Climate change is a change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns when that change lasts for an extended period of time. Climate change may refer to a change in average weather conditions, or in the time variation of weather around longer-term average conditions. Climate change is caused by factors such as biotic processes, variations in solar radiation received by Earth, plate tectonics, and volcanic eruptions. Certain human activities have also been identified as significant causes of recent climate change, often referred to as “global warming”.
Scientists actively work to understand past and future climate by using observations and theoretical models. A climate record – extending deep into the Earth’s past – has been assembled, and continues to be built up, based on geological evidence from borehole temperature profiles, cores removed from deep accumulations of ice, floral and faunal records, glacial and periglacial processes, stable-isotope and other analyses of sediment layers, and records of past sea levels. More recent data are provided by the instrumental record. General circulation models, based on the physical sciences, are often used in theoretical approaches to match past climate data, make future projections, and link causes and effects in climate change.
Causes of Climate Change
On the broadest scale, the rate at which energy is received from the sun and the rate at which it is lost to space determine the equilibrium temperature and climate of Earth. This energy is distributed around the globe by winds, ocean currents, and other mechanisms to affect the climates of different regions.
Factors that can shape climate are called climate forcings or “forcing mechanisms”. These include processes such as variations in solar radiation, variations in the Earth’s orbit, variations in the albedo or reflectivity of the continents and oceans, mountain-building and continental drift and changes in greenhouse gas concentrations. There are a variety of climate change feedbacks that can either amplify or diminish the initial forcing. Some parts of the climate system, such as the oceans and ice caps, respond more slowly in reaction to climate forcings, while others respond more quickly. There are also key threshold factors which when exceeded can produce rapid change.
Forcing mechanisms can be either “internal” or “external”. Internal forcing mechanisms are natural processes within the climate system itself. External forcing mechanisms can be either natural or anthropogenic.
Whether the initial forcing mechanism is internal or external, the response of the climate system might be fast, slow, or a combination. Therefore, the climate system can respond abruptly, but the full response to forcing mechanisms might not be fully developed for centuries or even longer.
Internal forcing mechanisms
Scientists generally define the five components of earth’s climate system to include atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere (restricted to the surface soils, rocks, and sediments), and biosphere. Natural changes in the climate system (“internal forcings”) result in internal “climate variability”. Examples include the type and distribution of species, and changes in ocean currents.
The ocean is a fundamental part of the climate system, some changes in it occurring at longer timescales than in the atmosphere, massing hundreds of times more and having very high thermal inertia (such as the ocean depths still lagging today in temperature adjustment from the Little Ice Age).
Short-term fluctuations (years to a few decades) such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, the Pacific decadal oscillation, the North Atlantic oscillation, and the Arctic oscillation, represent climate variability rather than climate change. On longer time scales, alterations to ocean processes such as thermohaline circulation play a key role in redistributing heat by carrying out a very slow and extremely deep movement of water and the long-term redistribution of heat in the world’s oceans.
Life affects climate through its role in the carbon and water cycles and such mechanisms as albedo, evapotranspiration, cloud formation, and weathering. Examples of how life may have affected past climate include: glaciation 2.3 billion years ago triggered by the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis, glaciation 300 million years ago ushered in by long-term burial of decomposition-resistant detritus of vascular land plants (forming coal), termination of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum 55 million years ago by flourishing marine phytoplankton, reversal of global warming 49 million years ago by 800,000 years of arctic azolla blooms, and global cooling over the past 40 million years driven by the expansion of grass-grazer ecosystems.
External forcing mechanisms
Slight variations in Earth’s orbit lead to changes in the seasonal distribution of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface and how it is distributed across the globe. There is very little change to the area-averaged annually averaged sunshine; but there can be strong changes in the geographical and seasonal distribution. The three types of orbital variations are variations in Earth’s eccentricity, changes in the tilt angle of Earth’s axis of rotation, and precession of Earth’s axis. Combined together, these produce Milankovitch cycles which have a large impact on climate and are notable for their correlation to glacial and interglacial periods, their correlation with the advance and retreat of the Sahara, and for their appearance in the stratigraphic record.
The IPCC notes that Milankovitch cycles drove the ice age cycles, CO2 followed temperature change “with a lag of some hundreds of years,” and that as a feedback amplified temperature change. The depths of the ocean have a lag time in changing temperature (thermal inertia on such scale). Upon seawater temperature change, the solubility of CO2 in the oceans changed, as well as other factors impacting air-sea CO2 exchange.
The Sun is the predominant source of energy input to the Earth. Both long- and short-term variations in solar intensity are known to affect global climate.
