The Earth won't have to warm up as much as had been thought to cause serious consequences of global warming, including more extreme weather and increasing threats to plants and animals, says an international team of climate experts.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that the risk of increased severe weather would rise with a global average temperature increase of between 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit and 3.6 degrees above 1990 levels. The National Climatic Data Center currently reports that global temperatures have risen 0.22 degree since 1990.
Now, researchers report that "increases in drought, heat waves and floods are projected in many regions and would have adverse impacts, including increased water stress, wildfire frequency and flood risks starting at less than (1.8 degrees) of additional warming above 1990 levels."
Indeed, "it is now more likely than not that human activity has contributed to observed increases in heat waves, intense precipitation events, and the intensity of tropical cyclones," concluded the researchers led by Joel B. Smith of Stratus Consulting, in Boulder, Colo.
Other researchers, they noted, have suggested that "the likelihood of the 2003 heat wave in Europe, which led to the death of tens of thousands of people, was substantially increased by increased greenhouse gas concentrations."
The new report, in this week's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, comes just a week after Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution for Science told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that humans are now adding carbon to the atmosphere even faster than in the 1990s.
Carbon dioxide and other gases added to the air by industrial and other activities have been blamed for rising temperatures, increasing worries about possible major changes in weather and climate. Carbon emissions have been growing at 3.5% per year since 2000, up sharply from the 0.9% per year in the 1990s, Field said.
The new study found evidence of greater vulnerability to climate change for specific populations, such as the poor and elderly, in not only developing but also developed countries.
"For example, events such as Hurricane Katrina and the 2003 European heat wave have shown that the capacity to adapt to climate-related extreme events is lower than expected and, as a result, their consequences and associated vulnerabilities are higher than previously thought," the scientists report.
Co-authors of the report include Stephen H. Schnieder of Stanford University, Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University and researchers in India, Germany, Canada, Zimbabwe, Australia, Bangladesh, Cuba and Belgium.