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Here’s What Our Future World Might Look Like

A warmer planet would favor fast-growing tropical trees and oceans full of algae but a lack of biodiversity

(Macduff Everton/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Forecasting exactly how the effects of climate change will play out is a tricky prospect. But that doesn’t stop researchers from attempting it. Take the work of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s plant physiologist Klaus Winter. He tried to grow trees under the steamy conditions the Earth might have by the end of this century. For Wired, Lizzie Wade reports on the result, as well as that of other work that tries to predict what a climate changed future will be like.

In Wade's experiment, the tropical seedlings did well at that extremely warm temperature. That doesn’t mean that humans or other animals will, but at least some life forms may make it. The work of Winter and others suggests that the late comedian George Carlin may have been right. "The planet has been through a lot worse that us," he said in on stand-up routine. "The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas."

So what will the post-human world look like?

There will still be tropical forests, but they will probably be different than the ones people know today. Fast-growing trees like coralwood, balsa trees and a species of fig called Ficus insipida did the best in Winter’s experiments. But slower growing plants and animals likely won’t fair well, Wade writes. Small rodents that can hide and adapt and birds that can fly to find the best places to nest and feed may do fine.

The ocean, growing more acidic, will also see a shift and decline in biodiversity. Ivan Nagelkerken, a marine ecologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia, looks to vents that spew  carbon dioxide into the surrounding sea for clues to what an acidified ocean will be like. Algae are the big winners, but the food web isn’t very complex he tells Wade. “We did not observe a single predator on those vents.”

Since humans are adaptable, Christopher Dick of the University of Michigan actually thinks that some people may survive to see the changes. However, as journalist Elizabeth Kolbert told Nadia Drake for National Geographic, "Even if we can survive, is that the world you want to live in? Is that the world you want all future generations of humans to live in?"

There’s also the possibility that the pressures induced by climate change could push a new kind of intelligent species to evolve and they just might outcompete humans.

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