Three to four billion years ago the sun emitted only 70% as much power as it does today. If the atmospheric composition had been the same as today, liquid water should not have existed on Earth. However, there is evidence for the presence of water on the early Earth, in the Hadean and Archean eons, leading to what is known as the faint young Sun paradox. Hypothesized solutions to this paradox include a vastly different atmosphere, with much higher concentrations of greenhouse gases than currently exist. Over the following approximately 4 billion years, the energy output of the sun increased and atmospheric composition changed. The Great Oxygenation Event – oxygenation of the atmosphere around 2.4 billion years ago – was the most notable alteration. Over the next five billion years the sun’s ultimate death as it becomes a red giant and then a white dwarf will have large effects on climate, with the red giant phase possibly ending any life on Earth that survives until that time.
Solar output also varies on shorter time scales, including the 11-year solar cycle and longer-term modulations. Solar intensity variations possibly as a result of the Wolf, Spörer and Maunder Minimum are considered to have been influential in triggering the Little Ice Age, and some of the warming observed from 1900 to 1950. The cyclical nature of the sun’s energy output is not yet fully understood; it differs from the very slow change that is happening within the sun as it ages and evolves. Research indicates that solar variability has had effects including the Maunder minimum from 1645 to 1715 A.D., part of the Little Ice Age from 1550 to 1850 A.D. that was marked by relative cooling and greater glacier extent than the centuries before and afterward. Some studies point toward solar radiation increases from cyclical sunspot activity affecting global warming, and climate may be influenced by the sum of all effects (solar variation, anthropogenic radiative forcings, etc.).
Interestingly, a 2010 study suggests, “that the effects of solar variability on temperature throughout the atmosphere may be contrary to current expectations.”
In an Aug 2011 Press Release, CERN announced the publication in the Nature journal the initial results from its CLOUD experiment. The results indicate that ionisation from cosmic rays significantly enhances aerosol formation in the presence of sulfuric acid and water, but in the lower atmosphere where ammonia is also required, this is insufficient to account for aerosol formation and additional trace vapours must be involved. The next step is to find more about these trace vapours, including whether they are of natural or human origin.
The eruptions considered to be large enough to affect the Earth’s climate on a scale of more than 1 year are the ones that inject over 0.1 Mt of SO2 into the stratosphere. This is due to the optical properties of SO2 and sulfate aerosols, which strongly absorb or scatter solar radiation, creating a global layer of sulfuric acid haze. On average, such eruptions occur several times per century, and cause cooling (by partially blocking the transmission of solar radiation to the Earth’s surface) for a period of a few years.
The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, the second largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century, affected the climate substantially, subsequently global temperatures decreased by about 0.5 °C (0.9 °F) for up to three years. Thus, the cooling over large parts of the Earth reduced surface temperatures in 1991-93, the equivalent to a reduction in net radiation of 4 watts per square meter. The Mount Tambora eruption in 1815 caused the Year Without a Summer. Much larger eruptions, known as large igneous provinces, occur only a few times every fifty – hundred million years – through flood basalt, and caused in Earth past global warming and mass extinctions.
Small eruptions, with injections of less than 0.1 Mt of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, impact the atmosphere only subtly, as temperature changes are comparable with natural variability. However, because smaller eruptions occur at a much higher frequency, they too have a significant impact on Earth’s atmosphere.
Seismic monitoring maps current and future trends in volcanic activities, and tries to develop early warning systems. In climate modelling the aim is to study the physical mechanisms and feedbacks of volcanic forcing.
Volcanoes are also part of the extended carbon cycle. Over very long (geological) time periods, they release carbon dioxide from the Earth’s crust and mantle, counteracting the uptake by sedimentary rocks and other geological carbon dioxide sinks. The US Geological Survey estimates are that volcanic emissions are at a much lower level than the effects of current human activities, which generate 100-300 times the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by volcanoes. A review of published studies indicates that annual volcanic emissions of carbon dioxide, including amounts released from mid-ocean ridges, volcanic arcs, and hot spot volcanoes, are only the equivalent of 3 to 5 days of human caused output. The annual amount put out by human activities may be greater than the amount released by supererruptions, the most recent of which was the Toba eruption in Indonesia 74,000 years ago.
Although volcanoes are technically part of the lithosphere, which itself is part of the climate system, the IPCC explicitly defines volcanism as an external forcing agent.
Over the course of millions of years, the motion of tectonic plates reconfigures global land and ocean areas and generates topography. This can affect both global and local patterns of climate and atmosphere-ocean circulation.
