Climate change predictions: Anticipating and adapting to a warming world

In an era of accelerating climate change, predicting the near-future can yield major benefits. For instance, when utility officials are aware that a heat wave is on its way, they can plan energy procurement to prevent power outages. When farmers in drought-prone regions are able to predict which crops are susceptible to failure, they can deploy additional irrigation.

These proactive measures are made possible by evolving technologies designed to help people adapt to the effects of climate change today. But what will the impacts of climate change be in the future? And how will humans adapt to them then?

Climate models provide answers

Human activities precipitated changes to the Earth’s climate in the 20th century and will largely determine the future climate. Significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could help mitigate the climate crisis. Under a higher emissions scenario, however, the 21st century would see much more severe consequences of climate change.

Global climate models have given climate scientists a set of expectations as to what the future could hold, both for the Earth at large and for specific regions. Climate modeling consists of using datasets and complex calculations to represent the interactions between major climate system components—namely, the atmosphere, land surface, oceans and sea ice.

One of the latest climate modeling initiatives come through a partnership between IBM and NASA. The collaboration is currently focused on building an AI-powered foundation model to make climate and weather applications faster and more accurate. The model could potentially be used to identify conditions that raise the risks of wildfires and predict hurricanes and droughts. An earlier model built through the IBM-NASA partnership became a tool to help scientists map urban heat islands in the United Arab Emirates and monitor reforestation in Kenya.

According to the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory of the US’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), “Climate models reduce the uncertainty of climate change impacts, which aids in adaptation.”1

Let’s take a look at the models’ predictions for the changing climate as well as how society could adapt.

Average global temperature increases

The most well-known sign of climate change, rising surface temperatures—also known as global warming—is a result of the greenhouse effect: the process in which increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases act as a barrier, trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. According to the European Union climate monitor Copernicus, 2023 was the warmest year on record—nearly 1.48 degrees Celsius (2.66 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than 19th century pre-industrial levels.2

How much higher will temperatures climb? Predictions range as high as 5 degrees Celsius or more by the end of the 21st century, according to the Climate Science Special Report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program. However, sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could cap the temperature rise at 2 degrees Celsius or less.3

While the transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources is already underway, accelerating this transition could help further limit emissions, even amid rising global energy needs. The International Energy Agency predicts that a combination of renewable energy and nuclear power will meet more than 90% of increased demand by 2025.4

More extreme heat and heat waves

As global warming progresses, heat waves will become more common and more intense. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts people living in Africa, Australia, North America and Europe will face health risks due to rising temperatures and heat waves.5

The Global Disaster Preparedness Center recommends policymakers and others adopt a range of measures to help their regions adapt to higher heat. These include steps to reduce surface temperatures—like establishing more green spaces and designing buildings with vegetative layers on their roofs—to creating cooling centers and spray parks.6

More intense droughts and water scarcity

Global warming is causing more intense droughts and affecting water storage on land, decreasing access to freshwater. The IPCC projects that water available for human use will continue to decline in North America, while water security will be at risk in Africa, Asia and South America. Droughts and water scarcity will also impact crop growth, undermining food security. Parts of Africa will be especially vulnerable, with agricultural yields declining by as much as 50% in some areas.7 In addition, drier conditions are extending wildfire seasons around the world.

Nature-based and technological solutions offer some avenues for adapting to drier conditions. Studies show that planting trees combats desertification and triggers greater rainfall,8 while artificial intelligence-powered climate forecasts and crop data analysis can help farmers make informed decisions on crop management under challenging circumstances. Around the world, AI-powered climate models and other technologies can help scientists, government officials and utilities providers forecast water access conditions and improve water resource management.

Evolving precipitation patterns and flooding

As some parts of the Earth get drier, others will get wetter. Even if the temperature rise is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the IPCC predicts heavy precipitation and flooding to become more frequent and intense in Africa, Asia, North America and Europe. Storms and tropical cyclones are also expected to intensify.

