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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: December 2012

6 - Current warming and likely future impacts

Summary

Current biological symptoms of warming

As noted in Chapter 2, climate change impacts on living species and so in turn these impacts can be used as climatic proxies. As discussed in Chapter 3, climate change throughout the Earth's history has been complex and features a number of distinct and characteristic episodes as well as periods with defining trends. However, as was observed in Chapters 3 and 4, the biological response of species and natural systems to climate change is also complex, as is the biological response of (and impact on) humans. A good proportion of this last is reflected in recorded history. Further, these impact elements – of species response and climatic-event and natural-systems response – are all discernable when applied to climate at the end of the 20th and early 21st century and all exhibit varying degrees of complexity. Some responses are sufficiently complex that they appear as the opposite to what might initially be expected. Even in such cases, when examined carefully, they all clearly reflect the fact that the planet is warming up.

Current boreal dendrochronological response

One illustrative example was briefly mentioned in Chapter 2 when looking at dendrochronology. Figure 2.1 portrays the pooling together of several dendrochronological series from the northern hemisphere's high latitudes. This clearly shows that in the 20th century the north of the northern hemisphere warmed above the 1601–1974 average. However, some dendrochronological series (Figure 2.1, the dashed line on the far right) seem to exhibit a late-20th-century return to average temperatures even though others reflect continued warming (in line with instrumental measurements). As indicated, this deviation from what would be expected may be due to increased snowfall with the volume of the extra snow delaying the melting of snow cover and so delaying the onset of spring greening. This is not unexpected, because, as previously noted, a warmer planet would have increased ocean evaporation and hence increased precipitation (be it rain or snow). Another explanation mentioned is that some other environmental factor impedes growth. As noted in Chapter 2, species respond to a range of environmental factors, some of which act synergistically, sometimes in a positive way and others in a negative way.

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