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Picture this: Eye-opening images of what climate change has done and could do to our world

Some of the effects of climate change are noticeable. Some can be envisioned based on scientists' forecasts. Here's a look at its potential impact.

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It’s a challenge for us to see our futures. Is it any wonder we have trouble seeing the future of the planet?

“The end of history” illusion says we can see significant changes of, say, the past 10 years, but we underestimate the changes of the next decade — like those of Monday's landmark U.N report that called it a "code red for humanity."

“Climate change is already affecting every region on Earth, in multiple ways, (and) the changes we experience will increase with additional warming,” said Panmao Zhai of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

How do we see that future and be emboldened to urge government and business leaders to make steep cuts to global greenhouse gas emissions?

Some investors have sharpened their perspectives on their retirement needs with photos – digitally altered photos that age them by a couple of decades. The result: Those investors, on average, significantly upped their annual retirement savings.

Might that also help us in visualizing climate change and help us make better decisions?

Here are seven landmarks from around the world that have already experienced historic changes or are on the brink of historic change.

Lake Mead retreats to lowest level ever

Besides being an engineering marvel, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead are current-day signs of a warming climate, drought and chronic overuse in the West.

A nearly two-decade "megadrought" has driven the historic decline in Lake Mead. The lake's level has fallen more than 140 feet since its peak in 2000 and left shorelines with a growing “bathtub ring” of whitish minerals that mark its highest levels.

"It is a very stark contrast as you look at the lake and you see the high-water mark that was achieved back in the 90s and now see where the lake level is today," Bronson Mack, public information officer for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told the Desert Sun in 2019.

The Colorado River naturally cycles through wet and dry periods. But during the past 22 years, the watershed has had 17 dry years and five years with above-average or wet conditions, according to Mike Bernardo of the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

A growing body of scientific research shows that the Colorado River is sensitive to rising temperatures as the planet heats up with the burning of fossil fuels.

In one 2018 study, researchers found that about half the trend of decreasing runoff in the Upper Colorado River Basin since 2000 was the result of unprecedented warming. In other research, scientists estimated the river could lose roughly one-fourth of its flow by 2050 as temperatures continue to rise.

Wildfire destroys 10% of giant sequoias

The high-severity Castle Fire burned through the Freeman Creek Grove of giant sequoia.
The high-severity Castle Fire burned through the Freeman Creek Grove of giant sequoia. USFS

In California, longer dry seasons have led to a nearly year-round wildfire season and contributed to a record amount of destruction. The state's biggest, most destructive and deadliest fires have all occurred since 2018.

Five of the seven largest wildfires in the state's history occurred in 2020; they burned nearly 2.5 million acres and destroyed more than 5,800 structures. The Dixie Fire, which started in July, ranks as the state's second largest now with 463,000 acres burned as of Aug. 8.

The dry conditions throughout the West contributed late last year to the Castle Fire – which scorched 175,000 acres across the Sequoia National Park and forest in California.

The fire destroyed at least a tenth of the world's mature giant sequoias in the southern Sierra Nevada, according to a draft report by the National Park Service. Beyond their awe-inspiring height, the trees capture large quantities of carbon dioxide – a leading contributor to climate change.

Want more climate and environment news?: Sign up to get USA TODAY Climate Point weekly for free in your inbox here.

Dozens of wildfires are currently burning in the West fed partially by this year's record heat and drought conditions. More than 80% of the West was in extreme on June 29.

Why wildfires in the western U.S. are only going to get worse
Just the FAQs, USA TODAY

Victoria Falls disappearing during driest seasons

Aerial view of the Zambezi river and Victoria Falls on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.
A general view of Victoria Falls, in Zimbabwe, on December 10, 2019. The Victoria Falls, a UNESCO world heritage site measuring 108 metres high and almost 2km wide has recorded the lowest levels in recent times due to a severe drought.  Water levels have improved in the past week following rains in the upper Zambezi river yet it is still lower than what it normally carries during this season.
After a dry fall in 2019, Victoria Falls in southern Africa slowed to a trickle. After a dry fall in 2019, Victoria Falls in southern Africa slowed to a trickle. After a dry fall in 2019, Victoria Falls in southern Africa slowed to a trickle. Getty Images

Victoria Falls has been described as a massive curtain of water in southern Africa between Zambia and Zimbabwe. In the 2019 dry season, the falls nearly stopped, leaving essentially a wall of rock more than a mile long.

