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What is global warming, and how is it impacting us?

June 17, 2021 | Charles Lin

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The definition of “global warming” seems pretty self-evident. It means the planet’s getting warmer, right? While broadly true, global warming specifically refers to the increasing average surface temperature of the earth relative to pre-industrial levels (pre-1760 or so, if you’re not a history buff).

But you don’t need to be a scientist to know that it’s been getting warmer and warmer here on planet Earth. Climate science tells us this warming is largely due to greenhouse gas emissions created by human activity. Worse, it’s only going to get hotter.

As the climate continues to get warmer, extremes in weather will further intensify —meaning more heatwaves, and thus more risk of droughts and wildfires. The September 2020 images of the California wildfires are unforgettable: colossal fires burning through property and forested lands, freakish orange skies, hazy and smoky air, and tens of thousands of people being evacuated. The warming-induced drying of forested areas provides fuel for wildfires; poor forest management and more people living in such forested areas also contribute to increased risk(1).

Our oceans have also warmed, becoming more acidic and less oxygenated, which can lead to increased coral bleaching, and infectious disease outbreaks in their ecosystem. Coral, and coral reefs, not only provide a vital ecosystem for underwater life; they also help power human economies and coastal protection. The warming also causes sea level rise that increases the risks for many human and ecological systems in coastal areas, including increased flooding and saltwater intrusion.

Why does this matter for Canada? The rate of warming of the country is about twice that of the globe on average; and it is even higher in Northern Canada. The May 2016 wildfires near Fort McMurray in Alberta caused $3.7 billion of damage, the single most costly natural disaster on record in Canada(2). The Arctic has already experienced more prolonged and widespread ice-free conditions in the recent decades, which affect marine ecosystems, economic development, and ways of life for northern communities.

However, it’s not too late to do something about it. Let’s be clear – it’s up to us to act on reducing global warming and its impacts. We all have different skills, resources and interests, and it’s in matching our abilities to the right opportunities that our actions can be most impactful. These could be as simple as learning more about climate issues, and sharing what you know with friends and family. If you’re more politically inclined, it could be identifying, supporting and helping to elect climate-aware politicians, participating in climate-change movements, or lobbying governments at different levels in support of green initiatives. Whatever you do, the opportunities are plentiful – and the need is real.


(1)California’s recurring wildfire problem, explained (Vox, September 10, 2020)

(2)2020 Facts, Insurance Bureau of Canada

Charles Lin

Charles is a retired atmospheric scientist based in Toronto. He stays busy as founder and lead of ImpactNetZero, keeping healthy in mind and body, and reading stories to his two grandchildren.

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