How climate change may shape the world in the centuries to come

As 2100 looms closer, climate projections should look farther into the future, scientists say

futuristic scene of India in 2500

Combining climate simulations with art, researchers envision a hotter future by 2500 that may transform landscapes across Earth, such as the Indian subcontinent, as shown here in an artist’s painting.

James McKay (CC-BY-ND)

It’s hard to imagine what Earth might look like in 2500. But a collaboration between science and art is offering an unsettling window into how ongoing climate change might transform now-familiar terrain into alien landscapes over the next few centuries.

These visualizations — of U.S. Midwestern farms overtaken by subtropical plants, of a dried-up Amazon rainforest, of extreme heat baking the Indian subcontinent — emphasize why researchers need to push climate projections long past the customary benchmark of 2100, environmental social scientist Christopher Lyon and colleagues contend September 24 in Global Change Biology.

Fifty years have passed since the first climate projections, which set that distant target at 2100, says Lyon, of McGill University in Montreal. But that date isn’t so far off anymore, and the effects of greenhouse gas emissions emitted in the past and present will linger for centuries (SN: 8/9/21).

To visualize what that future world might look like, the researchers considered three possible climate trajectories — low, moderate and high emissions as used in past reports by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — and projected changes all the way out to 2500 (SN: 1/7/20). The team focused particularly on impacts on civilization: heat stress, failing crops and changes in land use and vegetation (SN: 3/13/17).

For all but the lowest-emission scenario, which is roughly in line with limiting global warming to “well under” 2 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial times as approved by the 2015 Paris Agreement, the average global temperature continues to increase until 2500, the team found (SN: 12/12/15). For the highest-emissions scenario, temperatures increase by about 2.2 degrees C by 2100 and by about 4.6 degrees C by 2500. That results in “major restructuring of the world’s biomes,” the researchers say: loss of most of the Amazon rainforest, poleward shifts in crops and unlivable temperatures in the tropics.

The team then collaborated with James McKay, an artist and science communicator at the University of Leeds in England, to bring the data to life. Based on the study’s projections, McKay created a series of detailed paintings representing different global landscapes now and in 2500.

The team stopped short of trying to speculate on future technologies or cities to keep the paintings based more in realism than science fiction, Lyon says. “But we did want to showcase things people would recognize: drones, robotics, hybrid plants.” In one painting of India in 2500, a person is wearing a sealed suit and helmet, a type of garment that people in some high-heat environments might wear today, he says.

The goal of these images is to help people visualize the future in such a way that it feels more urgent, real and close — and, perhaps, to offer a bit of hope that humans can still adapt. “If we’re changing on a planetary scale, we need to think about this problem as a planetary civilization,” Lyon says. “We wanted to show that, despite the climate people have moved into, people have figured out ways to exist in the climate.”

2000 vs. 2500

High greenhouse gas emissions could increase average global temperatures by about 4.6 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial times. As a result, extreme heat in India could dramatically alter how humans live in the environment. Farmers and herders, shown in 2000 the painting at left, may require protective clothing such as a cooling suit and helmet to work outdoors by 2500, as shown in the painting at right.

painting of a scene from India in 2000futuristic paiting of India in 2500

If greenhouse gas emissions remain high, the U.S. Midwest’s “breadbasket” farms, as seen below in 2000 in the painting at left, could be transformed into subtropical agroforestry regions by 2500, researchers say. The region might be dotted with some versions of oil palms and succulents, as envisioned in the painting at right, and rely on water capture and irrigation devices to offset extreme summer heat.

painting of a field in Kansas in 2000futuristic painting of Kansas in 2500
All: James McKay (CC-BY-ND)

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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