Dr. Laurence Smith paints an alarming picture of the future

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First aired on Quirks & Quarks (02/10/10)

"Imagine your lawn crawling north away from your house at a speed of about five and a half feet per year."

That's one of the ways Dr. Laurence Smith describes the impact of climate change on the future of life as we know it in his new book, The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future. In a recent interview with CBC Radio One's Quirks & Quarks, however, Dr. Smith gave a much more shocking number.

"It's five and a half feet per day," Dr. Smith told host Bob McDonald. "And this number refers not to the spread of agriculture, but to the mass migration of biological life that is already happening on our planet and has been for several decades. On average the world's plants and animals have been moving northward to higher latitude at a rate of about six kilometres per decade."

Climate change is one of four factors Dr. Smith predicts will drastically change life on Earth in the next 40 years. That, together with an exploding population, increased demand on natural resources (such as oil and water) and the growth of globalization, paints the picture of a distinctly dystopian future.

Much of that future's population will live in hot, overcrowded, thirsty cities. According to Dr. Smith, that means northern countries like Canada may find themselves in a position of rising strategic value.

Dr. Smith also explains why the impact of global warming will be felt more acutely in northern climates. The Arctic is home to most of the world's sea ice. As this ice melts, the ocean absorbs heat, accelerating northern warming. So whereas the overall effect of climate change is overwhelmingly negative, northern climates may instead see what many would deem to be positives — an easing in winter's cold, a longer ice-free shipping season and modest increases in agriculture.

This doesn't mean Dr. Smith thinks northern countries like Canada will have anything to celebrate if his predictions come true.

"If the reason Canada's coming on line and looking so good is because the rest of the world has depleted its fossil fuels, is running low and water and is desperate and looking for places to move, that's not a happy world to live in," Dr Smith said.

Dr. Smith is a professor of geography and earth & space sciences at UCLA in California. His book The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future is published in Canada by Dutton.

Related content:

Visit the Quirks & Quarks website.

Listen to the Quirks & Quarks documentary "Canada in 2050 - Our Future in a Changing Climate".

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