Climate and the Effects of Global Climate Change

Global Climate Change

Climate change can be understood by approaching three areas of study:

  • evidence of current and past global climate change
  • drivers of global climate change
  • documented results of climate change

It is helpful to keep these three different aspects of climate change clearly separated when consuming media reports about global climate change. We should note that it is common for reports and discussions about global climate change to confuse the data showing that Earth’s climate is changing with the factors that drive this climate change.

Evidence for Global Climate Change

Since scientists cannot go back in time to directly measure climatic variables, such as average temperature and precipitation, they must instead indirectly measure temperature. To do this, scientists rely on historical evidence of Earth’s past climate.

Antarctic ice cores are a key example of such evidence for climate change. These ice cores are samples of polar ice obtained by means of drills that reach thousands of meters into ice sheets or high mountain glaciers. Viewing the ice cores is like traveling backwards through time; the deeper the sample, the earlier the time period. Trapped within the ice are air bubbles and other biological evidence that can reveal temperature and carbon dioxide data. Antarctic ice cores have been collected and analyzed to indirectly estimate the temperature of the Earth over the past 400,000 years (Figurea). The 0 °C on this graph refers to the long-term average. Temperatures that are greater than 0 °C exceed Earth’s long-term average temperature. Conversely, temperatures that are less than 0 °C are less than Earth’s average temperature. This figure shows that there have been periodic cycles of increasing and decreasing temperature.

In the first image, a group of scientists uses a drill to extract an ice core in a polar environment. In the second, an ice core is displayed, showing air bubbles trapped within.
Scientists drill for ice cores in polar regions. The ice contains air bubbles and biological substances that provide important information for researchers. (credit: a: Helle Astrid Kjær; b: National Ice Core Laboratory, USGS)

Before the late 1800s, the Earth has been as much as 9 °C cooler and about 3 °C warmer. Note that the graph in Figureb shows that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has also risen and fallen in periodic cycles. Also note the relationship between carbon dioxide concentration and temperature. Figureb shows that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have historically cycled between 180 and 300 parts per million (ppm) by volume.

 Top graph plots temperature in degrees Celsius versus years before present, beginning 400,000 years ago. Temperature shows a cyclical variation, from about 2 degrees Celsius above today’s average temperature, to about 8 degrees below. Carbon dioxide levels also show a cyclical variation. Today, the carbon dioxide concentration is about 395 parts per million. In the past, it cycled between 180 and 300 parts per million. The temperature and carbon dioxide cycles, which repeat at about a hundred thousand year scale, closely mirror one another.
Ice at the Russian Vostok station in East Antarctica was laid down over the course of 420,000 years and reached a depth of over 3,000 m. By measuring the amount of CO2 trapped in the ice, scientists have determined past atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Temperatures relative to modern day were determined from the amount of deuterium (a nonradioactive isotope of hydrogen) present.

Figurea does not show the last 2,000 years with enough detail to compare the changes of Earth’s temperature during the last 400,000 years with the temperature change that has occurred in the more recent past. Two significant temperature anomalies, or irregularities, have occurred in the last 2,000 years. These are the Medieval Climate Anomaly (or the Medieval Warm Period) and the Little Ice Age. A third temperature anomaly aligns with the Industrial Era. The Medieval Climate Anomaly occurred between 900 and 1300 AD. During this time period, many climate scientists think that slightly warmer weather conditions prevailed in many parts of the world; the higher-than-average temperature changes varied between 0.10 °C and 0.20 °C above the norm. Although 0.10 °C does not seem large enough to produce any noticeable change, it did free seas of ice. Because of this warming, the Vikings were able to colonize Greenland.

The Little Ice Age was a cold period that occurred between 1550 AD and 1850 AD. During this time, a slight cooling of a little less than 1 °C was observed in North America, Europe, and possibly other areas of the Earth. This 1 °C change in global temperature is a seemingly small deviation in temperature (as was observed during the Medieval Climate Anomaly); however, it also resulted in noticeable climatic changes. Historical accounts reveal a time of exceptionally harsh winters with much snow and frost.

The Industrial Revolution, which began around 1750, was characterized by changes in much of human society. Advances in agriculture increased the food supply, which improved the standard of living for people in Europe and the United States. New technologies were invented that provided jobs and cheaper goods. These new technologies were powered using fossil fuels, especially coal. The Industrial Revolution starting in the early nineteenth century ushered in the beginning of the Industrial Era. When a fossil fuel is burned, carbon dioxide is released. With the beginning of the Industrial Era, atmospheric carbon dioxide began to rise (Figure).

 Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is plotted against year, from 1960 to 2010. Carbon dioxide concentration has steadily risen in the timeframe shown.
The atmospheric concentration of CO2 has risen steadily since the beginning of industrialization.