The falls are flowing again, but environmentalists worry that while annual rain totals haven't changed significantly, the rains in the region are becoming more irregular – the dry months drier and the wet months more prone to flooding. 

Nearby airports continue to measure about 2 feet of rain each year, according to data from Kaitano Dube from Vaal University of Technology in South Africa. But the amount of rain during the dry season, October and November, is declining, on average.

Combine that with an average increase temperatures and the region could experience the "hot drought" phenomenon similar to California, according to weather.com meteorologist Bob Henson. 

"These changes in climate have occurred throughout the history of our planet," said Jim Cornett, an ecologist and writer. "Today, because of our numbers and technology, we’re able to do things that actually change the environment of the entire planet.

"That change appears to be happening much more rapidly than a lot of people predicted, and the real question is: Can plants and animals change fast enough to keep up with the pace of climate change?"

So what changes might we see in coming decades?

Outforia, an outdoor travel resource, shared with USA TODAY several digitally altered landmarks from around the world. The renderings are based on scientific predictions of current trends.

Drought, heat endanger Joshua trees

"The deserts of the Southwest have been identified as one of those places that we expect to see some of the greatest changes from current conditions," said Cameron Barrows, associate research ecologist at UC Riverside’s Center for Conservation Biology, in an interview with the Desert Sun.

"In areas that are very, very dry and humidity is very, very low, we expect to see the full expression of climate change based on what carbon is doing in the atmosphere," Barrows said.

Severe drought conditions remain in 90% of the West; nearlis in extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

That puts the Joshua trees in Southern California's Joshua Tree National Park at risk. In the best-case scenario, 50% of the Joshua trees in the park will disappear in the coming years, Barrows said.

"The worst-case scenario that we’ve modeled would indicate about 90% of the Joshua trees within the park would be gone or no longer able to support a population," Barrows said.

Summer sea ice could disappear in less than two decades

Sea ice has been consistently declining, and researchers don't see the trend ending anytime soon.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program reported in 2017 that late-summer sea ice in the Arctic could disappear by the middle of this century. A Nature Climate Change study released in 2020 says the North Pole could be without sea ice as early as the summer of 2035.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center has been tracking the amount of sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean since 1979. If you divide that period into three 14-year increments, the decline is evident, using either the annual minimums or linear trends of the minimums.

Besides being an important habitat for polar bears and the ring seal, sea ice has significant ecological effects for the entire world.

Melting sea ice is not a factor in sea-level rise, but it plays a significant role in moderating changes in the Earth's temperature, according to the U.S Global Change Research Program.

The sea ice is generally more reflective while darker water absorbs radiation from the sun. That leads to warmer waters – Arctic temperatures have risen at twice the rate of the rest of the world – and an annual decline in size and thickness of the world's sea ice as it refreezes in the winter.

Glaciers could disappear in Glacier National Park

What does contribute to sea level rise is the water that melts from land-based glaciers – like those at Glacier National Park in Montana.

The ice in the glaciers at Glacier National Park is a tiny fraction of the ice melting from the coldest parts of the Earth, but, perhaps it's easier to visualize in a smaller setting (albeit one covering more than 1 million acres) than a crumbling Antarctic ice shelf.

Above is an artist's rendering illustrating a report that says all of the park's glaciers could be gone in a few decades. Only 26 glaciers remain of the 150 that covered the area in the late 1800s. 

Below is the result of decades of warmer and drier conditions in Montana captured by the U.S. Geological Survey's repeat photography project. As the park's Grinnell Glacier has retreated, Upper Grinnell Lake has formed. 

