Nature and Biodiversity

Here's what Earth might look like in 100 years — if we're lucky

The distant blue Earth is seen above the Moon's limb, in this handout picture taken by the Apollo 8 crew forty-five years ago, on December 24, 1968, courtesy of NASA. Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders were launched atop a Saturn V rocket on December 21, 1968 circled the Moon ten times in their command module, and returned to Earth on December 27. The Apollo 8 mission's impressive list of firsts includes: the first humans to journey to the Earth's Moon, the first to fly using the Saturn V rocket, and the first to photograph the Earth from deep space.     REUTERS/NASA/Handout via Reuters (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY ENVIRONMENT) ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - GM1E9CO1S7Q01

In 2016, planet Earth's temperature averaged 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.26 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial averages. Image: REUTERS/NASA

Dave Mosher
Science and Technology Correspondent, Business Insider
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America Recycles Day is on Wednesday, and the green holiday exists for good reason: Recycling helps keep rubbish off the roads, reduces the need for Earth-scarring metal-mining operations, and fuels industry jobs.

The practice also keeps planet-warming carbon dioxide out of the air. Every ton of recycled aluminum cans (about 64,000 of them), in fact, keeps 10 tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, according to Popular Mechanics.

Recycling is no panacea, though. An ever better idea is to curb carbon emissions, though President Donald Trump has vowed to withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord.

That globally denounced decision came on the heels of the hottest year the world has seen since 1880 — when scientists started keeping global temperature logs — and the fifth annual heat record of the past dozen years. In 2016, planet Earth's temperature averaged 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.26 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial averages, which is dangerously close to the 1.5-degree-Celsius limit set by international policymakers.

"There's no stopping global warming," Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist who is the director of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies, previously told Business Insider. "Everything that's happened so far is baked into the system."

That means that even if carbon emissions were to drop to zero tomorrow, we'd still be watching human-driven climate change play out for centuries. And we all know emissions aren't going to stop immediately. The key thing now, Schmidt said, is to slow climate change down enough to allow us to adapt as painlessly as possible.

This is what the Earth could look like within 100 years if we succeed in curbing climate change.

"I think the 1.5-degree [2.7-degree F] target is out of reach as a long-term goal," Schmidt said. He estimated that we will blow past that by about 2030.

Image: BI

But Schmidt is more optimistic about keeping temperatures from rising more than 3.6 degrees F, or 2 degrees C. That's the increase the UN hopes to avoid.

Let's assume that we land somewhere between those two targets. At the end of this century, we'd be looking at a world that is on average about 3 degrees Fahrenheit above where we are now.

Image: NASA

But average surface temperature alone doesn't paint a full picture. Temperature anomalies — how much the temperature of a given area deviates from what would be "normal" in that region — will swing wildly.

For example, the temperature in the Arctic Circle soared above freezing for one day in 2016 — that's extraordinarily hot for the arctic. Those types of abnormalities will start happening a lot more.

That means years like 2016, which had the lowest sea-ice extent on record, will become more common. Summers in Greenland could become ice-free by 2050.

In the summer of 2012, 97% of the Greenland Ice Sheet's surface started to melt. That's typically a once-in-a-century occurrence, but we could see extreme surface melt like that every six years by end of the century.

On the bright side, ice in Antarctica will remain relatively stable, making minimal contributions to sea-level rise.

However, unexpected ice shelf collapses could surprise researchers with extra sea-level rise.

Even in our best-case scenarios, oceans are on track to rise 2 to 3 feet by 2100. That could displace up to 4 million people.

Oceans absorb about one third of all carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, causing them to warm and become more acidic. Rising temperatures will therefore cause oceans to acidify more around the globe.

In the tropics, that means nearly all coral reef habitats could be devastated. Under our best-case scenario, half of all tropical coral reefs are threatened.

And even if we curb emissions, summers in the tropics could see a 50% increase their extreme-heat days by 2050. Farther north, 10% to 20% of the days in a year will be hotter.

Without controlling our emissions (a business-as-usual scenario), the tropics would stay at unusually hot temperatures all summer long. In the temperate zones, 30% or more of the days would have temperatures that we currently consider unusual.

Even a little bit of warming will likely strain water resources. In a 2013 paper, scientists projected that the world will start to see more intense droughts more often. Left unchecked, climate change may cause severe drought across 40% of all land — double what it is today.

And then there's the weather. If the extreme El Niño event of 2015-2016 was any indication, we're in for more natural disasters — storm surges, wildfires, and heat waves are on the menu for 2070 and beyond.

Right now, humanity is standing on a precipice. If we ignore the warning signs, we could end up with what Schmidt envisions as a "vastly different planet" — roughly as different as our current climate is from the most recent ice age.

Or we can innovate. Many best-case scenarios assume we'll reach negative emissions by 2100 — that is, absorb more than we emit through carbon-capture technology.

Schmidt says the Earth in 2100 will be somewhere between "a little bit warmer than today and a lot warmer than today." On a planet-wide scale, that difference could mean millions of lives saved, or not.

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