Policymakers are looking to a variety of strategies to mitigate coastal and inland flooding, including the installation of canals, drainage systems and rainwater storage systems, as well as the preservation and restoration of “spongey” natural barriers like dunes, mangroves and wetlands. In some cases, the latter can mean rolling back older flood mitigation strategies. In a city in China, for instance, officials removed a concrete flood wall to make room for plants and overflow ponds.9

Changing ocean chemistry

Global warming and greenhouse gas emissions are changing the composition of the world’s oceans and will continue doing so through the end of the century, according to the IPCC. As the global average temperatures rise, ocean oxygen levels will keep declining in what’s known as ocean deoxygenation. Ocean acidification will also continue. Both processes are considered harmful to sea life.

Key to mitigating these changes is reducing carbon emissions, but there are other solutions as well. Runoff and water pollution contributes to deoxygenation; according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Resources, legislation monitoring and limiting run-off could help.10 On the ocean acidification front, some scientists are hopeful about a new technology for removing acid from seawater.11

Global sea level rise

Sea levels rose rapidly in the 20th century, largely due to melting glaciers and ocean thermal expansion. That trend is expected to continue: NASA found that since 1993, the average rate of global mean sea-level rise has increased from about 2.5 millimeters (0.1 inches) per year to 3.4 millimeters (0.13 inches) per year.12 Ongoing sea level rises may be driven by instability and disintegration of ice shelves and ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland. The IPCC predicts that the global mean-sea level will increase as much as 0.29 meters (0.95 feet) by 2050 and by 1.01 meters (3.3 feet) by the end of the century.13

As with flooding, adapting to sea level rise can take the form of both manmade and nature-based solutions, including erecting physical barriers such as seawalls and levees and restoring or preserving natural barriers such as wetlands. Considering rising sea levels during the design of infrastructure and building projects could make those structures more resilient: In California, for instance, transportation officials are planning to lift a portion of a busy highway 30 feet on account of rising sea levels.14

Ecosystem changes and biodiversity loss

Changes in earth’s climate system will include changes to ecosystems and wildlife populations. Research shows, for example, that much of the Amazon is approaching the tipping point of transforming from rainforests to savannah due to wildfires and droughts, endangering the species that call the forests home.15 Meanwhile, global warming and resulting marine heatwaves are continuing to imperil coral reefs, with the IPCC projecting a 70% to 90% decline in coral reefs once global average temperatures are 1.5 degrees Celsius higher. Breaching that temperature threshold would also result in 4% of mammals losing at least half their habitat, according to the United Nations.16

Monitoring, conservation and restoration efforts can help save ecosystems and animals. In Europe, policymakers approved a law in 2023 setting nature restoration objectives for the European Union, including binding targets to restore at least 30% of degraded habitats in EU countries by 2030 and 90% by 2050.17

As more companies work to adapt to Earth’s changing climate, the right tools can help them monitor, predict and respond to weather and climate impact. The IBM® Environmental Intelligence Suite is a SaaS platform that includes dashboards, alerts and notifications, geospatial and weather data application programming interfaces (APIs) and add-ons with industry-specific environmental models for business resilience and optimization. Learn about the IBM Sustainability Accelerator.

Explore IBM Environmental Intelligence Suite

1 Climate Modeling. (link resides outside Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

2 ”Copernicus: 2023 is the hottest year on record, with global temperatures close to the 1.5°C limit.” (link resides outside Copernicus, Jan. 9, 2024.

3 Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I. (link resides outside U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2017.

4 ”IEA: More than a third of the world’s electricity will come from renewables in 2025.” (link resides outside World Economic Forum, March 16, 2023.

5 Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (link resides outside IPCC, 2023.

6 ”Heatwave Guide for Cities.” (link resides outside Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, 2019.

7 ”What are the long-term effects of climate change?” (link resides outside U.S. Geological Survey.

8 ”Empirical estimate of forestation-induced precipitation changes in Europe.” (link resides outside Nature Geoscience, 14, 473–478 (2021).

9 ”Making cities ‘spongy’ could help fight flooding — by steering the water underground.” (link resides outside NPR. Oct. 3, 2023.

10 ”Ocean deoxygenation.” (link resides outside International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, December 2019.

11 “New system uses seawater to capture and store CO2.” (link resides outside NOAA Research, Sept. 8, 2023.

12 ”Is the rate of sea-level rise increasing?” (link resides outside Sea Level Change: Observations from Space, NASA.

13 2021: Ocean, Cryosphere and Sea Level Change. (link resides outside In Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, pp. 1211–1362.

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