The amount of snow and ice that is melting on land and water around the world is difficult to comprehend. A study released earlier this year estimates the Earth lost an average of 1.2 trillion tons of ice annually between 1994 and 2017. That's about 28 trillion tons overall.

The ice lost during those 24 years from ice shelves, ice sheets and glaciers contributed to about a 1½-inch rise in global sea levels.

Rising seas threaten low-lying areas like Florida's Everglades

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict sea levels could rise around three feet as early as 2070 in Florida, using midrange scenarios. Their higher-end scenarios show a 3-foot sea level rise could occur within about 30 years.

Everglades National Park is the 10th largest U.S. national park, covering 1.5 million acres in South Florida. How long might it be, though, before a swath of that land is enveloped by a rising Gulf of Mexico as illustrated above?

Salt water from the Gulf is already encroaching on the park. Higher storm surges have led to greater coastal flooding during tropical storms and hurricanes. Saltwater has also flowed into the park's freshwater rivers and streams.

One study by The Nature Conservancy found a 3.2-foot rise in sea level would cause the loss of more than 170,000 acres of coastal forest and 63,000 acres of tidal flats in six estuary systems along Florida’s Gulf Coast between Pensacola Bay and Charlotte Harbor.

Experts say steep, systemic cuts to greenhouses gases are needed now by governments across the globe.

“We need a green planet, but the world is on red alert," warned U.N. Secretary General António Guterres in April. "We are at the verge of the abyss. We must make sure the next step is in the right direction. Leaders everywhere must take action. First by building a global coalition for net zero emissions by 2050 in every country, every region, every city, every company, and every industry.”

Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas that traps heat and warms the planet. In the U.S., burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat and transportation create the majority of the country's greenhouse gases, according to the EPA.

After peaking in 2007, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have been falling annually. The country produced 6.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2019 – about 116 million less than in 1990.

The EPA attributes the decline to a "a decrease in total energy use and a continued shift from coal to less carbon-intensive natural gas and renewables." The coronavirus pandemic weighed heavily on the global economy in 2020, and Rhodium Group estimates U.S. emissions fell by more than 10% rather than a predicted 3%.

As more Americans are vaccinated and economic growth bounces back, Rhodium and other analysts expect that U.S. emissions will rise again and potentially fall short of its climate change targets.

In a recent sit-down with USA TODAY Network reporters, climate scientist Michael Mann said no individual choice (like buying a Prius to assuage solo commuter guilt) is going to stop climate change.

In his latest book, "The New Climate War," he details how fossil fuel companies have for 30 years deflected blame to delay wholesale action,  In fact, focusing on individuals "can actually undermine support for the substantive climate policies needed," he writes. 

Still, the past year of coronavirus shutdowns shows that a collective change in our actions can change the trajectory of the greenhouse gas curve.

Mann would argue our time would be best spent lobbying lawmakers and corporations to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and the world. The U.S. comprises just over 4% of the world's population and produces 15% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, according to the EPA. 

That doesn't mean Americans can't make small contributions with choices they make at home. 

A first step could be the EPA's Carbon Footprint Calculator, which helps you approximate your footprint and the effects of incremental changes – from your thermostat to your car to your trash.

Some of those changes can be found the Lazy Person's Guide to Saving the World, which offers several easy tips of varying levels of difficulty. A few among them:

From your couch

♦ Plug your electronics into a power strip and turn them off when not in use.

♦ Educate yourself and let lawmakers know what initiatives you support.

Around the house

♦ Adjust your thermostat higher in the summer and lower in the winter.

♦ Take fewer baths and shorter showers.

♦ Replace old appliances and light bulbs with more energy-efficient ones.

Outside your house

♦ Bike, walk or take public transportation more frequently.

♦ Shop local and reduce the number of products transported long distances.

♦ Carry reusable bags, bottles and cups.

Contributing: Doyle Rice, Janet Wilson and Ian James

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