Global warming is an increase in the average temperature of Earth's surface. Since the late 1800's, the global average temperature has increased about 0.7 to 1.4 degrees F (0.4 to 0.8 degrees C). Many experts estimate that the average temperature will rise an additional 2.5 to 10.4 degrees F (1.4 to 5.8 degrees C) by 2100. That rate of increase would be much larger than most past rates ofincrease.
Scientists worry that human societies and natural ecosystems might not adapt to rapid climate changes. An ecosystem consists of the living organisms and physical environment in a particular area. Global warming could cause much harm, so countries throughout the world drafted an agreement called the Kyoto Protocol to help limit it.
Causes of global warming
Climatologists (scientists whostudy climate) have analyzed the global warming that has occurred since the late 1800's. A majority of climatologists have concluded that human activities are responsible for most of the warming. Human activities contribute to global warming by enhancing Earth's natural greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect warms Earth's surface through a complex process involving sunlight, gases, andparticles in the atmosphere. Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere are known as greenhouse gases.
The main human activities that contribute to global warming are the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) and the clearing of land. Most of the burning occurs in automobiles, in factories, and in electric power plants that provide energy for houses and office buildings. The burning of fossilfuels creates carbon dioxide, whose chemical formula is CO2. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that slows the escape of heat into space. Trees and other plants remove CO2 from the air during photosynthesis, the process they use to produce food. The clearing of land contributes to the buildup of CO2 by reducing the rate at which the gas is removed from the atmosphere or by the decomposition of deadvegetation.
A small number of scientists argue that the increase in greenhouse gases has not made a measurable difference in the temperature. They say that natural processes could have caused global warming. Those processes include increases in the energy emitted (given off) by the sun. But the vast majority of climatologists believe that increases in the sun's energy have contributed only slightly torecent warming.
The impact of global warming
Continued global warming could have many damaging effects. It might harm plants and animals that live in the sea. It could also force animals and plants on land to move to new habitats. Weather patterns could change, causing flooding, drought, and an increase in damaging storms. Global warming could melt enough polar ice to raise the sea level. Incertain parts of the world, human disease could spread, and crop yields could decline.
Harm to ocean life
Through global warming, the surface waters of the oceans could become warmer, increasing the stress on ocean ecosystems, such as coral reefs. High water temperatures can cause a damaging process called coral bleaching. When corals bleach, they expel the algae that give them their color andnourishment. The corals turn white and, unless the water temperature cools, they die. Added warmth also helps spread diseases that affect sea creatures.
Changes of habitat
Widespread shifts might occur in the natural habitats of animals and plants. Many species would have difficulty surviving in the regions they now inhabit. For example, many flowering plants will not bloom without a sufficientperiod of winter cold. And human occupation has altered the landscape in ways that would make new habitats hard to reach or unavailable altogether.
Extreme weather conditions might become more frequent and therefore more damaging. Changes in rainfall patterns could increase both flooding and drought in some areas. More hurricanes and other tropical storms might occur, and...