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Climate change and how it could impact the world over the coming centuries
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Climate change and how it could impact the world over the coming centuries

How climate change may shape the world in the centuries to come


It’s hard to imagine what Earth might look like in 2500. However, science and art have collaborated to provide a fascinating glimpse into how climate change could transform our familiar terrain into alien landscapes in the coming centuries.

These visualizations — of U.S. Midwestern farms overtaken by subtropical plants, of a dried-up Amazon rainforest, of extreme heat baking the Indian subcontinent — emphasize why researchers need to push climate projections long past the customary benchmark of 2100, environmental social scientist Christopher Lyon and colleagues contend September 24 in Global Change Biology.

Lyon, McGill University Montreal, says that 50 years have passed from the first climate projections. These projected a distant target of 2100. But that date isn’t so far off anymoreThe effects of greenhouse gas emissions in the past and future will continue to linger for many centuriesSN: 8/9/21).

The researchers looked at three scenarios to imagine what the future world might look like. possible climate trajectories — low, moderate and high emissions as used in past reports by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — and projected changes all the way out to 2500 (SN: 1/7/20). The team primarily focused on the impacts on civilization: heat stress. failing cropsChanges in land use, vegetation, and other factorsSN: 3/13/17).

For all but the lowest-emission scenario, which is roughly in line with limiting global warming to “well under” 2 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial times as approved by the 2015 Paris AgreementThe team discovered that the average global temperature is expected to rise until 2500.SN: 12/12/15). The highest-emission scenario sees temperatures rising by 2.2 degrees C by 2100, and 4.6 degrees C at 2500. That results in “major restructuring of the world’s biomes,” the researchers say: loss of most of the Amazon rainforest, poleward shifts in crops and unlivable temperatures in the tropics.

To bring the data to life, the team collaborated with James McKay (an artist and science communicator at University of Leeds in England). Based on the study’s projections, McKay created a series of detailed paintings representing different global landscapes now and in 2500.

Lyon says that the team didn’t attempt to speculate about future technologies or cities. They wanted to keep the paintings grounded more in reality than science fiction. “But we did want to showcase things people would recognize: drones, robotics, hybrid plants.” In one painting of India in 2500, a person is wearing a sealed suit and helmet, a type of garment that people in some high-heat environments might wear today, he says.

The goal of these images is to help people visualize the future in such a way that it feels more urgent, real and close — and, perhaps, to offer a bit of hope that humans can still adapt. “If we’re changing on a planetary scale, we need to think about this problem as a planetary civilization,” Lyon says. “We wanted to show that, despite the climate people have moved into, people have figured out ways to exist in the climate.”

2000 vs. 2500

High greenhouse gas emissions could cause global temperatures to rise by approximately 4.6 degrees Celsius in comparison with preindustrial times. Extreme heat in India could result in a dramatic change in how humans live in the natural environment. In order to work outdoors by 2500, farmers and herders might need protective clothing, such as a cooling suit or helmet, as shown in the 2000 painting.

painting of a scene from India in 2000futuristic paiting of India in 2500

If greenhouse gas emissions remain high, the U.S. Midwest’s “breadbasket” farms, as seen below in 2000 in the painting at left, could be transformed into subtropical agroforestry regions by 2500, researchers say. The region could be home to some types of oil palms or succulents, as shown in the painting. It would rely on water harvesting and irrigation devices to counter extreme summer heat.

painting of a field in Kansas in 2000futuristic painting of Kansas in 2500

All: James McKay CC-BY ND


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