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A bearded seal rests on shrinking sea ice near Svalbard Island in the Arctic Ocean.

A bearded seal rests on shrinking sea ice near Svalbard Island in the Arctic Ocean.

Photograph by Paul Nicklen

John Roach

National Geographic News

Published December 11, 2009

A decade ago, global climate change was largely considered a problem for the distant future. But it seems that future has come sooner than predicted.

One of the most remarkable, and alarming, environmental changes to occur over the last decade is the melting of Antarctic ice sheets and the recession of Arctic glaciers at speeds much faster than climate change models had predicted, according to environment experts.

In addition, the Arctic ice cap reached an all-time low in the summer of 2007. Some climate scientists now predict the region will be ice free during the summer within the next decade.

Studies suggest an ice-free Arctic could result not only in a stormier North Pole region, but could also affect weather patterns throughout the entire Northern Hemisphere.

The loss of ice would also be a death knell for polar bears, which rely on ice to hunt and raise their young. But it would also be a boon for business, including shipping and resource extraction.

Climate change has made itself apparent in other powerful ways over the past decade.

In southeastern Australia, a ten-year drought now causes the Murray River to trickle into the sand before it reaches the sea.

For the last several decades, ecologist John Harte, has watched global warming shift vegetation in the Rocky Mountains from a palette of wildflowers to sagebrush, the latter of which is hardier.

As snowmelt trends toward coming earlier and earlier, it has big effects on the competition among plants, said Harte, of the University of California, Berkeley.

Waking Up to Climate Change

Melting ice, droughts, earlier springs, as well as disappearing polar bears and frog extinctions are among the signs that global warming is already having an effect on the planet, experts say.

In recent years, these signs have begun to resonate with people around the world, said Joshua Reichert, the managing director of the Pew Environment Group, a Washington, D.C.-based international environmental nonprofit.They've accepted the fact that [climate change] is caused by human activity, and that unless we do something to curtail [greenhouse gas] emissions, the consequences will be severe for both humanity as well as nature, he said. (See National Geographics greenhouse effect interactive.)

A global push away from greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels such as oil and coal has spurred increased research and investment in renewable energy sources ranging from wind turbines to dog poop. According to a 2009 United Nations Environment Programme report, $155 billion was invested globally in renewable energy, including hydropower and biofuels, in 2008—a fourfold increase since 2004.

Nature's Wealth

In 1997, a study published in the journal Nature tallied the value of 17 services provided by the environment, including water purification through wetlands, pollination, and recreation. The total was estimated at U.S. $33 trillion.

The findings were largely ignored by policy makers, according to Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who wrote an accompanying perspective piece on the study.

Here we are just over a decade later and people are talking about tens of billions of dollars in financing to help developing countries do things like reduce carbon emissions from deforestation, he said.

To me, that's the story of the decade, added Pimm, who is a former member of the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration.

But in the developed world, some have heeded the message: Forest conservation has increased over the past decade, noted the Pew Environment Group's Reichert.

Canada, for example, protected more than 125 million acres (50.6 million hectares), an area bigger than the state of California.

In the U.S., a plan announced in the final days of the Clinton Administration that pledged to protect 58.5 million acres (23.7 million hectares) of roadless areas has survived numerous challenges since.

In addition, more than 2 million acres (800,000 hectares) of new wilderness areas in the U.S. have been designated in recent years, Reichert added.

Ocean Protections

The first decade of the new millennium also saw strides in ocean conservation, Reichert noted.

Two of the largest marine reserves in the world were created over the past five years:

Together the two reserves cover roughly 235,000 square miles (600,000 square kilometers).

The designation of new protected areas may suggest that scientific research is reaching environmental policy makers, Reichert said.

A 2001 study found that marine reserves boost nearby fishing grounds and associated fishing economies by about $400 billion annually.

A 2006 study also warned that seafood could run out by 2048.

What Does the Future Hold?

Despite these gains, conservationists still have much work to do: Forests, grasslands, and wetlands continued to be cleared and drained, according to Bill Eichbaum, a vice president at WWF-US.

The limits of fresh water for consumption, irrigation, and manufacturing also bored into the public consciousness this decade, Eichbaum noted.

The demands for water are putting many of our water systems at stress, and that going forward is going to be a critical issue not only for human well-being but also environmental sustainability, he said.

Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project based in Los Lunas, New Mexico, and a National Geographic Society Freshwater Fellow, predicts more drought.

I think [the Murray River situation is] a harbinger of what's to come, perhaps even to our own southwestern United States, where again we are locked in a drought, she said.

Many rivers around the world fail to reach the sea during parts of each year due to drought, Postel said.

And groundwater used for crop irrigation is being depleted in India, China, the U.S., and Pakistan—the world's top four irrigators, she added.

What this means is that there is sort of a bubble in the food economy that is being propped up to some degree by unsustainable use of water and, like any bubble, it is going to pop at some point, she said.

Freshwater species are in decline too. In North America, Postel noted, 40 percent of freshwater fish species face some risk of extinction.

China's Glimmer of Hope

In China, conservation efforts have already failed to protect the Yangtze River dolphin, the first large aquatic mammal to go extinct since the Caribbean monk seal in the 1950s.

Also this decade, China became the world's largest economy and thus has a major stake in the environmental destiny of the planet, he said.

If there is a glimmer of hope, Cummings added, there is a sense that an environmental consciousness is awakening in China, and action is being taken there.

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