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United Nations Scientists Say They Underestimated the Rate at Which the Climate Is Changing

Eve Zuckoff
A car drives along a flooded road in Falmouth.

After studying the frozen parts of Earth for the last three years, scientists with the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have issued a major warning. 

In a new report, the scientists say they underestimated the rate at which the climate is changing.


For example, while ocean temperatures have been warming at least since 1970, for the past 25 years they’ve warmed twice as fast.  As a result, sea level rise has accelerated far more quickly than previously thought. 

“I’m hoping this is a real wakeup call,” said Robert DeConto, a professor of geosciences at UMass-Amherst and lead author of the report. “We don’t have too many wakeup calls left.”

The report’s projection of worst-case sea-level rise by the end of the century is about 10 percent higher than predicted five years ago. 

That’s expected to accelerate.  

“Certainly sea level rise is a big deal for us,” said Max Holmes, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center. “Specifically if you think about Cape Cod, this spit of land that’s stuck out into the Atlantic Ocean, we’re really susceptible to many of the changes that are unfolding related to climate change.”

As a result, Holmes said, this global report should serve as a major warning specifically to the Cape, islands and coastline. 

“As the ocean level is rising it’s having big impacts on coastal properties, on coastal systems, and that’s only going to accelerate as sea level rise ramps up,” he said. “So we’re kind of at the bullseye of that on a place like Cape Cod.”

The report also details the ways in which ocean temperatures and acidification are increasing as permafrost thaws and releases mass amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. 

“The scary thing is that most of those changes are happening faster than scientists predicted,” Holmes said.  

Still, according to DeConto, while sea levels will continue to rise, a measure of hope can be found in the question, “How much?” 

“The scenarios that assume we really transform our energy system--where we start relying more and more on renewables--those projections of sea level rise would be so much easier to cope with than the projections where we assume we’re going full steam ahead using fossil fuels,” he said.

Scientists say if carbon pollution is lowered in the next few decades, the worst effects of sea level rise could be held off. 

“It’s not too late,” DeConto said. “We just have to start acting fast.”