Humans are bringing about another global-scale change in the atmosphere: the increase in what are called greenhouse gases otherwise known as global warming. Like glass in a greenhouse, these gases admit the Sun’s light but tend to reflect back downward the heat that is radiated from the ground below, trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. This process is known as the greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide is the most significant of these gases—there is 31 percent more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today than there was in 1750, the result of our burning coal and fuels derived from oil. Methane, nitrous oxide, and CFCs are greenhouse gases as well.
Scientists predict that increases in these gases in the atmosphere will make the Earth a warmer place. They expect a global rise in average temperature of 1.4 to 5.8 Celsius degrees (2.5 to 10.4 Fahrenheit degrees) in the next century. Average temperatures have in fact been rising. The 1990s were the warmest decade on record, and 2005 was the warmest year on record. Some scientists are reluctant to say that global warming has actually begun because climate naturally varies from year to year and decade to decade, and it takes many years of records to be sure of a fundamental change. There is little disagreement, though, that global warming is on its way.
Global warming will have different effects in different regions. A warmed world is expected to have more extreme weather, with more rain during wet periods, longer droughts, and more powerful storms. Although the effects of future climate change are unknown, some predict that exaggerated weather conditions may translate into better agricultural yields in areas such as the western United States, where temperature and rainfall are expected to increase, while dramatic decreases in rainfall may lead to severe drought and plunging agricultural yields in parts of Africa, for example.
Warmer temperatures are expected to partially melt the polar ice caps, leading to a projected sea level rise of 9 to 100 cm (4 to 40 in) by the year 2100. A sea level rise at the upper end of this range would flood coastal cities, force people to abandon low-lying islands, and completely inundate coastal wetlands. If sea levels rise at projected rates, the Florida Everglades could be completely under salt water in the next century. Diseases like malaria, which at present are primarily found in the tropics, may become more common in the regions of the globe between the tropics and the polar regions, called the temperate zones. For many of the world’s plant species, and for animal species that are not easily able to shift their territories as their habitat grows warmer, climate change may bring extinction.