The position of the continents determines the geometry of the oceans and therefore influences patterns of ocean circulation. The locations of the seas are important in controlling the transfer of heat and moisture across the globe, and therefore, in determining global climate. A recent example of tectonic control on ocean circulation is the formation of the Isthmus of Panama about 5 million years ago, which shut off direct mixing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This strongly affected the ocean dynamics of what is now the Gulf Stream and may have led to Northern Hemisphere ice cover. During the Carboniferous period, about 300 to 360 million years ago, plate tectonics may have triggered large-scale storage of carbon and increased glaciation. Geologic evidence points to a “megamonsoonal” circulation pattern during the time of the supercontinent Pangaea, and climate modeling suggests that the existence of the supercontinent was conducive to the establishment of monsoons.
The size of continents is also important. Because of the stabilizing effect of the oceans on temperature, yearly temperature variations are generally lower in coastal areas than they are inland. A larger supercontinent will therefore have more area in which climate is strongly seasonal than will several smaller continents or islands.
In the context of climate variation, anthropogenic factors are human activities which affect the climate. The scientific consensus on climate change is “that climate is changing and that these changes are in large part caused by human activities,” and it “is largely irreversible.”
Of most concern in these anthropogenic factors is the increase in CO2 levels due to emissions from fossil fuel combustion, followed by aerosols (particulate matter in the atmosphere) and the CO2 released by cement manufacture. Other factors, including land use, ozone depletion, animal agriculture and deforestation, are also of concern in the roles they play – both separately and in conjunction with other factors – in affecting climate, microclimate, and measures of climate variables.
How to recognize the Climate Change
Evidence for climatic change is taken from a variety of sources that can be used to reconstruct past climates. Reasonably complete global records of surface temperature are available beginning from the mid-late 19th century. For earlier periods, most of the evidence is indirect—climatic changes are inferred from changes in proxies, indicators that reflect climate, such as vegetation, ice cores, dendrochronology, sea level change, and glacial geology.
Temperature measurements and proxies
The instrumental temperature record from surface stations was supplemented by radiosonde balloons, extensive atmospheric monitoring by the mid-20th century, and, from the 1970s on, with global satellite data as well. The 18O/16O ratio in calcite and ice core samples used to deduce ocean temperature in the distant past is an example of a temperature proxy method, as are other climate metrics noted in subsequent categories.
Historical and archaeological evidence
Climate change in the recent past may be detected by corresponding changes in settlement and agricultural patterns. Archaeological evidence, oral history and historical documents can offer insights into past changes in the climate. Climate change effects have been linked to the collapse of various civilizations.
Glaciers are considered among the most sensitive indicators of climate change. Their size is determined by a mass balance between snow input and melt output. As temperatures warm, glaciers retreat unless snow precipitation increases to make up for the additional melt; the converse is also true.
Glaciers grow and shrink due both to natural variability and external forcings. Variability in temperature, precipitation, and englacial and subglacial hydrology can strongly determine the evolution of a glacier in a particular season. Therefore, one must average over a decadal or longer time-scale and/or over a many individual glaciers to smooth out the local short-term variability and obtain a glacier history that is related to climate.
A world glacier inventory has been compiled since the 1970s, initially based mainly on aerial photographs and maps but now relying more on satellites. This compilation tracks more than 100,000 glaciers covering a total area of approximately 240,000 km2, and preliminary estimates indicate that the remaining ice cover is around 445,000 km2. The World Glacier Monitoring Service collects data annually on glacier retreat and glacier mass balance. From this data, glaciers worldwide have been found to be shrinking significantly, with strong glacier retreats in the 1940s, stable or growing conditions during the 1920s and 1970s, and again retreating from the mid-1980s to present.
The most significant climate processes since the middle to late Pliocene (approximately 3 million years ago) are the glacial and interglacial cycles. The present interglacial period (the Holocene) has lasted about 11,700 years. Shaped by orbital variations, responses such as the rise and fall of continental ice sheets and significant sea-level changes helped create the climate. Other changes, including Heinrich events, Dansgaard–Oeschger events and the Younger Dryas, however, illustrate how glacial variations may also influence climate without the orbital forcing.
Glaciers leave behind moraines that contain a wealth of material—including organic matter, quartz, and potassium that may be dated—recording the periods in which a glacier advanced and retreated. Similarly, by tephrochronological techniques, the lack of glacier cover can be identified by the presence of soil or volcanic tephra horizons whose date of deposit may also be ascertained.
Arctic sea ice loss
The decline in Arctic sea ice, both in extent and thickness, over the last several decades is further evidence for rapid climate change. Sea ice is frozen seawater that floats on the ocean surface. It covers millions of square miles in the polar regions, varying with the seasons. In the Arctic, some sea ice remains year after year, whereas almost all Southern Ocean or Antarctic sea ice melts away and reforms annually. Satellite observations show that Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 11.5 percent per decade, relative to the 1979 to 2000 average.
