Stranger Earth: Six weird ways climate change is affecting our planet

Disappearing tundras? ‘Stuck’ weather? ‘Green’ deserts? Yes, this is all happening right here.
Sade Agard
Earth and wildifre stock image.
Earth and wildifre stock image.

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From the first “blue marble” photo taken by Apollo astronauts over 50 years ago, we’ve come a long way in recognizing that planet Earth, our home, is a dynamic system made up of many smaller dynamic systems- all interconnected. Now think of the domino effect where destabilizing one system will impact another. As such, when we face a change, say, to Earth’s climatic system, whether natural or anthropogenic (human-induced), the impacts of this change are widespread. And quite frankly, complicated too.

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Yet when prompted about the issue of such earth-climate changes, which events come to mind? Melting ice caps? Increasingly extreme storms? Rising sea levels? Severe droughts? These are all the prominent examples that continue to gain a lot of coverage - and rightfully so.

However, there’s also a lot more going on than what meets the eye. Stranger (or not so strange), less discussed phenomena are in the works, too, as revealed by the many scientists who study them. So without further ado, let’s take a look.

1. American wildfire plumes are getting taller

Stranger Earth: Six weird ways climate change is affecting our planet
Wildfire plume along the California coast.

In a recent study that assessed 4.6 million smoke plumes within the Western U.S. and Canada between 2003 and 2020, researchers found that the plumes of wildfires are increasing by as much as 750 ft (230 m) per year.

During an interview with Dr. Kai Walmot, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Utah, the researcher told IE that, “in general, larger active burn areas (think fire size) and hotter fires will result in taller wildfire plumes.” Concerning the American West and some parts of British Colombia, Walmot further shares, “we are now seeing an increase in atmospheric humidity and aridity along with a decline in the snowpack; this tends to favor intense wildfire activity, which in turn is leading to taller wildfire plumes.”

With growing wildfire plumes in mind, you can imagine what this means for the amount of emissions released into the atmosphere, the effect on air quality and health, and the bigger picture of how this may feed into the wildfire-climate connection.

2. Softer shells for lobsters and crabs

Stranger Earth: Six weird ways climate change is affecting our planet
A crab in its natural environment on the sea bed.

Marine organisms make their shells by secreting calcium carbonate, which can be in the form of aragonite or calcite. In today’s modern oceans, ocean warming and acidification (OWA) favors what is known as the “magnesium effect,” and from what we know in the fossil/ rock record, this effect essentially results in calcite-secreting organisms (e.g., lobsters, crabs, and scallops) producing sub-par shells. As you can imagine, this is not good news for their evolutionary future.

“If they [marine organisms] secrete calcite, they have to regulate the Mg2+ that reaches the site of calcification, and with increasing OWA, this gets increasingly costly. They might down-regulate their shell secretion resulting in thinner and more fragile shells, which make them more susceptible to predation,” says Dr. Uwe Balthasar to IE, a lecturer in paleontology at the University of Plymouth, U.K.

3. African deserts are going ‘green’

Stranger Earth: Six weird ways climate change is affecting our planet
Vegetation across desert region.

With rising temperatures being seen as one of the defining issues of this decade, one rule of thumb tends to be that the wet areas are getting wetter and the dry drier. Except for the semi-arid region of Sahel, as showcased in this study.

IE recently reached out to Dr. Francesco Pausata, associate professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada, who commented, “Well, in the last decades, land use and land degradation had a big impact on the Sahara/Sahel region, potentially intensifying the famous droughts that ravaged the region in the 70s and 80s. Since then, the rainfall has increased, and the recent rainfall recovery is consistent with future climate projections.”

And that’s not all. To combat future droughts and land degradation, an afforestation project called the Great Green Wall (GGW) aims to grow 8000 km of plants stretching the entire width of the continent across degraded land from Senegal in West Africa right through to Djibouti in the East. In a talk with Bamba Sow, a local community leader in Bambilor, Senegal, IE was told, “like the Senegal river, normally great civilizations are built around water first and foremost. But this time, it’s built around greenery, which is a bit revolutionary.”

4. Weather systems are becoming ‘stuck’

Stranger Earth: Six weird ways climate change is affecting our planet
Satellite view of Earth's atmosphere.

The global increase in temperature is causing changes in Earth’s westerly winds, known as jet streams. Jet streams are fast-flowing currents traveling at four to eight miles above the earth’s surface, which are behind the steady flow of different weather conditions across the planet. We are now seeing weather-related consequences related to the jet streams migrating to unusual pathways, becoming blocked, or slowing down.

Take, for example, the catastrophic heatwaves which fuelled California’s wildfires in July 2022. Warming of the Arctic at rates faster than the rest of the globe means there is less temperature difference between the poles and those regions closest to the equator. “That is resulting in swings in the North Atlantic jet stream, which in turn leads to extreme weather events like heat waves and floods,” reveals Dr. Jennifer Francis to Reuters, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research.

5. Rivers are changing color

Stranger Earth: Six weird ways climate change is affecting our planet
River in canyon.

“Most impacts to rivers will be slow, gradual change that may not capture people's attention or are entirely invisible to our eye,” revealed Dr. John Gardner to IE.

Changing river colors, though, are pretty eye-catching. The cause behind this? Again, let’s ask an expert.

After publishing this study which revealed one-third of large U.S. rivers had changed significantly in color over the last three decades to dominantly yellow and green, IE caught up with Dr. John Gardner, assistant professor in the earth science department at the University of Pittsburgh.

Gardner said that “if river temperatures increase and summer flows decrease, rivers may be susceptible to algal blooms which have not historically occurred on rivers (we think). For example, in 2015, there was a 600-mile-long toxic alga bloom along the Ohio River, and again in 2019 but not as severe.” Much of Gardner’s work involves using satellite observations of all of Earth’s large rivers to observe change and try to figure out what human or natural activities caused that change."

He continued, "Any surprising findings? The surprising finding from our new view of rivers is that change is widespread. There are few large U.S. rivers where there is no change in water color or suspended sediment concentration at some point along the river.”

6. Siberian tundras are disappearing - and could vanish entirely by 2500

Stranger Earth: Six weird ways climate change is affecting our planet
Shallow Alpine tundra.

While thawing Siberian tundras may reveal explosive methane-filled hills that leave behind gigantic sinkholes, there’s more to it. From the Arctic Bumblebee and poppy to the Amur lemming, the Siberian tundras are home to a unique mix of rare fauna and flora dependent on their flourishing ecosystems, as well as to indigenous peoples who depend, in turn, on these ecosystems. The existence of these tundras is on the decline due to an unusual foe — an advancing treeline.

According to a study by experts from the Alfred Wegener Institute published in elife, the Arctic continues to experience increases in temperature unparalleled to any other region on Earth, and one consequence of this is that woods known as the Siberian Larch Forests are advancing north and at the expense of the tundra. Through simulation models using software called LAVESI, the study reveals that even under ambitious climate mitigation, dramatic losses of tundra will be a reality, with only ∼30% of original tundra areas remaining by mid-millennium.