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Climate change

Snapshots of a warming world


Great Lakes


The Great Lakes basin contains nearly 20 per cent of the world's fresh water, but this is expected to decline over the next several decades if the current pattern of climate volatility continues. In its study, the Union of Concerned Scientists says that average annual precipitation in the region shouldn't change much, but the pattern will. Milder and wetter winters - coupled with hot and stormy summers - will lead to more run-off and less water accumulating in the lakes over time.


Canada's North

(Sa´┐Ża Petricic/CBC)

Using satellite photos, scientists said Arctic sea ice shrank to a record, possibly century-long low in 2002 and suggested ice coverage has reached a point from which it may not recover. A warmer Arctic is wreaking havoc with the diet of polar bears and other creatures, researchers say. Inuit are also reporting many more killer whales migrating north to Arctic waters in search of new food sources. Melting ice at the poles means the region heats up twice as much as the rest of the world because there is less white surface to reflect the sun's rays back into the atmosphere. Global warming means if there is a four degree average shift in southern Canada that could correspond to an eight degree increase in the Arctic, climatologists predict.



(Wayne Glowacki/Canadian Press/The Winnipeg Free Press)

Because of climate change, biologists have found that mosquitoes today delay their winter dormancy nine days later than their predecessors a few decades ago to increase their chances for survival. Wetter springs and milder autumns are providing a longer propagation period for certain, sometimes disease carrying, species, ecologists have found.


Waterton Glacier International Park

Vimy Mountain in Waterton Lakes, Alta. (Associated Press)

Waterton's impressive glaciers have been retreating at roughly the same rate as others in the mountainous Canadian and American West, including the Athabasca Glacier near Jasper (one of the most visited in the Western world) and, indeed, the entire Columbia icefield. At the current rate of retreat, Waterton's glaciers will be no more at around 2070, and because the international park is a World Heritage Site, environmentalists have been focusing on the park to try to get the Canadian and U.S. government to take action.


The Midwife Frog

Temperature change in the mountains of Spain and other, previously more temperate, areas of central Europe has increased the range of a deadly fungus that is responsible for wiping out vast numbers of frogs in Australia and South America. The unusual midwife toad, a once plentiful insect eater, is now bordering on extinction. Meanwhile, in the U.K., toads, frogs and newts are spawning as much as 10 days earlier than their ancestors did in the 1980s.



A 'mister' helps keep customers cool in July 2006 in Nice (Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press)

A record heat wave baked Europe in August 2003, killing approximately 35,000 people. The month was the hottest on record in the Northern Hemisphere. In Paris, temperatures peaked at 40 C, leading to scorching conditions that claimed over 14,000 lives. Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands were also hit hard, with significant death tolls as well as decreased agricultural outputs for the year.


Greenland glacier

(Associated Press)

Greenland's huge icecap is the second only to Antarctica's in size and has been breaking off and slipping into the ocean twice as fast as it was only five years ago. The breakaway ice is having an affect on key ocean currents and is also linked to a rise in sea level, which is currently going up at the rate of about three millimetres per year. According to scientific models carried out at the California Institute of Technology, the melting of Greenland's glacier may account for as much as 0.5 millimetre per year, or one-sixth of that global rise.



Elephants walk the base of Kilimanjaro whose icy top is disappearing (Karel Prinsloo/Associated Press)

They are two of the most famous photos on the climate change front - the NASA-taken satellite photos of Kilimanjaro in 1993 and again in 2002. The loss of the enormous icecap that once crowned its majestic summit is obvious even to the untrained eye. Between 1912, when exact records were first begun, and 2003, more than 80 per cent of the Furtwangler Glacier on Kilimanjaro has disappeared and the entire cap is expected to be gone by 2020. This loss will mean a significant reduction in freshwater run-off. It will also end an almost 12,000-year historical record in which scientists have been able to drill down into the ice core to research the climate at different points in the history of East Africa.


Antarctic ice sheet

January view from ice station Eduardo Frei (Victor Rojas/Getty)

A previous report by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested the Antarctic ice sheet would gain in size because of global warming. But so far that hasn't been the case. Indeed, satellite evaluations by NASA suggest the mammoth ice sheet is in serious decline and has been losing volume at the rate of 150 cubic kilometres per year. The annual melt season on the Antarctic Peninsula has increased by between two and three weeks over the past 20 years and the corresponding decline has lead to a steep loss, estimated at 33 per cent, in the penguin population. The big fear, however, is that if the large West Antarctic ice sheet were to collapse it could raise sea levels by as much as 5.8 metres, some scientists predict.


Great Barrier Reef

(AP Photo/World Wide Fund for Nature, HO)

One of the wonders of the natural world, Australia's Great Barrier Reef - a 2,300-kilometre long stretch of nutrient-rich coral and exotic fish habitat - is the only living entity that can be seen from outer space. The coral that provides a home to countless underwater species is, in many cases, already living at its temperature extreme, most biologists say. Higher water temperatures coupled with prolonged periods of direct sunlight bleaches the coral, causing it to die off. This has occurred twice already in recent memory, in 1998 and 2002, but the reef bounced back. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, however, is now suggesting that the reef could become extinct over the next three or four decades if global temperatures rise by two to four degrees and stay in that range.


Australian drought

Sheep wander parched land near Condobolin, Aust. (Rick Rycroft/Associated Press)

Farms, families and livestock have been devastated and whole villages abandoned as Australia undergoes its worst, continuous drought in recorded history. Beginning in 2002, the drought has continued every year since in the central farming areas ranging from Queensland to South Australia, an area just a little bigger than British Columbia. In response, the Australian government recently assumed control over all rivers and groundwater in the region from local authorities and is promising billions of dollars in aid and technological development. It is also contemplating large plants to purify and recycle sewage water in the region to help ease water woes.


