Climate and the Effects of Global Climate Change

Section Summary

The Earth has gone through periodic cycles of increases and decreases in temperature. During the past 2,000 years, the Medieval Climate Anomaly was a warmer period, while the Little Ice Age was unusually cool. Both of these irregularities can be explained by natural causes of changes in climate, and, although the temperature changes were small, they had significant effects. Natural drivers of climate change include Milankovitch cycles, changes in solar activity, and volcanic eruptions. None of these factors, however, leads to rapid increases in global temperature or sustained increases in carbon dioxide.

The burning of fossil fuels is an important source of greenhouse gases, which play a major role in the greenhouse effect. Two hundred and fifty million years ago, global warming resulted in the Permian extinction: a large-scale extinction event that is documented in the fossil record. Currently, modern-day climate change is associated with the increased melting of glaciers and polar ice sheets, resulting in a gradual increase in sea level. Plants and animals can also be affected by global climate change when the timing of seasonal events, such as flowering or pollination, is affected by global warming.