Current and Past Drivers of Global Climate Change

Because it is not possible to go back in time to directly observe and measure climate, scientists must use indirect evidence to determine the drivers, or factors, that may be responsible for climate change. The indirect evidence includes data collected using ice cores, boreholes (a narrow shaft bored into the ground), tree rings, glacier lengths, pollen remains, and ocean sediments. The data shows a correlation between the timing of temperature changes and drivers of climate change. Before the Industrial Era (pre-1780), there were three drivers of climate change that were not related to human activity or atmospheric gases. The first of these is the Milankovitch cycles. The Milankovitch cycles describe the effects of slight changes in the Earth’s orbit on Earth’s climate. The length of the Milankovitch cycles ranges between 19,000 and 100,000 years. In other words, one could expect to see some predictable changes in the Earth’s climate associated with changes in the Earth’s orbit at a minimum of every 19,000 years.

The variation in the sun’s intensity is the second natural factor responsible for climate change. Solar intensity is the amount of solar power or energy the sun emits in a given amount of time. There is a direct relationship between solar intensity and temperature. As solar intensity increases (or decreases), the Earth’s temperature correspondingly increases (or decreases). Changes in solar intensity have been proposed as one of several possible explanations for the Little Ice Age.

Finally, volcanic eruptions are a third natural driver of climate change. Volcanic eruptions can last a few days, but the solids and gases released during an eruption can influence the climate over a period of a few years, causing short-term climate changes. The gases and solids released by volcanic eruptions can include carbon dioxide, water vapor, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen, and carbon monoxide. Generally, volcanic eruptions cool the climate. This occurred in 1783 when volcanos in Iceland erupted and caused the release of large volumes of sulfuric oxide. This led to haze-effect cooling, a global phenomenon that occurs when dust, ash, or other suspended particles block out sunlight and trigger lower global temperatures as a result; haze-effect cooling usually extends for one or more years before dissipating in intensity. In Europe and North America, haze-effect cooling produced some of the lowest average winter temperatures on record in 1783 and 1784.

Greenhouse gases are probably the most significant drivers of the climate. When heat energy from the sun strikes the Earth, gases known as greenhouse gases trap the heat in the atmosphere, in a similar manner as do the glass panes of a greenhouse keep heat from escaping. The greenhouse gases that affect Earth include carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Approximately half of the radiation from the sun passes through these gases in the atmosphere and strikes the Earth. This radiation is converted into thermal (infrared) radiation on the Earth’s surface, and then a portion of that energy is re-radiated back into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases, however, reflect much of the thermal energy back to the Earth’s surface. The more greenhouse gases there are in the atmosphere, the more thermal energy is reflected back to the Earth’s surface, heating it up and the atmosphere immediately above it. Greenhouse gases absorb and emit radiation and are an important factor in the greenhouse effect: the warming of Earth due to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Direct evidence supports the relationship between atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and temperature: as carbon dioxide rises, global temperature rises. Since 1950, the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased from about 280 ppm to 382 ppm in 2006. In 2011, the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration was 392 ppm. However, the planet would not be inhabitable by current life forms if water vapor did not produce its drastic greenhouse warming effect.

Scientists look at patterns in data and try to explain differences or deviations from these patterns. The atmospheric carbon dioxide data reveal a historical pattern of carbon dioxide increasing and decreasing, cycling between a low of 180 ppm and a high of 300 ppm. Scientists have concluded that it took around 50,000 years for the atmospheric carbon dioxide level to increase from its low minimum concentration to its higher maximum concentration. However, beginning only a few centuries ago, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have increased beyond the historical maximum of 300 ppm. The current increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide have happened very quickly—in a matter of hundreds of years rather than thousands of years. What is the reason for this difference in the rate of change and the amount of increase in carbon dioxide? A key factor that must be recognized when comparing the historical data and the current data is the presence and industrial activities of modern human society; no other driver of climate change has yielded changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at this rate or to this magnitude.

Human activity releases carbon dioxide and methane, two of the most important greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere in several ways. The primary mechanism that releases carbon dioxide is the burning of fossil fuels, such as gasoline, coal, and natural gas (Figure). Deforestation, cement manufacture, animal agriculture, the clearing of land, and the burning of forests are other human activities that release carbon dioxide. Methane (CH4) is produced when bacteria break down organic matter under anaerobic conditions. Anaerobic conditions can happen when organic matter is trapped underwater (such as in rice paddies) or in the intestines of herbivores. Methane can also be released from natural gas fields and the decomposition of animal and plant material that occurs in landfills. Another source of methane is the melting of clathrates. Clathrates are frozen chunks of ice and methane found at the bottom of the ocean. When water warms, these chunks of ice melt and methane is released. As the ocean’s water temperature increases, the rate at which clathrates melt is increasing, releasing even more methane. This leads to increased levels of methane in the atmosphere, which further accelerates the rate of global warming. This is an example of the positive feedback loop that is leading to the rapid rate of increase of global temperatures.

 This photo shows a smokestack from a factory churning gray smoke into the air.
The burning of fossil fuels in industry and by vehicles releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. (credit: “Pöllö”/Wikimedia Commons)