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Let’s Get Real With Climate Change – Part 1

Peru's Quelccaya ice cap is the largest in the tropics. If it continues to melt at its current rate—contracting more than 600 feet (182.8 meters) a year in some places—it will be gone by 2100, leaving thousands who rely on its water for drinking and electricity high, dry, and in the dark. Photograph by Peter Essick (Source: National Geographic)

“Peru’s Quelccaya ice cap is the largest in the tropics. If it continues to melt at its current rate—contracting more than 600 feet (182.8 meters) a year in some places—it will be gone by 2100, leaving thousands who rely on its water for drinking and electricity high, dry, and in the dark.”
Photograph by: Peter Essick | Source: National Geographic

Now more than ever it is paramount that we understand the facts about climate change. Without realizing it, most of us have seen the effects climate change has already had on our environment. Many glaciers have started to shrink. The ice on rivers and lakes are breaking up earlier in the year. Plant and animal ranges have shifted. And some areas are starting to experience unusually extreme high and low temperatures. Unfortunately, 97% of all climate scientists agree that this trend will continue. But what can we do? GOOGLE IT!

If you search for climate change, Google finds 143,000,000 results on the topic. Unfortunately, many of these articles, websites, communities, and social media outlets are riddled with misconceptions and misinformation. As great as the Internet can be, one of its downsides is how rapidly misinformation can spread, further complicating the issue. Adding insult to injury, we see some of the highest ranking (and influential) elected officials dismissing many of the truths that surround climate change. (A classic example is Senator Jim Inhofe’s snowball “experiment.”)

Our goal is not to change your opinion on climate change. But to present the facts that surround climate change in a way that’s easy to understand, clearing up some of the most common misconceptions. By having a well-informed, global conversation about climate change we can come together and solve this problem!

What’s In A Name

It’s easy to draw conclusions about something based on its name. Climate change and global warming are often used interchangeably which can actually cause confusion. It’s understandably easy to claim global warming is a farce if one interprets a cold winter as evidence against global warming. So why two names?

Scientists use the terms interchangeably because global warming causes climate change! A rise in Earth’s overall average temperature causes Earth’s climate to change in non-uniform ways around the world.

To avoid confusion, throughout this post we will use a more technically correct term – ‘Anthropogenic Global Warming’ (AGW), or global warming caused by humans.  

What’s to Blame for Global Warming and Climate Change?

For decades, scientists have tried to answer this question. While there are many natural cycles that the Earth goes through, warming and cooling our planet, the amount of global warming that’s currently being observed cannot be caused by these cycles alone. This leaves just one way to explain the increase in global temperatures worldwide: greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2) in particular, emitted by humans.

 (a) Global annual emissions of anthropogenic GHGs from 1970 to 2004.5 (b) Share of different anthropogenic GHGs in total emissions in 2004 in terms of CO2 -eq. Source: Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report | Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

(a) Global annual emissions of anthropogenic GHGs from 1970 to 2004.5 (b) Share of different anthropogenic GHGs in total emissions in 2004 in terms of CO2-eq.
Source: Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report | Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

As illustrated above by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, www.ipcc.ch), over half of all greenhouse gases emitted by humans come from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. These fossil fuels are used to heat our homes, run our planes, trains and cars, provide electricity, and power industry. In today’s modern world, it’s virtually unavoidable for humans to emit zero greenhouse gases. But by thinking differently, we can develop (and profit) from better, cleaner ways to power our lives without destroying the only habitable planet we know of today!

It’s worthwhile to note that the IPCC found in their Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report that deforestation is responsible for almost 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Crazy, right? Trees do an amazing job of absorbing CO2 and pollutants. An acre of trees can absorb enough CO2 over one year to equal the amount produced by driving a car over 25,000 miles! We have a feeling there could be an easy solution for this…

What Does Anthropogenic Global Warming Look Like?

What does anthropogenic global warming look like? Warmer everywhere all the time? Not quite!

AGW has a wide range of effects:

  • An increase in the number of record highs and a decreased number of record lows
  • Nights warming more quickly than days
  • Winters warming faster than summers
  • The poles warming faster than lower latitudes
  • Increasing incidence of extreme weather
  • Changing animal migration/hibernation patterns and habitat.

Many of these changes can easily be observed today and are projected to become worse if our climate continues to warm. In order to slow down this warming and avoid disasters, we must act quickly to reduce the amount of greenhouse emissions given off by humans.

The Greenhouse Effect and Greenhouse Gases

The greenhouse emissions emitted by humans are absorbed by our atmosphere, enhancing Earth’s greenhouse effect. For most, this is a familiar term. But how it works? Not so much! Let’s fix that:  

The greenhouse effect is primarily made up of two components: an atmosphere and solar radiation from the sun. During the day, solar radiation that passes through our atmosphere provides light and heat. Some of this heat is absorbed by Earth’s surface, warming it. At night, Earth emits this warmth as invisible infrared radiation. Some of this radiation is trapped by greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, helping keep Earth and its lower atmosphere warm.

Greenhouse gases are a group of chemical compounds in the atmosphere that can absorb and emit infrared radiation. The chemical compounds primarily include water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and ozone (O3). These gases act like bumpers on a pinball machine by bouncing infrared radiation around, keeping it in the atmosphere. Without the Greenhouse Effect, Earth would become a frozen wasteland because to its distance from the sun. But when human activities increase the concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, global temperatures will also increase.

