The phrase "climate change" seems to be thrown around constantly in our daily lives in politics and science. But what does changing the climate actually mean? What effect does this have on humans?
Climate change, in short, is the phenomenon in which our environment's conditions, including temperature and precipitation, are altered from their normal ranges for extended period of times.
From the beginning of our planet's history, we have observed seven naturally occurring periods of climate change in the last 650,000 years. The end of the last ice age 7,000 years ago was a marker for the beginning of the period we are currently living in, modern times of climate change and human civilization. Natural variations have generally occurred because of small variations in our sun's orbit that altered the amount of solar energy the earth receives. What makes our current era so historic and alarming is that for the first time in history, human interaction is most likely responsible and change is happening at rates so alarmingly fast that are unprecedented in the past 1300 years and destroying the planet as we know it today.
A graphical representation of cyclical climate patterns versus the current human-induced climate change. Souece: NASA
Scientists collectively have evidence scattered throughout our environments that indicates our long term climate is changing. Proof of climate change, sometimes referred to as global warming, include: sea level rise, global temperature rise, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, declining arctic sea ice, glacial retreat, extreme events, ocean acidification, and decreased snow cover in nature alone. This is not to mention the effect it would have on our health, economy, and daily lives on top of everything else.
Sea Level Rise
Sea levels have risen approximately 8 inches in the last hundred years, nearly double that from the last century.
Source: Union of Concerned Scientists
Global Temperature Rise
Our planet Earth has been on a worldwide heating trend since 1880, but the grand majority of the increase happened within the last 35 years or so. Since the year 2001, 15 of the warmest years on record have been recorded, and 2015 was the first time global average temperatures were measured at least one degree C above the 1880-1899 average.
Oceans eventually absorb the heat from global temperature rise, so the top 700 meters recorded about a .302 degree C increase since 1969.
Shrinking Ice Sheets
Between the years 2002 and 2005, Antarctica lost 36 cubic miles of ice.
A scientists sets up equipment to log ice movement. Source: National Geographic
Declining Arctic Sea Ice
For decades, the extent and thickness of arctic sea ice has rapidly declined.
Glaciers have receded in regions around the world, including the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska, Africa.
There are an increasing number of high record temperature events, record low temperatures, and an increasing number of chaotic small rainfall events.
Extreme natural events become stronger and more frequent under the effects of climate change, like rain spells and thunderstorms. Source: Blogspot
As a result of climate change and increased greenhouse gases, the acidity of surface waters has increased by 30% because adding two billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere a year is not sustainable and we are constantly expelling it into our breathing air .
The chemical processes of ocean acidification. Source: NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory
Decreased Snow Cover
Varying physically due to their locations in the world, the amount of snow cover on mountains and other region
So now that we have seen that our climate is clearly changing, why is this occurring?
There is a consensus within the scientific community that the principal cause of this span of climate change is propelled an expansion of greenhouse gases. Water vapor, Carbon dioxide, and methane are among the most abundant and effective greenhouse gases, which are molecules that contribute in the atmosphere's vital job of trapping heat radiating from earth toward space, but excessive gases can lead to excessive long term heat.
Water vapor is the mos abundant of the atmospheric gases, serving as a feedback mechanism for climate and producing clouds and precipitation. Carbon dioxide, released through natural processes like respiration, volcanic eruptions, human activities including deforestation, land use changes, and burning fossil fuels, have contributed to the increase in CO2 by more than one third since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Methane is a hydrocarbon (contains hydrogen and carbon atoms) introduced by waste decomposition in landfills, and in agriculture through rice cultivation, ruminant digestion, and manure management with domestic livestock. Human activities and our daily lifestyles have contributed significantly to the increase in levels of carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor in the atmosphere. As a result, these heat trapping gases will hold warmer temperatures and contribute to a long term trend of warmer temperatures we refer to as "global warming" and effect our changing climate.
Representation of the trend of increasing carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere, in parts per million. Source: NASA
Do not be fooled by the seeming simplicity of global warming, though! A consequence of human-induced levels of carbon dioxide is that the warming of the atmosphere will not be even. Our planet becomes warmer in some regions, but in others is unaffected. Some areas will have increased evaporation leading to dryness, but others plagued with more precipitation and be wetter. In addition, ocean waters will warm which can kill marine life and alter the chemistry of our oceans, partially melt glaciers, and water will expand with temperature which raises sea level. Changes in the atmosphere could lead for certain crops to be favored over others in their environment, depending on what they grow best in, affecting the natural plant ecosystem that has reigned on our planet.
While it is nearly impossible to determine precisely the cause behind climate change, there is a 95% probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet. In the past 150 years, carbon dioxide levels have raised from 280 ppm to 400 ppm.
Skeptics of climate change do not argue that climate change is not occurring, but rather that this is another natural phenomenon and can be handled without immediate action in nature. The problem with this argument though, is that the amount of energy coming from the sun has either remained consistent or only slightly increased since the year 1750 and the Industrial Revolution, and thus warming is not the result of our sun. Current global warming trends show only an average increase in temperature of the lower layer of our atmosphere but if this were just another natural phenomenon, the would see consistencies in all layers of air.
Climate change is happening in every corner of our globe at this very moment! It effects regions worldwide differently as a result of a number of complex factors. In general though, evidence for climate change (sea level rise, carbon dioxide levels, etc.) will continue their trends into the future and only increase their rates and harm as time progresses.
Specifically for New York State:
Across the state, annual temperatures have increase 2.4 degrees F since 1970, but winters at a higher rate of 4.4 degrees F increase. This comes down to .25 degrees per decade since 1900, an astonishingly fast and unsustainable rate.
Annual precipitation has seen an increasing trend since the year 1900 with more in the winter but less in hot summer months. In fact, between 1958 and 2010, the amount of precipitation falling in heavy events (downpours) had increased more than 70% across the northeastern United States.
Additionally, sea levels along the New York coast have risen over a foot since 1900. The New York rate, about 1.2 inches per decade, is nearly double the global rate over the same time period.
Clearly, climate change is happening now. It has roots in our past, from altering our environment as far back as hunter gatherers to the Industrial Revolution to present times. And changes to our environment will only continue in the future unsustainably unless something is done.
In New York, by 2020 temperatures are projected to have increased another 3 degrees F and precipitation will increase by 8%. By 2050, temperatures should have increased 6 degrees F and precipitation by 12%, and by 2080 the average temperature will have increased by 10 degrees, and the precipitation by 15%.
With an issue so widespread and with such detrimental effects, action is demanded to be taken. The following international organizations have publicly supported the scientific community's stance on the reality of climate change:
American Association for the Advancement of Science
American Chemical Society
American Geophysical Union
American Medical Association
American Meteorological Society
American Physical Society
The Geological Society of America
US National Academy of Sciences
US Global Change Research Program
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
In addition to the programs spanning across the globe, at home in the United States are an abundance of ogranizations devoted to the preservation of our planet. Consider the following departments and how their lines of work intersect with climate change:
US Department of Agriculture
US Department of Commerce
US Department of Defense
US Department of Energy
US Department of Health & Human Services
US Department of Homeland Security
US Department of Housing and Urban Devopment
US Department of the Interior
US Department of Transportation
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)