Climate Impacts Today

In collaboration with climate scientist Dr. Lynne Quarmby

The impacts of climate change are everywhere, from big natural disasters to seasonal tweaks that are weird and unsettling. All of our systems are interconnected and affect one another. So hey, this section isn’t the most fun to read, but it will give you an idea of what your characters are facing and how it might impact their lives and surroundings.

Hotter, bigger, faster, longer-lasting wildfires

So, the planet is kinda on fire. Winters are no longer cold enough to control populations of insects like the pine beetle, which has now killed millions of trees. Landscapes are littered with forest debris instead of actual forests, after decades of widespread industrial-scale logging. Add worsening droughts, and you get bigger, hotter, faster, and more frequent wildfires decimating the forests that do remain. Fires also pave the way for flooding and mudslides, because they burn away the vegetation that protects against erosion. We’re already seeing this reality on-screen, like in season two of ABC’s Station 19, where the crew has to fight California wildfires.

Life in the American West now includes “smoke season” and the recurring threat of evacuation and loss of homes. California no longer has a “fire season”—it’s the entire year. The forests of British Columbia no longer suck up carbon: because of wildfires, they now add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than they remove.

Story Seed

Fires sweep across a hillside after a record-breaking heat wave. A family sit in lawn chairs, drinking beer, watching the flames light up the opposite hillside. There is no word in the English language to describe how they’re feeling: bewilderment-fear-awe-dissociation. A tree bursts into flames. They cheer and laugh, then fall silent.

Heat domes

The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet. For the past 10,000 years, cold Arctic air drove stable atmospheric currents, including the jet stream, a fast-flowing air current that drives weather patterns in the northern hemisphere. But the loss of reflective ice means less cold Arctic energy to drive it, so the jet stream now meanders and stalls.

And what does that look like? Well: in June 2021, a mass of warm air rose over the western Pacific Ocean, and then sank and was trapped when it reached land. This caused a heat wave that broke historic records, in places where few people have ever needed (and, therefore, had) air-conditioning—especially in poorer communities. These were the highest temperatures ever recorded in British Columbia, where the coroner declared 569 heat-related deaths in one week.

The sea was also distressed. Approximately 93 percent of excess heat in the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans, and scientists estimate that one billion sea creatures of the Pacific Northwest were killed by this heat wave.

Meanwhile in Pakistan that same month, temperatures reached 126ºF (52ºC) with humidity. Simply being outside in that kind of heat can cause organ failure and death in just a few hours. This kind of heat could render entire cities—or rather, predictably, the least affluent populations of those cities—at risk of the kind of mass casualty event usually reserved for horror movies. This type of heat event is heartbreakingly portrayed in Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future. Meanwhile IRL, several cities around the world are appointing official chief heat officers, whose job is to prepare the populace for hotter weather. Human-induced climate change has made extreme heat events like this 150 times more likely.

Story Seed

A young woman drives an old car down a deserted highway through eastern Washington during the heat dome. The car has no AC. She answers a call on her cell. “Daddy, is that you? I’ve been hearing your voice all day, but I can’t tell what you’re saying.” He tells her to pull over. She gets out of the car and nearly collapses.

Fresh water scarcity

During summer months, mountain snowpacks slowly release meltwater into streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. One-sixth of the world’s population depends on meltwater for drinking, agriculture, and hydroelectric power. But annual snow coverage has decreased by five to six days a year because of the climate emergency.

With earlier springs and longer, drier summers, states like California are in a perpetual drought emergency, complete with water-rationing measures. And, of course, like all climate impacts, this aridity becomes a vicious cycle: after intense heat and dryness, rain doesn’t soak into the ground as easily, leading to mudslides.

More than 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is used in agriculture—and as the temperature rises, farmers need more and more water to produce food. Rice farmers in Northern California are now having to decide whether it’s smarter to harvest with what little water they have, or to sell their valuable water to other farmers.

Water scarcity caused by the climate crisis is only accelerating, leading to an increase in competition for fresh water—which could eventually turn into conflict or violence.

The good news is that many farmers are embracing sustainable farming practices, and we’re seeing people and businesses (like breweries!) recycle water in creative and effective ways.

Story Seed

A group of Indigenous youth put their bodies on the line to stop pipeline construction that would pollute the clean drinking water on the reservation and jeopardize their water security. They lure wildlife to mess with machinery, and organize their motorcyclist friends to line up and intimidate the scrawny, white company manager. These stunts, performed by a group of youngsters, become a national media sensation, causing busloads of protestors to join them on the front lines.

Sea level rise (a.k.a. we are seriously all connected)

Glaciers and ice sheets have begun to melt and crack apart. Gushing streams pour meltwater into the sea. Huge chunks of ice break off to form icebergs. The water and the floating ice contribute to sea level rise. This is captured in Jeff Orlowski-Yang’s Chasing Ice, a film that followed a crew from Extreme Ice Survey over a multiyear journey.

Down at the other pole, the Thwaites Glacier is starting to crack. It’s the size of Florida, making it the widest glacier in the world, and it’s being melted mostly from below, by the warming ocean. Currently, the ice shelf in front of it—the cork holding it in—is breaking apart. Experts predict the shelf could “shatter like a car window” within ten years, or even as little as five. Where and how it breaks will matter a great deal.

