Researchers from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) are predicting that 2015 is likely to be the hottest year on record, with the period of 2011-2015 being the hottest five years since records began. Temperatures are also expected to be 1oC above pre-industrial levels for the first time, a significant boundary to cross for sure, but what does this actually mean?
We are not likely to bear witness to post-apocalyptic scenes usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters such as ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ and ‘2012’, at least not straightaway. However 2015, and the 5 year period between 2011 and 2015, demonstrate growing evidence that human induced climate change is influencing our environment, specifically the weather, in unprecedented ways.
One of the major reasons that 2015 is breaking so many records is the ever growing El Niño event. El Niño is a weather phenomenon which is caused by an area of warmer water developing in the central equatorial Pacific. The effects of the increase in temperature can be felt all around the world, including dry spells in California and heavy rain and flooding in Peru.
Alongside this year’s El Niño, human caused climate change is part of the cause for global sea level rise, a stark increase in the prevalence of heatwaves, and 84 tropical storms up to 10th November. Not to mention the number of studies that have found the likelihood of an extreme hot weather event has increased by more than 10 times. Perhaps we are not as far from the scenes in ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ as we first thought.
One more side effect of El Niño and globally warming oceans are coral bleaching events. Coral reefs consist of a symbiotic relationship between coral and an algae-like organism called zooxanthellae. The complete explanation for coral bleaching is not fully understood, but it is known that the algae only ejects from the coral when stressed. Stressors include changing temperatures and pollution, which both could be denoted as human induced. Without the photosynthesising algae the coral cannot sustain adequate growth. Bleaching occurs as the zooxanthellae also provide corals with their trademark colour, resulting in a stark white coral reef.
Coral can survive a bleaching event, but if it lasts for an extended period of time the coral will eventually perish. Coral bleaching events also have a direct effect on the biodiversity of the reef. Without the coral many marine animals will lose the habitat they depend on and die out. Deceased coral can also bring bad fortune for human populations; many people rely solely on coral reef fish for food. Reef tourism is a vital part of many economies, and no one wants to see a coral without fish.
Having just returned from a research trip on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, Dr Steve Simpson is an expert in how human induced factors are influencing marine environments, specifically coral reefs, around the globe. Upon the release of the WMO report he commented “We have reached that iconic moment where we have warmed the planet by one degree which, in the ocean, is forcing species to migrate, causing corals to bleach, changing the composition of fisheries, and increasing the volatility of the sea and extreme weather.”
Several Biological Sciences students are researching the effects of climate change, amongst other factors, on marine organisms. Tom Norton is a 3rd year Biology student currently scouring the literature for the true effects of increasing temperatures on coral reefs. Tom commented that “it will be important to see the future impacts of coral bleaching.” The current global bleaching event will impact both marine organisms and humans, and it is important the effects are analysed over the next few years.
It is now certain that far-reaching effects will be felt from the ever increasing atmospheric CO2 levels, El Niño, and climate change. WMO Secretary-General Michael Jarraud reported that the released figures are “bad news for the planet”.
“We have the knowledge and the tools to act. We have a choice. Future generations will not.”
WMO Secretary-General, Michael Jarraud
Evidence supplied by the World Meteorological Organisation clearly shows the widespread impact humans are having on the delicate climate. There was a time to question whether climate change was having an impact on the environment around us, but that time has passed. Now is the time to act upon the effects of climate change, or else scenes traditionally saved for the big screen will turn from fantasy into reality.