For over the past 200 years, the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, and deforestation have caused the concentrations of heat-trapping “greenhouse gases” to increase significantly in our atmosphere. These gases prevent heat from escaping to space, somewhat like the glass panels of a greenhouse. As the concentrations of these gases continue to increase in the atmosphere, the Earth’s temperature is climbing above past levels. The eight warmest years on record (since 1850) have all occurred since 1998, with the warmest year being 2005. Most of the warming in recent decades is very likely the result of human activities. Other aspects of the climate are also changing such as rainfall patterns, snow and ice cover, and sea level. If greenhouse gases continue to increase, climate models predict that the average temperature at the Earth’s surface could increase from 3.2 to 7.2ºF above 1990 levels by the end of this century. Scientists are certain that human activities are changing the composition of the atmosphere, and that increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases will change the planet’s climate. But they are not sure by how much it will change, at what rate it will change, or what the exact effects will be.
Based on overwhelming scientific consensus, the following are now widely accepted as facts surrounding climate change: average global temperatures have increased 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880; the rate of warming is increasing; the Arctic is worst affected, with temperatures in Alaska, parts of Canada and Russia rising twice as fast as the global average; because of this, Arctic ice is disappearing; the Arctic may have an ice-free summer by 2040; thaw comes to the Northern Hemisphere earlier in the year now, while freeze comes later; weather events such as wildfires, heat waves, and tropical storms may intensify and become more frequent because of climate change; humans are largely responsible for the current global warming because of deforestation, industry, and pollution; sea levels are rising and by the end of this century may rise as much as 23 inches; more than one million species face extinction as their habitat disappears; a mini-ice age may be triggered as the “ocean conveyor belt” is altered by climate change.
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