South Africa fires

Hotter than usual summers have lead to three years of major wild fires in South Africa, particularly in the Table Mountain area near Capetown. Large fires raged in 1999, 2000 and 2006, the last reportedly set accidentally by a British tourist. Last year's fire destroyed one of the few remaining strands of Silver Leaf tree in the world. Conservationists says the fires have also been burning hotter because of new vegetation that has been migrating into the region.



Intense cold in Bangladesh (Pavel Rahman/Associated Press)

In January 2007, while much of North America basked in warmer-than-usual weather, a rare cold snap struck Southeast Asia, killing at least 260 people. Hardest-hit was Bangladesh, where 134 people died from cold and exposure to icy winds blowing in from Siberia. Northern regions experienced temperatures of 5 C, the coldest prolonged spell in decades.


New Orleans

(Associated Press)

Katrina, the third-strongest hurricane to hit the U.S., tore her way across the north-central Gulf Coast in August 2005. The category 5 storm, with winds over 250 km/h, devastated New Orleans and parts of coastal Mississippi. The storm and subsequent flooding killed over 1,800 people and caused $81.2 billion in damages. Katrina was the third killer storm of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, the most active in recorded history.


Belize Barrier Reef


The world's second-largest coral reef, home to thousands of marine species, is already well on the way to being irreparably damaged by changing conditions. A triple threat of rising ocean levels, growing storm activity and "bleaching" - when increasingly warm or acidic waters stunt coral growth and cause eventual death - has already wiped out 10 per cent of these "rainforests of the sea." They occupy less than one per cent of the world's oceans, but these fragile systems are home to over 25 per cent of marine life.



Lake Issykkul, the largest freshwater body in Kyrgyzstan, has risen nearly 12 centimetres a year since 1999, the result of melting glaciers on the nearby Kungei Alatoo mountain range. A weather observation station reports temperatures have risen between 1 C and 1.5 C in the last 45 years.


Southern India heat wave

The Himayatsagar reservoir, the second largest reservoir in Hyderabad, the capital of the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh in 2005. (Mustafa Quraishi/Associated Press)

Scorching conditions in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh killed over 1,000 people in May 2002. Temperatures in that region rose more than seven degrees above the monthly average as the mercury soared higher than 51 C in some areas. Birds dropped dead from the heat and agriculture came to a standstill as working outside proved lethal. The deadliest heat wave in history finally cooled off when rains hit the province after nearly two weeks.


Hot steppes

Riding the steppes near Ulan Bator (Elizabeth Dalziel/Associated Press)

A tree's rings can tell us more than just its age: Researchers from Columbia University are looking at them to find the history of global temperature increases. The rings, which typically grow wider during warm years and narrower during cooler ones, have helped scientists create a climate change chronology that, in some cases, can track back as far as 262 AD. Evidence from ancient Mongolian trees has so far matched data from tree rings in North America, Europe and western Russia, showing a steady increase in global temperature from the 1870s onward.


Ocean temperature

Satellite photo of phytoplankton and sediment in the Yellow Sea (NASA/MODIS)

A 0.5 C to 1 C temperature increase may not sound like much, but these little changes set off a chain of events that can lead to increases in tropical storms and shifting food supplies for the world's marine life. Water temperatures in the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador reached their highest level in 2004, 1 C above their norm. As the water warms, polar ice melts, adding to a rise in sea level. What's more, this increasingly acidic water from the polar ice melts can devastate certain types of marine life. Off the China coast, temperatures have been on the rise for the last 100 years but particularly since the 1960s. Coupled with offshore seismic activity and shore erosion, the changes have led to a rise in sea level of about 5 centimetres a year in some areas, among the highest in the world.



Flooding in Argentina (Ali Burafi/AFP)

In April 2003, Santa Fe, Argentina, suffered the worst flooding to hit the area since 1573. Several days of heavy rainfall caused a dramatic rise in nearby rivers. The Salado River rose 508 millimetres in 12 hours. The flooding killed 23 people and displaced another 45,000. Floodwaters spilled over in Uruguay as well, displacing another 300 people. In recent years, unusual weather patterns have led to massive floods in California, central Europe and British Columbia. Last year, 2006, was the sixth hottest on record as well as one of the wettest for many countries in the Northern Hemisphere. Canada endured flash floods in the West, big snowfalls and powerful thunderstorms in Ontario and Quebec that killed at least four people. The Prairies had a record number of hail storms.


California butterflies

The monarch butterfly (Vern Fisher/Associated Press)

The extreme weather in 2006 proved disastrous for once-abundant species of butterflies in California. Naturalists have reported seeing less than half the number of species as usual. A mild winter and an unusually cold March wreaked havoc on breeding habits and dry conditions curtailed the food supply for the butterflies and their offspring. Many species have already suffered major declines, prompting fears of extinction. At the same time, biologists report many aquatic species along the California coast have been migrating northward in search of cooler waters and more abundant food supplies.


Wildebeest migration

(Karel Prinsloo/Associated Press)

Each year, safari-goers watch as more than a million wildebeest trek through Kenya and Tanzania in search of fresh grazing grounds. But a severe drought throughout East Africa has already killed more than half a million wildebeest and the rapidly dwindling herds face an increasingly uncertain future.