Weather and Climate
When it comes to defining climate, it is often said that “climate is what you expect; weather is what you get.” That is to say; climate is the statistically-averaged behavior of the weather. In reality, it is a bit more complicated than that, as climate involves not just the atmosphere, but the behavior of the entire climate system—the complex system defined by the coupling of the atmosphere, oceans, ice sheets, and biosphere. Weather is the current conditions of the atmosphere for a specific location and time.
Having defined climate, we can begin to define what climate change means. While the notion of climate is based on some statistical average of the behavior of the atmosphere and ocean, this typical behavior can change over time. That is to say, what you “expect” of the weather is not always the same. For example, during El Niño years, we expect it to be wetter in the winter in California and snowier in the southeastern U.S., and we expect fewer tropical storms to form in the Atlantic during the hurricane season. So, the climate itself varies over time.
If the climate is always changing, then is climate change by definition always occurring? Yes and No. A hundred million years ago, during the early part of the Cretaceous period, dinosaurs roamed a world that was almost certainly warmer than today. The geological evidence suggests, for example, that there was no ice even at the North and South poles. Climate change is a naturally occurring process of the planet, following a variety of different cycles. Something else is occurring that is causing the planet to warm
So, the significant climate changes in Earth’s geologic past were closely tied to changes in the greenhouse effect. Those changes were natural. The changes in greenhouse gas concentrations that scientists talk about today are, however, not natural. They are due to human activity.
The scientific consensus demonstrates that climate change in the 21st century is necessarily a human problem. People are causing climate change through their everyday actions and the socioeconomic forces underlying those actions. At the same time, people are feeling the consequences of climate change through various impacts on things they value, and through the responses, they are making to address climate change.
Climate is the average of weather (typically precipitation and temperature) in a particular location over a long period, usually for at least 30 years. A location’s climate can be described by its air temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, and the type, quantity, and frequency of precipitation. Climate can change, but only over long periods. The climate of a region depends on its position relative to many things.
The scientific consensus is clear, in that 97 percent of all scientists who directly study climates and climate change believe that the current warming of the planet is anthropogenic (human) in nature. Moreover, all of the scientific evidence and planetary vital signs indicate that more greenhouse gases are trapping Earth’s heat, causing average annual global temperatures to rise. While temperatures have risen since the end of the Pleistocene, 10,000 years ago, this rate of increase has been more rapid in the past century and has risen even faster since 1990. The nine warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998, and NASA and NOAA reported in 2019 that the year 2018 was the fourth warmest ever recorded on the planet. The 2010-2020 is predicted to be the warmest decade yet, followed by 2000-2010.
The United States has long been the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, with about 20 percent of total emissions. As a result of China’s rapid economic growth, its emissions surpassed those of the United States in 2008. However, it is also essential to keep in mind that the United States has only about one-fifth the population of China. What is the significance of this? The average United States citizen produces far more greenhouse gases than the average Chinese person.
Predicted Future Warming
Climate change can be a naturally occurring process and has created environments much warmer than today, such as the early Cretaceous period. During this time, life thrived even in regions, such as the interior of Antarctica, that is uninhabitable today.
One misconception is that the threat of climate change has to do with the absolute warmth of the Earth. That is not, in fact, the case. It is, instead, the rate of change that has scientists concerned. Living things, including humans, can quickly adapt to substantial changes in climate as long as the changes take place slowly, over many thousands of years or longer. However, adapting to changes that are taking place on timescales of decades is far more challenging. However, the planet is warming at such a rate that most species, especially mammals, will struggle to adapt and evolve quickly enough to the coming warmer climates.
The natural increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide that led to the thaw after the last Ice Age was an increase from 180 parts per million (ppm) to about 280 ppm. This was a smaller increase than the present-time increase due to human activities, such as fossil fuel burning, which thus far have raised CO2 levels from the pre-industrial value of 280 ppm to a current level of over 410 ppm – a level which is increasing by 2 ppm every year. So, arguably, if the dawn of industrialization had occurred 18,000 years ago, we may very likely have sent the climate from an ice age into the modern pre-industrial state.
How long it would have taken to melt all of the ice is not precisely known, but it is conceivable it could have happened over a period as short as two centuries. The area ultimately flooded would be considerably more significant than that currently projected to flood due to the human-caused elevation of carbon dioxide that has taken place so far. Below is a video from Science Insider on what the planet would like today if all the glaciers melted.
By some measures, human interference with the climate back then, had it been possible, would have been even more disruptive than the current interference with our climate. That interference would merely be raising global mean temperatures from those of the last Ice Age to those that prevailed in modern times before industrialization. What this thought experiment tells us is that the issue is not whether some particular climate is objectively “optimal.” The issue is that human civilization, natural ecosystems, and our environment are heavily adapted to a particular climate — in our case, the current climate. Rapid departures from that climate would likely exceed the adaptive capacity that we and other living things possess, and cause significant consequent disruption in our world.
