WASHINGTON -- Climatic changes -- and the results of those changes -- could occur within decades or even sooner, and they are becoming a greater concern for scientists, according to a new paper from the National Academy of Sciences.
"The most challenging changes are the abrupt ones," said James White, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado in Boulder and chair of the report committee. White and several coauthors of the paper spoke at a press conference Tuesday morning.
The paper focuses on those impacts due to climate change that can happen most quickly. Among these are the rapid decline in Arctic sea ice that scientists have seen in the last decade and increased extinction pressure on plants and animals caused by the rapidly warming climate.
Many such changes, according to Tony Barnosky, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, are "things that people in this room will be around to see." He emphasized that scientists are "really worried about what's going to happen in the next several years or decades."
"The planet is going to be warmer than most species living on Earth today have seen it, including humans," said Barnosky. "The pace of change is orders of magnitude higher than what species have experienced in the last tens of millions of years."
Other, more gradually occurring changes can still have abrupt impacts on the ecosystem and human systems, such as the loss of fisheries or shifts in where certain crops can be cultivated. Rapid loss of ice, for example, would mean that sea levels rise at a much faster rate than the current trend, which would have a significant effect on coastal regions. A 3-foot rise in the seas is easier to prepare for if it happens on a 100-year horizon than if it happens within 30 years.
"If you think about gradual change, you can see where the road is and where you're going," said Barnosky. "With abrupt changes and effects, the road suddenly drops out from under you."
The paper did offer two bits of good news. One, scientists don't believe that climate change is likely to shut down the Atlantic jetstream, a possibility that had been discussed in some scientific research. They also don't believe that large, rapid emissions of methane from ice and Arctic soil will pose a serious threat in the short term, as had been considered previously.
"Giant methane belches are not a big worry," said Richard Alley, a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University and committee member. "These really are systems that will affect us in the future, but they don't look like they're going to jump really fast."
The paper recommends increased investment in an early-warning system for monitoring abrupt impacts, such as surveillance programs to facilitate closer tracking of melting ice and methane releases, for example. Right now, investment in those systems is lacking in the U.S., and monitoring programs have been cut in recent years.
"The time has come for us to quit talking and actually take some action," said White. He noted that in the modern age, there are cameras everywhere, yet "remarkably very few of those watching devices are pointed at the environment."
"We ought to be watching that with the same zeal we watch banks and other precious things."
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A Bumpier Ride?
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Not A Drop To Drink
A 2012 study from the U.S. Forest Service found that without "major adaptation efforts," parts of the U.S. are likely to see "<a href="http://www.treesearch.fs.fed.us/pubs/42363" target="_blank">substantial future water shortages</a>." Climate change, especially for the Southwest U.S., can both <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/02/25/1638541/study-climate-change-dry-up-us-reservoirs-lake-powell-lake-mead" target="_blank">increase water demand and decrease water supply</a>.
An International Tragedy
Research by British government found that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/15/somalia-famine-climate-change_n_2883088.html" target="_blank">climate change may have contributed to a famine in East Africa</a> that killed between 50,000 and 100,000 people in 2010 and 2011. At least 24 percent of the cause of a lack of major rains in 2011 can be attributed to man-made greenhouse gases, Met Office modeling showed. (TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)
A Mighty Wind
The <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/mar/25/frozen-spring-arctic-sea-ice-loss" target="_blank">dramatic and rapid loss of sea ice in recent years</a> has consequences beyond the Arctic. Scientists have found the melting shifts the position of the Jet Stream, bringing cold Arctic air further south and increasing the odds of intense snow storms and extreme spring weather.
An Itch You Can't Scratch
Research indicates that increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide <a href="http://www.onearth.org/blog/poison-ivy-climate-change" target="_blank">result in larger poison ivy plants</a>. Even worse, climate change will mean that the plant's irritating oil will also get more potent.
The <a href="http://www.livescience.com/28320-climate-change-allergies.html" target="_blank">spring 2013 allergy season could be one of the worst ever</a>, thanks to climate change. Experts say that increased precipitation, along with an early spring, late-ending fall and higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide may bring more pollen from plants and increased mold and fungal growth.