A change in the type, distribution and coverage of vegetation may occur given a change in the climate. Some changes in climate may result in increased precipitation and warmth, resulting in improved plant growth and the subsequent sequestration of airborne CO2. A gradual increase in warmth in a region will lead to earlier flowering and fruiting times, driving a change in the timing of life cycles of dependent organisms. Conversely, cold will cause plant bio-cycles to lag. Larger, faster or more radical changes, however, may result in vegetation stress, rapid plant loss and desertification in certain circumstances. An example of this occurred during the Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse (CRC), an extinction event 300 million years ago. At this time vast rainforests covered the equatorial region of Europe and America. Climate change devastated these tropical rainforests, abruptly fragmenting the habitat into isolated ‘islands’ and causing the extinction of many plant and animal species.
Satellite data available in recent decades indicates that global terrestrial net primary production increased by 6% from 1982 to 1999, with the largest portion of that increase in tropical ecosystems, then decreased by 1% from 2000 to 2009.
Palynology is the study of contemporary and fossil palynomorphs, including pollen. Palynology is used to infer the geographical distribution of plant species, which vary under different climate conditions. Different groups of plants have pollen with distinctive shapes and surface textures, and since the outer surface of pollen is composed of a very resilient material, they resist decay. Changes in the type of pollen found in different layers of sediment in lakes, bogs, or river deltas indicate changes in plant communities. These changes are often a sign of a changing climate. As an example, palynological studies have been used to track changing vegetation patterns throughout the Quaternary glaciations and especially since the last glacial maximum.
Past precipitation can be estimated in the modern era with the global network of precipitation gauges. Surface coverage over oceans and remote areas is relatively sparse, but, reducing reliance on interpolation, satellite data has been available since the 1970s. Quantification of climatological variation of precipitation in prior centuries and epochs is less complete but approximated using proxies such as marine sediments, ice cores, cave stalagmites, and tree rings.
Climatological temperatures substantially affect precipitation. For instance, during the Last Glacial Maximum of 18,000 years ago, thermal-driven evaporation from the oceans onto continental landmasses was low, causing large areas of extreme desert, including polar deserts (cold but with low rates of precipitation). In contrast, the world’s climate was wetter than today near the start of the warm Atlantic Period of 8000 years ago.
Estimated global land precipitation increased by approximately 2% over the course of the 20th century, though the calculated trend varies if different time endpoints are chosen, complicated by ENSO and other oscillations, including greater global land precipitation in the 1950s and 1970s than the later 1980s and 1990s despite the positive trend over the century overall. Similar slight overall increase in global river runoff and in average soil moisture has been perceived.
Dendroclimatology is the analysis of tree ring growth patterns to determine past climate variations. Wide and thick rings indicate a fertile, well-watered growing period, whilst thin, narrow rings indicate a time of lower rainfall and less-than-ideal growing conditions.
Analysis of ice in a core drilled from an ice sheet such as the Antarctic ice sheet, can be used to show a link between temperature and global sea level variations. The air trapped in bubbles in the ice can also reveal the CO2 variations of the atmosphere from the distant past, well before modern environmental influences. The study of these ice cores has been a significant indicator of the changes in CO2 over many millennia, and continues to provide valuable information about the differences between ancient and modern atmospheric conditions.
Remains of beetles are common in freshwater and land sediments. Different species of beetles tend to be found under different climatic conditions. Given the extensive lineage of beetles whose genetic makeup has not altered significantly over the millennia, knowledge of the present climatic range of the different species, and the age of the sediments in which remains are found, past climatic conditions may be inferred.
Similarly, the historical abundance of various fish species has been found to have a substantial relationship with observed climatic conditions. Changes in the primary productivity of autotrophs in the oceans can affect marine food webs.
Sea level change
Global sea level change for much of the last century has generally been estimated using tide gauge measurements collated over long periods of time to give a long-term average. More recently, altimeter measurements — in combination with accurately determined satellite orbits — have provided an improved measurement of global sea level change. To measure sea levels prior to instrumental measurements, scientists have dated coral reefs that grow near the surface of the ocean, coastal sediments, marine terraces, ooids in limestones, and nearshore archaeological remains. The predominant dating methods used are uranium series and radiocarbon, with cosmogenic radionuclides being sometimes used to date terraces that have experienced relative sea level fall. In the early Pliocene, global temperatures were 1–2˚C warmer than the present temperature, yet sea level was 15–25 meters higher than today.
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