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6.2: Predicting Earth’s Future Climate

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  • Climate change forecasting is famously complex, with a great amount of uncertainty attached to the task. Most of us have been exposed to short-term (i.e. day-to-day) weather forecasts on television, radio, and newspapers. These daily weather forecasts are derived from current weather measurements while considering the historical record of past events that occurred during similar conditions. Some daily forecasts may also be created for as many as two weeks into the future, but these future outlooks are generally much less detailed. In contrast, forecasting climate change involves predicting novel weather conditions for several decades into the future. The general circulation models (GCM) used for climate change forecasting (Figure 6.2) also need to account for a great number of highly variable components, each affecting one another across the only planet we can adequately measure or examine (we have no other planet where we can test predictions). Among thousands of considerations, climatologists (scientists who study climate) need to account for how human activities might change over time, and how these activities will change the atmosphere’s composition. They also need to account for how much CO2 the world’s oceans and plants will absorb, and how wind and fire might influence these processes. Combining all the component parts, climatologists then need to estimate how increased temperatures will affect the polar ice caps, how the melting ice will affect oceanic conditions and currents which, in turn, will affect terrestrial conditions and weather patterns. Uncertainty also exists over interactive effects of some drivers. For example, higher temperatures increase evaporation and cloud cover which, in turn, will have a cooling effect (a similar short-term cooling effect, caused by an albedo effect, is noted after an ecosystem is cleared due to the bare ground’s ability to reflect more sunlight than it absorbs, Section 4.2.3). Because of the complexity of these and other variables going into climate models, a great number of research groups are encouraged to develop their own climate forecasts, each using a range of different scenarios on how human activity might change in the future.

    Figure 6.2 (Left) Annual precipitation (mm) and (Right) annual mean temperature (°C) shift predicted for Sub-Saharan Africa in 2070, assuming greenhouse gas emissions peak around 2080. Values presented as the amount of deviation from 1960-1990 averages. Some coastal areas of West and Central Africa are predicted of have more rain, but large areas of southeast Africa will get much drier. All of Africa is predicted to get hotter, with the greatest increases in southern Africa. Source:; model: GISS-E2-R. Map by Johnny Wilson, CC BY 4.0.

    To further improve upon climate change forecasting, in 1988, the UN appointed a group of leading scientists, collectively known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to study the implications of climate change. By regularly doing extensive reviews of all the evidence and climate science literature, the IPCC has found that, despite the complexity of climate models, results of all the models taken together exhibited significant agreement with changes already observed. Climate change models have also proven reliable in predicting responses of biodiversity to climate change (Fordham et al., 2018). Thus, while some fringe groups may continue to deny the validity of climate science, there is broad consensus among the world’s scientists that increased atmospheric greenhouse gases—caused by human activities—are causing the world’s climate to change, and it will continue to change in coming decades. While climatologists continue to improve on the finer details of their models, conservation biologists can and should confidently use the climate forecasts available for general conservation planning purposes.

    Assuming human activities continue business as usual, and current greenhouse gas emission rates continue unabated, climatologists predict that average annual temperatures in Sub-Saharan Africa will increase by 0.5°C by 2050, compared to temperatures late in the 20th century (Serdeczny et al., 2017). The increase could be even greater, towards 4°C, if humans emit more greenhouse gases than predicted and Earth’s carbon storage systems underperform. Conversely, temperatures could warm less or more slowly if we manage to slow greenhouse gases emissions and better protect natural carbon sinks. Unfortunately, current evidence suggests that the higher temperature estimates seem more likely. For example, 2016 was the hottest year (since modern record-keeping) globally for the third straight year (Gillis, 2017) with temperatures already 0.9°C above late 20th century averages. Another climate record was set in April 2018, which was Earth’s 400th straight warmer-than-average month (NOAA, 2018c). Also, more locally, scientists observed that temperatures in some South African national parks reached temperature increases predicted for 2035 already in 2015 (van Wilgen et al., 2016).

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