Gators In The Yard
North American alligators require a certain temperature range for survival and reproduction, traditionally limiting them to the southern U.S. <a href="http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/animal_forecast/2013/02/alligators_in_virginia_climate_change_could_be_pushing_cold_blooded_species.single.html" target="_blank">But warming temperatures could open new turf</a> to gators with more sightings farther north.
Melting Blitz In South America
High in the Peruvian Andes, parts of the world's largest tropical ice sheet have melted at an unbelievable pace. Scientists found that significant <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/05/world/americas/1600-years-of-ice-in-perus-andes-melted-in-25-years-scientists-say.html" target="_blank">portions of the Quelccaya Ice Cap that took over 1,600 years to form have melted in only 25 years</a>. (Perito Moreno Glacier pictured)
Wine To Go?
Along with other agricultural impacts, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/08/climate-change-wine_n_3039673.html" target="_blank">climate change may have a dramatic effect on the world's most famous winemaking regions</a> in coming decades. Areas suitable for grape cultivation may shrink, and temperature changes may impact the signature taste of wines from certain regions.
Home Sweet Home
Thanks to climate change, <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/blog/polar-arctic-greenland-ice-climate-change" target="_blank">low-lying island nations may have to evacuate</a>, and sooner than previously expected. Melting of the Greenland and west Antarctic ice sheets has been underestimated, scientists say, and populations in countries like the Maldives, Kiribati, Tuvalu and others may need to move within a decade.
Trouble On The Ice
Warmer winters in northern latitudes could mean <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2013/01/18/hamilton-climate-change-rinks.html" target="_blank">fewer days for outdoor hockey</a>. An online project called RinkWatch aims to collect data on the condition of outdoor winter ice rinks in Canada and the northern U.S. and educate people on the impacts of climate change.
A Damper On Your Raw Bar?
Experts speculate that <a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/08/100806-oyster-herpes-global-warming-climate-change-science/" target="_blank">warming oceans may have played a part in a strain of herpes</a> that has killed Pacific oysters in Europe in recent years.
The Color-Changing Bears
As Arctic ice melts and polar bears see more of their habitat disappear, the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/03/14/polar-bears-turn-brown-climate-change_n_2878684.html" target="_blank">animals could lose their famous white coats</a>. Researchers have already witnessed polar bears hybridizing with their brown cousins, but note that it would take thousands of years from them to adapt themselves out of existence.
Less Time On The Chair Lift
Climate change means warmer winters in northern latitudes and a shorter ski season. By 2039, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/13/us/climate-change-threatens-ski-industrys-livelihood.html" target="_blank">more than half of the Northeast's ski resorts</a> will not be able to maintain a 100-day season, according to the New York Times. Ski areas will be less likely to receive regular snowfall, and warmer daily low temperatures mean fewer opportunities for snowmaking.
Apples produced in one Himalayan state of India are already losing their taste and even turning sour, experts say. <a href="http://zeenews.india.com/news/eco-news/arunachal-apples-losing-taste-due-to-climate-chang_831169.html" target="_blank">Increased rainfall and erratic weather in the region mean less than ideal conditions</a> for famously-sweet Kashmiri apples.
A Tough Time For Mushers
With climate change already impacting northern latitudes, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/06/sports/warm-weather-forces-changes-ahead-of-iditarod-race.html" target="_blank">warmer winters in Alaska could mean less than ideal conditions</a> for the famous Iditarod sled dog race. “It definitely has us concerned,” a musher and Iditarod spokeswoman who's already breeding dogs with thinner coats told The New York Times.
A Cold Cup Of Coffee
<a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/11/121108-climate-change-coffee-coffea-arabica-botanical-garden-science/" target="_blank">Climate change may dramatically shrink the area suitable for coffee cultivation</a> by the end of the century and cause the extinction of Arabica coffee plants in the wild. Starbucks has already declared that "<a href="http://www.starbucks.com/responsibility/environment/climate-change" target="_blank">Addressing climate change is a priority</a>."
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