Once that happens, Thwaites will likely collapse—and Thwaites in turn acts as a cork for the rest of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Thwaites is a tipping point, maybe the most important one. If there is a full collapse, this event alone could give us up to 10 feet of sea level rise.

At the time of writing (mid-March 2022), there have been record heat waves in both poles simultaneously. In the Arctic, this means temperatures reaching 30ºC (50ºF) higher than average. In the South Pole, it has led to the Conger Ice Shelf in East Antarctica completely collapsing. The speed of the collapse is a sign of what may come; it most likely melted both from above, from the record heat, and below, from warming oceans.

Right now, we’re still in the early stage of this impact: the sea level has risen by about six inches in the past 30 years. It might not sound like much, but it’s huge to Miami, which has seen record-breaking flooding during king tides, with water seeping up through the floors and drains. Meanwhile, Bangkok is already being impacted and may be submerged by 2050. Sea level rise is already consuming farmland, reducing the amount of land available—which could lead to possible food shortages. By the end of the century, 80 years from now, entire cities will be below sea level, including Miami, New Orleans, Jakarta, and Venice.

Ten feet of rise would mean every low-lying city could be underwater. As Jeff Goodell puts it, “Globally, 250 million people live within three feet of high tide lines. Ten feet of sea level rise would be world-bending catastrophe.” He dubbed Thwaites the “Doomsday Glacier” for a reason.

The climate models differ. Some models say we’re already on this worst-case trajectory, as there’s no stopping the water that has already warmed, even if we reach zero emissions this year. Other models say that if we stay under a 2ºC (3.6ºF) increase, Thwaites could stay fairly stable—but once the collapse begins, it will be irreversible. In either scenario, cutting emissions as quickly as possible is our only chance.

Story Seed

A family who have grown breadfruit on the same farm for four generations are watching their property get flooded by saltwater from rising sea levels. As their crops flood, the father and son are determined to find creative ways to grow breadfruit above the ocean water, such as by building and tying together rafts filled with soil and seeds.

Hurricanes and floods

Hurricanes start as tropical storms, formed when moist air rises over warm ocean waters. As the air cools, the water condenses into storm clouds, releasing heat and creating strong winds, which lift even more warm air from the surface of the ocean, driving yet stronger winds. As this process continues, the winds can build to hurricane strength.

Already, we are seeing 10 percent more Category 4 and 5 hurricanes that are delivering substantially more precipitation than they would have in pre-industrial times. Stronger winds, heavier rains, and sea level rise all contribute to more flooding. Increasingly warm northern waters mean that hurricanes are carrying more energy further north.

In Eastern states, we’re seeing hundred-year floods (floods so severe they once had a 1 percent chance of striking in a given year) happening almost annually. Mega storms in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Eastern Seaboard batter cities from New Orleans to New York through increasingly long and intense hurricane seasons.

Story Seed

A hurricane decimates a Georgia refinery and the small, predominantly Black town surrounding it, leaving a group of survivors trapped inside the factory. After further storms cut them off from rescuers, the survivors begin foraging. As time wears on and no one comes for them, they develop a fully functional community in the wreckage, using West African planting techniques passed down through the generations. The old factory becomes a haven in a storm-wrecked wasteland.

Biodiversity loss

The way we humans are changing the climate is causing the sixth major extinction event in our planet’s history, with around one million animal and plant species now threatened with extinction. The threat to these species’ existence comes from pollution, habitat degradation, habitat fragmentation, and the introduction of invasive species, plus changes in species interactions caused by rising temperatures—for instance when plants bloom before pollinators arrive.

Story Seed

A group of almost a hundred women put on wedding gowns and marry trees in a big ceremony, in protest of a new apartment development that wants to cut down their local forest. One woman gets so into her part that she truly falls in love with the tree, visiting it every day, making her boyfriend jealous.

Warming oceans and acidification

If you take care of the fish, you’re taking care of everything that matters in the oceans, including water quality, toxins, and a thriving food chain. The changing climate means that fish populations are leaving the places they’ve always lived—the places they evolved to populate—to travel to cooler waters. This is having ripple effects for fishing communities, as well as the entire food chain.

Compounding that, approximately a quarter of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions have been absorbed by Earth’s oceans. When dissolved in water, carbon dioxide turns into carbonic acid. This simple reaction has made oceans 30 percent more acidic than they were in pre-industrial times.

The “circle of life” in the seas is becoming a circle of death. In some acidic waters, the calcium carbonate shells of shellfish and zooplankton do not form properly, and the young larvae of mussels, clams, and oysters do not survive. Shellfish and zooplankton die-off means the mass death of sea creatures like plankton and urchins, which, in turn, affects the whales and otters that eat them. Salmon are struggling to swim up too-warm rivers to spawn, while also being decimated by ocean acidification killing off plankton. The impact on biodiversity is likely devastating, and we’ve barely begun to assess it.

Story Seed

Seeking relief from the heat, a group of friends meet for an ocean swim. They wonder at the smell and debris in the water, their favorite beach suddenly polluted. Then someone notices a dead crab, then another, and another, washed up on the shore.

✍️ Dr. Lynne Quarmby is a professor and research scientist currently focused on the climate-sensitive and climate-influencing snow algae microbiome, known as "watermelon snow." She is a climate activist and the author of Watermelon Snow: Science, Art, and a Lone Polar Bear.