Here's What Earth Might Look Like In 100 Years – If We're Lucky

A girl recycles plastic and glass. Timothy Takemoto/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

America Recycles Day is on Thursday. The green holiday exists for good reason: Recycling helps keep rubbish off the roads, reduces the need for Earth-scarring mining operations, and creates jobs.

The practice also keeps planet-warming carbon dioxide out of the air. Every ton of recycled aluminum cans (about 64,000 of them) keeps 10 tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, according to Popular Mechanics.

But recycling is no panacea for climate change.

If we hope to limit some of the disastrous effects of climate change, we must make drastic cuts — and soon — to greenhouse gas emissions in electricity production, transportation, industrial work, farming, and other sectors.

"There's no stopping global warming," Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist who is the director of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies, previously told Business Insider. "Everything that's happened so far is baked into the system."

That means that even if carbon emissions were to drop to zero tomorrow, we'd still be watching human-driven climate change play out for centuries. Even then, emissions aren't going to stop immediately. The key thing now, Schmidt said, is to slow climate change down enough to allow us to adapt as painlessly as possible.

In 2016, planet Earth's temperature averaged 1.26 degrees Celsius above preindustrial averages, which is dangerously close to the 1.5-degree-Celsius limit set by international policymakers in the Paris climate accord.

Not exceeding that limit will be significantly more challenging, since President Donald Trump — who previously called climate change "a hoax" — plans to withdraw the US from the accord. (His globally denounced decision came after the hottest year the world has ever seen since scientists started keeping global temperature records in 1880.)

But if we manage to pull together as a planet and succeed in curbing global emissions, this is a somewhat optimistic look what the Earth could look like within 100 years.

"I think the 1.5-degree target is out of reach as a long-term goal," Schmidt said. He estimated that we will blow past that by about 2030. But Schmidt is more optimistic about keeping temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. That's the increase the UN hopes to avoid.

This may be a point of no return: Researchers now worry that, beyond 2 degrees C increase, we may tip the balance of our planet's systems toward a "hothouse Earth" scenario in which temperatures unassailably rise to 4 or 5 degrees.

Earth from space as seen by Apollo 8 astronauts.NASA

Sources: Business Insider (1, 2)

Let's assume — optimistically — that we land somewhere between the targets 1.5 and 2 degrees C of temperature rise. At the end of this century, we'd be looking at a world that is on average about 3 degrees Fahrenheit above where we are now.

NASA

But average surface temperature alone doesn't paint a full picture. Temperature anomalies — how much the temperature of a given area deviates from what would be "normal" in that region — will swing wildly.

David Fowler / Shutterstock.com

Source: Business Insider

For example, the temperature in the Arctic Circle soared above freezing for one day in 2016. That's extraordinarily hot for the Arctic. Those types of abnormalities will start happening a lot more.

Shutterstock

Source: Washington Post

That means years like 2016, which had the lowest sea-ice extent on record, will become more common. Summers in Greenland could become ice-free by 2050.

NASA Goddard Flickr

Source: Journal of Advances in Modeling Earth Systems

In the summer of 2012, 97% of the Greenland Ice Sheet's surface started to melt. That's typically a once-in-a-century occurrence, but we could see extreme surface melt like that every six years by end of the century.

Flickr/Ville Miettinen

Source: Climate Central, National Snow & Ice Data Center

On the bright side, ice in Antarctica will remain relatively stable, making minimal contributions to sea-level rise.

Andreas Kambanis on Flickr

Source: Nature

However, unexpected ice shelf collapses could surprise researchers with extra sea-level rise.

A photo of Antarctica's A-68 iceberg on September 16, 2017, as seen by the Landsat satellite.Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory; USGS

Source: Business Insider

Even in our best-case scenarios, oceans are on track to rise 2 to 3 feet by 2100. That could displace up to 4 million people. (More dire scenarios call for up to 300 million refugees by 2050.)

Shutterstock

Sources: NASA, Time, The Conversation

The world's coast lines may be unrecognizable by 2100, even with moderate emissions.

Skye Gould/Business Insider

Amazon's planned HQ2 headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, for example, will probably be flooded by 2050. If humanity blows past 2 degrees C and becomes a hothouse, the location will be underwater by 2100.

Google Earth/Climate Central

Sources: Business Insider (1, 2)

Oceans absorb more than one third of all carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, causing them to warm and become more acidic. Rising temperatures will therefore cause oceans to acidify more around the globe.

Shutterstock

Source: International Geosphere-Biosphere Program

In the tropics, that means nearly all coral reef habitats could be devastated. Under our best-case scenario, half of all tropical coral reefs are threatened. We are already seeing devastating effects from this today.

Matt Kieffer/flickr

Sources: International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, Business Insider

Even if we curb emissions, summers in the tropics could see a 50% increase their extreme-heat days by 2050. Farther north, 10% to 20% of the days in a year will be hotter.

Jaroslaw Kilian / Shutterstock.com

Source: Environmental Research Letters

Some regions may win out with climate change, like San Diego, which could see an increase in "mild weather" days. But it's still close to the coast — so it's susceptible to sea-level rise — and such cases are exceptions rather than a rule.

Lucky-photographer/Shutterstock

Source: Business Insider

Without controlling our emissions (a business-as-usual scenario), the tropics would stay at unusually hot temperatures all summer long. In the temperate zones, 30% or more of the days would have temperatures that we currently consider unusual.

Andocs / Shutterstock.com

Source: Environmental Research Letters

Even a little bit of warming will likely strain water resources. In a 2013 paper, scientists projected that the world will start to see more intense droughts more often. Left unchecked, climate change may cause severe drought across 40% of all land — double what it is today.

Mark Fisher / Shutterstock.com

Source: PNAS

And then there's the weather. Stronger, more frequent natural disasters — storm surges, wildfires, and heat waves — are already being observed, and even more will be on the menu for 2070 and beyond.

Shutterstock

Source: Environment360

Hurricanes are already getting more devastating due to rising ocean temperatures and moderate sea-level rise, which allows storm surges to push farther inland. Changes to the climate brought on by human emissions are also making the storms rainier, which exacerbates flooding.

Shutterstock

Sources: Business Insider (1, 2)

Climate change is also leading to more warm, dry days in regions with a risk of wildfires, like California. This raises the risk of fast-moving blazes. In November 2018, the most deadly and destructive wildfire in the state's history — the Camp Fire — started during what is typically the rainy season.

Smoke from Camp Fire. Shutterstock

Sources: Business Insider (1, 2)

Right now, humanity is standing on a precipice. If we ignore the warning signs, we could end up with what Schmidt envisions as a "vastly different planet" — roughly as different as our current climate is from the most recent ice age. Or we can innovate. Many best-case scenarios assume we'll reach negative emissions by 2100 — that is, absorb more than we emit through carbon-capture technology.

Shutterstock

Source: The Guardian

The solutions don't have to be as radical as covering the world in solar panels and wind turbines. An abandoned nuclear technology pioneered in the 1960s might also help win the fight against climate change.

A top-down view of the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment taken in 1964.Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Source: Business Insider

Schmidt says the Earth in 2100 will be somewhere between "a little bit warmer than today and a lot warmer than today." On a planet-wide scale, that difference could mean millions of lives saved, or not.

This story has been updated. It was originally published on November 13, 2017.

Sarah Kramer wrote a previous version of this post. Kevin Loria contributed reporting.

Read the original article on Business Insider. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Copyright 2018.

Read next on Business Insider: Stunning photos show what daily life in Antarctic research stations is really like

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