The amount of carbon dioxide levels will continue to rise in the decades to come. However, the impacts will not be evenly distributed across the planet. Some of those impacts will depend on environmental and climate factors; other impacts will be dependent on whether the countries are developed or developing. Scientists use sophisticated computer models to predict the effects of greenhouse gas increases on climate systems globally for specific regions of the world.
If nothing is done to control greenhouse gas emissions, and they continue to increase at current rates, the surface temperature of the Earth can be expected to increase between 0.5 degrees C and 2.0 degrees C (0.9 degrees F and 3.6 degrees F) by 2050 and between 2 degrees and 4.5 degrees C (3.5 degrees and 8 degrees F) by 2100, with carbon dioxide levels over 800 parts per million (ppm). On the other hand, if severe limits on carbon dioxide emissions begin soon, temperatures could rise less than 1.1 degrees C (2 degrees F) by 2100.
Whatever the temperature increase, it will not be uniform around the globe. A rise of 2.8 degrees C (5 degrees F) would result in 0.6 degrees to 1.2 degrees C (1 degree to 2 degrees F) at the equator, but up to 6.7 degrees C (12 degrees F) at the poles. So far, global warming has affected the North Pole more than the South Pole, but temperatures are still increasing at Antarctica.
Effects of Anthropogenic Climate Change
There are a variety of possible and likely effects of climate change on human and natural environments. NASA has tried to list some of those potential effects and can be found here. NASA also has a website called the Climate Time Machine, to help visualize Earth’s key climate indicators and how they are changing over time.
Species Mating and Migration
The timing of events for species is changing. Mating and migrations take place earlier in the spring months, and species that are more mobile are migrating uphill. Some regions that were already marginal for agriculture are no longer farmable because they have become too warm or dry.
Coral Reef Bleaching
Melting Snowpack and Glaciers
Decreased snowpacks, shrinking glaciers, and the earlier arrival of spring will all lessen the amount of water available in some regions of the world, including the western United States and much of Asia. Ice will continue to melt, and sea level is predicted to rise 18 to 97 cm (7 to 38 inches) by 2100. An increase this large will gradually flood coastal regions where about one-third of the world’s population lives, forcing millions of people to move inland.
Glaciers are melting, and vegetation zones are moving uphill. If fossil fuel use exploded in the 1950s, why do these changes begin early in the animation? Does this mean that the climate change we are seeing is caused by natural processes and not by fossil fuel use?
Oceans and Rising Sea Levels
As greenhouse gases increase, changes will be more extreme. Oceans will become slightly more acidic, making it more difficult for creatures with carbonate shells to grow, and that includes coral reefs. A study monitoring ocean acidity in the Pacific Northwest found ocean acidity increasing ten times faster than expected and 10 percent to 20 percent of shellfish (mussels) being replaced by acid-tolerant algae.
Plant and animal species seeking cooler temperatures will need to move poleward 100 to 150 km (60 to 90 miles) or upward 150 m (500 feet) for each 1.0 degrees C (8 degrees F) rise in global temperature. There will be a tremendous loss of biodiversity because forest species cannot migrate that rapidly. Biologists have already documented the extinction of high-altitude species that have nowhere higher to go.
One may notice that the numerical predictions above contain wide ranges. Sea level, for example, is expected to rise somewhere between 18 and 97 centimeters by 2100. The reason for this uncertainty is in part because scientists cannot predict precisely how the Earth will respond to increased levels of greenhouses gases. How quickly greenhouse gases continue to build up in the atmosphere depends in part on the choices we make.
Weather will become more extreme with heatwaves and droughts. Some modelers predict that the Midwestern United States will become too dry to support agriculture and that Canada will become the new breadbasket. In all, about 10% to 50% of current cropland worldwide may become unusable if CO2 doubles. There are global monitoring systems to help monitor potential droughts that could turn into famines if they occur in politically and socially unstable regions of the world, and if appropriate action is not taken in time. One example is the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), which is a network of social and environmental scientists using geospatial technology to monitor these situations. However, even with proper monitoring, if nations do not act, catastrophes can occur like in Somalia from 2010-2012.
Although scientists do not all agree, hurricanes are likely to become more severe and possibly more frequent. Tropical and subtropical insects will expand their ranges, resulting in the spread of tropical diseases such as malaria, encephalitis, yellow fever, and dengue fever.
An important question people ask is this: Are the increases in global temperature natural? In other words, can natural variations in temperature account for the increase in temperature that we see? The scientific data shows no, natural variations cannot explain the dramatic increase in global temperatures. Changes in the Sun’s irradiance, El Niño and La Niña cycles, natural changes in greenhouse gas, plate tectonics, and the Milankovitch Cycles cannot account for the increase in temperature that has already happened in the past decades.
In December 2013 and April 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a series of damaging reports on not only the current scientific knowledge of climate change but also on the vulnerability and impacts to humans and ecosystems. Below are two videos detailing the physical science of climate change and the risks and impacts on the planet.