Earth at the Tipping Point: Global Warming Heats Up

Polar Ice Caps Are Melting Faster Than Ever... More And More Land Is Being Devastated By Drought... Rising Waters Are Drowning Low-Lying Communities... The climate is crashing, and global warming is to blame. Why the crisis hit so soon--and what we can do about it

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GREENPEACE

The photograph taken in 1928, above, shows how the Upsala Glacier, part of the South American Andes in Argentina, used to look. The ice on the Upsala Glacier today, shown in 2004 below, is retreating at least 180 ft. per year

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As fast as global warming is transforming the oceans and the ice caps, it's having an even more immediate effect on land. People, animals and plants living in dry, mountainous regions like the western U.S. make it through summer thanks to snowpack that collects on peaks all winter and slowly melts off in warm months. Lately the early arrival of spring and the unusually blistering summers have caused the snowpack to melt too early, so that by the time it's needed, it's largely gone. Climatologist Philip Mote of the University of Washington has compared decades of snowpack levels in Washington, Oregon and California and found that they are a fraction of what they were in the 1940s, and some snowpacks have vanished entirely.

Global warming is tipping other regions of the world into drought in different ways. Higher temperatures bake moisture out of soil faster, causing dry regions that live at the margins to cross the line into full-blown crisis. Meanwhile, El Niño events--the warm pooling of Pacific waters that periodically drives worldwide climate patterns and has been occurring more frequently in global-warming years--further inhibit precipitation in dry areas of Africa and East Asia. According to a recent study by NCAR, the percentage of Earth's surface suffering drought has more than doubled since the 1970s.

FLORA AND FAUNA

Hot, dry land can be murder on flora and fauna, and both are taking a bad hit. Wildfires in such regions as Indonesia, the western U.S. and even inland Alaska have been increasing as timberlands and forest floors grow more parched. The blazes create a feedback loop of their own, pouring more carbon into the atmosphere and reducing the number of trees, which inhale CO2 and release oxygen.

Those forests that don't succumb to fire die in other, slower ways. Connie Millar, a paleoecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, studies the history of vegetation in the Sierra Nevada. Over the past 100 years, she has found, the forests have shifted their tree lines as much as 100 ft. upslope, trying to escape the heat and drought of the lowlands. Such slow-motion evacuation may seem like a sensible strategy, but when you're on a mountain, you can go only so far before you run out of room. "Sometimes we say the trees are going to heaven because they're walking off the mountaintops," Millar says.

Across North America, warming-related changes are mowing down other flora too. Manzanita bushes in the West are dying back; some prickly pear cacti have lost their signature green and are instead a sickly pink; pine beetles in western Canada and the U.S. are chewing their way through tens of millions of acres of forest, thanks to warmer winters. The beetles may even breach the once insurmountable Rocky Mountain divide, opening up a path into the rich timbering lands of the American Southeast.

With habitats crashing, animals that live there are succumbing too. Environmental groups can tick off scores of species that have been determined to be at risk as a result of global warming. Last year, researchers in Costa Rica announced that two-thirds of 110 species of colorful harlequin frogs have vanished in the past 30 years, with the severity of each season's die-off following in lockstep with the severity of that year's warming.

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