Rising Temperatures? So What!

For most of us, warmer temperatures sound great! But when we talk about rising temperatures as it relates to anthropogenic global warming (AGW), scientists are not talking about an increase in temperature on our AccuWeather forecast. (Boo!) So what’s the difference between weather and climate?  

Go outside and observe your current atmospheric conditions. Is it in the 50’s, 60’s or maybe 70’s? Is it raining or snowing? That’s weather! Climate is the long-term averages of daily these weather conditions across the globe. So for example, in the

This visualization shows how global temperatures have risen from 1950 through the end of 2013. Image Credit: NASA/GSFC, GISS

This visualization shows how global temperatures have risen from 1950 through the end of 2013.
Image Credit: NASA/GSFC, GISS

Northeastern United States, on average, we can expect to see cold temperatures and snow in January. In August, on average, we can expect hot and dry weather in the Southwestern United States.

It’s important for our climate to change over tens of thousands of years as it gives life and other systems on Earth a chance to adapt. If average temperatures increase by even a few of degree celsius in a short period of time (think less than a century), Earth’s systems will begin to fall out of balance, with potentially devastating effects. We are already seeing some of these effects.

Rising temperatures due to AGW affect many of the systems Earth relies on to keep a relative balance, throwing these systems out of balance by creating positive feedback loops. A great example of a positive feedback loop is the squealing or howling sound that occurs when you place a microphone too close a loudspeaker. The microphone picks up sound coming from the speaker, amplifies it, and sends it through the speaker again creating a loud squealing or howling sound. This ear piercing noise will continue to increase in volume until we move the microphone away from the speaker or turn it off. In short, a positive feedback loop is when one process causes another process to occur, which then in turn causes the first process to occur more frequently.

A positive feedback loop in the context of AGW is a natural phenomenon which, if triggered by a dramatic increase in Earth’s average temperatures, would itself reinforce global warming. For example, melting sea ice exposes more ocean, which absorbs even more heat to melt even greater amounts of sea ice.

The Effects of Anthropogenic Global Warming

For many of us, we have not directly seen AGW having direct effects on our lives. This can make it understandably hard to comprehend and accept the effects and magnitude of this growing threat. While some of the most severe and irreversible effects of AGW won’t affect the majority of us for some time, that doesn’t mean we can wait around for a solution. Most of us have trouble thinking in terms of the future, but by understanding its negative effects, perhaps we can be motivated to take action.

We thought a great way to illustrate the effects of AGW would be through a story:

The Rise in Temperature Averages World Wide

Over the last 100 years, scientists have observed that the average global temperatures have been sharply increasing with some of the hottest years on record happening in just the last few years. Scientists have also noticed that as we humans burn more CO2 emitting fossil fuels, an even greater increase in average global temperatures is observed. As a result, sea levels being to rise at an increasing rate.

Oceans Rising

There are two ways that sea level can rise as it relates to AGW. First, as our oceans begin to warm seawater expands, taking up more space in the ocean basin and causing a rise in water levels. The second way is the melting of ice over land, also referred to as land ice, which then adds water to the ocean.

Coastal Habitats and Communities Begin to Change

When sea levels have risen as rapidly as they have over the last several years, we have begun to see the devastating effects it can have on coastal habitats and communities. Just last year, we saw the most powerful hurricane ever recorded, Hurricane Patricia!

Credit: John Galetzka Source: Weather.com

Before and after images showing the vegetation stripped from trees before and after Hurricane Patricia made landfall. Credit: John Galetzka Source: Weather.com

And in 2012 the largest hurricane to ever form in the Atlantic Basin killed over 200 people and causing damages totaling $75 billion USD, Hurricane Sandy.

SEASIDE HEIGHTS, NJ - OCTOBER 31: Homes sit in ruin next to the Atlantic Ocean after being destroyed by Hurricane Sandy on October 31, 2012 in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. At least 50 people were reportedly killed in the U.S. by Sandy with New Jersey suffering massive damage and power outages. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images | Source: Examiner.com

SEASIDE HEIGHTS, NJ – OCTOBER 31: Homes sit in ruin next to the Atlantic Ocean after being destroyed by Hurricane Sandy on October 31, 2012 in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. At least 50 people were reportedly killed in the U.S. by Sandy with New Jersey suffering massive damage and power outages. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images | Source: Examiner.com

 If Sea Level Continues Rising

If sea level continues to rise at its current rate, more than just coastal areas will be affected. By 2100, scientists predict that sea level rise could range from 38-190 cm (15-75 inches). On the extreme side of the scale, many of the areas hit hard by flooding events from Sandy due to increased water level such as New York City and Staten Island could be underwater.

 Refugee Crisis

If coastal and low-lying areas become inhospitable due to sea level rise, this will force people to leave their homes and, for some, their countries, causing a potential refugee crisis.

Inland Effects

Leaving out the strain a refugee crisis would put on industry and infrastructure, many areas will see an increased of number record highs compared to record lows, more severe and more frequent heat waves, forest fires, and decreased water availability.

While this sounds absolutely horrible, there is so much we can do right now! In part two of our climate change series, we’ll be focusing on some of the most common misconceptions surrounding climate change.

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