Courtesy of NASA

On Thursday, Jan. 18, NASA released an analysis of last year’s global temperature, claiming it to be the second warmest year since 1880. While 1880 was the first year that global surface temperatures were recorded, it’s still no coincidence that 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001. These statistics alone are worrisome due to the fact that a rise in the overall temperature of the Earth leads to environmental issues such as polar ice caps melting, sea levels rising and longer lasting fire seasons.

So why is the 21st century abnormally warm? Climate change is undoubtedly a central contributor to the warming of the Earth’s surface, as NASA also reported that carbon dioxide levels are at their highest in 650,000 years. Carbon dioxide is a key greenhouse gas that traps heat inside the Earth’s atmosphere, therefore warming the overall surface temperature, and this can cause environmental catastrophes to be even more destructive than they already are. Seeing that we are experiencing new peak levels of heat and greenhouse gas emissions, we have a responsibility now more than ever to do our individual parts to mitigate our carbon footprint. This is even more applicable to us American residents, as we are also no longer part of the 196 countries signed to the Paris Climate Agreement.

The excessive outpour of greenhouse gas emissions has initiated a negative domino effect on the environment. One of the first victims of this rise in global temperature is ice, specifically in the Arctic. In a graph organized by NASA depicting the Arctic Sea ice depletion from the 1980s until today, there is a prominent negative trend in terms of ice levels in the Arctic, and the rate of change is a decrease of 13.2 percent per decade. The disappearing ice then leads to a rise in sea levels, roughly 0.13 inches a year for the past 20 years, which National Geographic claims is “twice the average speed of the preceding 80 years.” The consequences of water inching further inland can include destructive erosion and can jeopardize the homes and lives of the people living in coastal regions.

Another long-term effect of warmer oceans and sea levels rising? Worsening hurricanes. Surely everyone can remember the catastrophic hurricanes that ripped their way through parts of Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico last year. Hurricanes have been occuring on record for the past century, but how did three Category 4 and 5 hurricanes occur within less than three months? While there is no definite proof that climate change is the sole cause for hurricanes, Heidi Cullen, the chief scientist at the environmental advocacy group Climate Central spoke to Time and analogized global warming having an effect on hurricanes as smoking would influence lung cancer: There’s no direct causation, but there is correlation. Essentially, a multitude of factors influence the strength and formation of hurricanes, but there are reports of ocean temperatures rising nearly 0.13 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1901. However, we as humanity definitely have the potential to ascend from correlation to causation if the global surface temperature continues to rise.

Speaking of environmental extremes, 2017 was also the year that we saw the largest and most destructive fires burn their way through California. The breakout of fires throughout the state caused a total of 281,893 acres to be burned, surpassing the Cedar Fire of 2003, which burned over 273,000 acres. Because of the dry weather that produced dead brush, this created the perfect storm that cost California nearly $177 million to fight. California has had a history of drought, and even in 2012, 81 percent of the population were living in abnormally dry conditions. Consequences of such dry weather are not restricted to breeding the fuel for fires — in other global areas that are prone to drought, the dry atmosphere can dry land to the point where it can only absorb minimal amounts of water, and this can cause flooding.

Let’s go back to the first domino: Greenhouse gas emissions. There are 196 countries signed in agreement to help keep their carbon footprint to a certain percentage, but the U.S. pulled out of that deal this past June despite the fact that we produce the second largest amount of carbon dioxide in the world, right behind China. In addition to withdrawing from a promise to attempt lowering levels of harmful gases to a certain percentage, our nation also recently rolled back on several Obama-era regulations that restricted coal companies from dumping into streams, and jobs are being created to make it easier to mine coal; all these factors have the potential to push the U.S. even further in production of carbon emissions.

Since the leaders of our nation have decided it’s not a priority to look into such environmental issues, it’s urgent that there is awareness raised for the catastrophic incidents climate change can cause. Otherwise we can expect temperatures to continue to rise to dangerous levels, as well as bigger tolls on the environment, which will ultimately harm a larger population as time passes. If action is not implemented today, we cannot expect a better world for future generations to come.