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What is climate change about?   Do we need to be concerned?   Whose problem is it?

I am finding that climate change and the greenhouse effect are similar yet different.   Both overlap to some degree.  The choices we make today will affect the amount of greenhouse gases we put in the atmosphere in the near future and for years to come.

Climate change is a significant and lasting change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns over periods ranging from decades to millions of years. It may be a change in average weather conditions, or in the distribution of weather around the average conditions (i.e., more or fewer extreme weather events). 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.”

The Sun is the predominant source for energy input to the Earth. Both long- and short-term variations in solar intensity are known to affect global climate

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 records.

The most general definition of climate change is a change in the statistical properties of the climate system when considered over long periods of time, regardless of cause. Accordingly, fluctuations over periods shorter than a few decades, such as El Nino, do not represent climate change.  The term sometimes is used to refer specifically to climate change caused by human activity, as opposed to changes in climate that may have resulted as part of Earth’s natural processes. In this sense, especially in the context of environmental policy, the term climate change has become synonymous with anthropogenic global warming.   In scientific journals, global warming refers to surface temperature increases while climate change includes global warming and everything else that increasing greenhouse gas levels will affect.

Over the past century, human activities have released large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The majority of greenhouse gases come from burning fossil fuels to produce energy, although deforestation, industrial processes, and some agricultural practices also emit gases into the atmosphere.   Greenhouse gases act like a blanket around Earth, trapping energy in the atmosphere and causing it to warm. This phenomenon is called the greenhouse effect and is natural and necessary to support life on Earth. However, the buildup of greenhouse gases can change Earth’s climate and result in dangerous effects to human health and welfare and to ecosystems.

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.

Whether the initial forcing mechanism is internal or external, the response of the climate system might be fast ( a sudden cooling due to airborne volcanic ash reflecting sunlight), slow (thermal expansion of warming ocean water), or a combination ( sudden loss of albedo in the arctic ocean as sea ice melts, followed by more gradual thermal expansion of the water). Therefore, the climate system can respond abruptly, but the full response to forcing mechanisms might not be fully developed for centuries or longer.   Natural changes in the components of Earth’s climate system and their interactions are the cause of internal climate variability, or “internal forcings.” Scientists generally define the five components of earth’s climate system to include atmosphere, hydrosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere (restricted to the surface soils, rocks, and sediments), and biosphere.

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.  On larger 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, along with cloud formations, weathering amongst others.  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 the Earth’s axis of rotation, and precession of Earth’s axis. Combined together, these produce certain 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.

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 USGS 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 super-eruptions.  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. mate 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.”

“Science has made enormous inroads in understanding climate change and its causes, and is beginning to help develop a strong understanding of current and potential impacts that will affect people today and in coming decades. This understanding is crucial because it allows decision makers to place climate change in the context of other large challenges facing the nation and the world. There are still some uncertainties, and there always will be in understanding a complex system like Earth’s climate. Nevertheless, there is a strong, credible body of evidence, based on multiple lines of research, documenting that climate is changing and that these changes are in large part caused by human activities. While much remains to be learned, the core phenomenon, scientific questions, and hypotheses have been examined thoroughly and have stood firm in the face of serious scientific debate and careful evaluation of alternative explanations.”

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.   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.    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.

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 Artic, 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.   At one 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.

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.

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, 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.

Climate change is already beginning to transform life on Earth. Around the globe, seasons are shifting, temperatures are climbing and sea levels are rising. And meanwhile, our planet must still supply us – and all living things – with air, water, food and safe places to live. If we don’t act now, climate change will rapidly alter the lands and waters we all depend upon for survival, leaving our children and grandchildren with a very different world.

 Kathy Kiefer

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