts

by Susan R. Morrissey
December 9, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 49

Credit: Courtesy of NASA Worldview
A satellite image shows that Arctic sea ice is shrinking.
An area of the Arctic sea ice pack roughly northeast of the New Siberian Islands, captured by multiple orbits of the MODIS instrument on NASA's Terra satellite on Sept. 13, 2013.
Credit: Courtesy of NASA Worldview
A satellite image shows that Arctic sea ice is shrinking.

Abrupt climate changes as well as steady changes that cross thresholds can have rapid impacts on human infrastructure and ecosystems, according to a National Research Council report. The report assesses which climate-change threats are expected to be abrupt—that is, occurring over a few years or decades—and which ones are unlikely to occur this century. For example, the report finds that abrupt changes include the disappearance of late-summer Arctic sea ice and increases in extinction rates of marine and terrestrial species. The report also notes that steady climate changes can cause abrupt changes if they cross a threshold—such as rising sea levels that exceed current sea wall heights. The report recommends that an abrupt-change early-warning system be developed to help anticipate future abrupt changes and reduce their impacts.


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