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Climate change

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Variations in CO2, temperature and dust from the Vostok ice core over the last 450,000 years

Climate change is the variation in the Earth's global climate or in regional climates over time. It involves changes in the variability or average state of the atmosphere over durations ranging from decades to millions of years. These changes can be caused by dynamic process on Earth, external forces including variations in sunlight intensity, and more recently by human activities.

In recent usage, especially in the context of environmental policy, the term "climate change" often refers to changes in modern climate (see global warming). For information on temperature measurements over various periods, and the data sources available, see temperature record. For attribution of climate change over the past century, see attribution of recent climate change.

Climate change factors

Climate changes reflect variations within the Earth's atmosphere, processes in other parts of the Earth such as oceans and ice caps, and the effects of human activity. The external factors that can shape climate are often called climate forcings and include such processes as variations in solar radiation, the Earth's orbit, and greenhouse gas concentrations.

Variations within the Earth's climate

Weather is the day-to-day state of the atmosphere, and is a chaotic non-linear dynamical system. On the other hand, climate — the average state of weather — is fairly stable and predictable. Climate includes the average temperature, amount of precipitation, days of sunlight, and other variables that might be measured at any given site. However, there are also changes within the Earth's environment that can affect the climate.


Percentage of advancing glaciers in the Alps in the last 80 years

Glaciers are recognized as being among the most sensitive indicators of climate change, advancing substantially during climate cooling (e.g., the Little Ice Age) and retreating during climate warming on moderate time scales. Glaciers grow and collapse, both contributing to natural variability and greatly amplifying externally forced changes. For the last century, however, glaciers have been unable to regenerate enough ice during the winters to make up for the ice lost during the summer months (see glacier retreat).

The most significant climate processes of the last several million years are the glacial and interglacial cycles of the present ice age. Though shaped by orbital variations, the internal responses involving continental ice sheets and 130 m sea-level change certainly played a key role in deciding what climate response would be observed in most regions. Other changes, including Heinrich events, Dansgaard–Oeschger events and the Younger Dryas show the potential for glacial variations to influence climate even in the absence of specific orbital changes.

Ocean variability

A schematic of modern thermohaline circulation

On the scale of decades, climate changes can also result from interaction of the atmosphere and oceans. Many climate fluctuations — including not only the El Niño Southern oscillation (the best known) but also the Pacific decadal oscillation, the North Atlantic oscillation, and the Arctic oscillation — owe their existence at least in part to different ways that heat can be stored in the oceans and move between different reservoirs. On longer time scales ocean processes such as thermohaline circulation play a key role in redistributing heat, and can dramatically affect climate.

The memory of climate

More generally, most forms of internal variability in the climate system can be recognized as a form of hysteresis, meaning that the current state of climate reflects not only the inputs, but also the history of how it got there. For example, a decade of dry conditions may cause lakes to shrink, plains to dry up and deserts to expand. In turn, these conditions may lead to less rainfall in the following years. In short, climate change can be a self-perpetuating process because different aspects of the environment respond at different rates and in different ways to the fluctuations that inevitably occur.

Non-climate factors driving climate change

Greenhouse gases

Carbon dioxide variations during the last 500 million years

Current studies indicate that radiative forcing by greenhouse gases is the primary cause of global warming. Greenhouse gases are also important in understanding Earth's climate history. According to these studies, the greenhouse effect, which is the warming produced as greenhouse gases trap heat, plays a key role in regulating Earth's temperature.

Over the last 600 million years, carbon dioxide concentrations have varied from perhaps >5000 ppm to less than 200 ppm, due primarily to the effect of geological processes and biological innovations. It has been argued by Veizer et al., 1999, that variations in greenhouse gas concentrations over tens of millions of years have not been well correlated to climate change, with plate tectonics perhaps playing a more dominant role. More recently Royer et al. have used the CO2-climate correlation to derive a value for the climate sensitivity. There are several examples of rapid changes in the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere that do appear to correlate to strong warming, including the Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum, the Permian–Triassic extinction event, and the end of the Varangian snowball earth event.

During the modern era, the naturally rising carbon dioxide levels are implicated as the primary cause of global warming since 1950. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2007, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 in 2005 was 379 ppm³ compared to the pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm³. Thermodynamics and Le Chatelier's principle explain the characteristics of the dynamic equilibrium of a gas in solution such as the vast amount of CO2 held in solution in the world's oceans moving into and returning from the atmosphere. These principles can be observed as bubbles which rise in a pot of water heated on a stove, or in a glass of cold beer allowed to sit at room temperature; gases dissolved in liquids are released under certain circumstances.

Plate tectonics

On the longest time scales, plate tectonics will reposition continents, shape oceans, build and tear down mountains and generally serve to define the stage upon which climate exists. More recently, plate motions have been implicated in the intensification of the present ice age when, approximately 3 million years ago, the North and South American plates collided to form the Isthmus of Panama and shut off direct mixing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Solar variation

Variations in solar activity during the last several centuries based on observations of sunspots and beryllium isotopes.

The sun is the ultimate source of essentially all heat in the climate system. The energy output of the sun, which is converted to heat at the Earth's surface, is an integral part of shaping the Earth's climate. On the longest time scales, the sun itself is getting brighter with higher energy output; as it continues its main sequence, this slow change or evolution affects the Earth's atmosphere. It is thought that, early in Earth's history, the sun was too cold to support liquid water at the Earth's surface, leading to what is known as the Faint young sun paradox..

On more modern time scales, there are also a variety of forms of solar variation, including the 11-year solar cycle and longer-term modulations. However, the 11-year sunspot cycle does not manifest itself clearly in the climatological data. Solar intensity variations are considered to have been influential in triggering the Little Ice Age, and for 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..

To quote Spencer R. Weart (The discovery of Global Warming 2003) "The study of [sun spot] cycles was generally popular through the first half of the century. Governments had collected a lot of weather data to play with and inevitably people found correlations between sun spot cycles and select weather patterns. If rainfall in England didn't fit the cycle, maybe storminess in New England would. Respected scientists and enthusiastic amateurs insisted they had found patterns reliable enough to make predictions. Sooner or later though every prediction failed. An example was a highly credible forecast of a dry spell in Africa during the sunspot minimum of the early 1930s. When the period turned out to be wet, a meteorologist later recalled "the subject of sunspots and weather relationships fell into dispute, especially among British meteorologists who witnessed the discomfiture of some of their most respected superiors" Even in the 60s he said, "For a young researcher to entertain any statement of sun-weather relationships was to brand oneself a crank"

Orbital variations

In their effect on climate, orbital variations are in some sense an extension of solar variability, because slight variations in the Earth's orbit lead to changes in the distribution and abundance of sunlight reaching the Earth's surface. Such orbital variations, known as Milankovitch cycles, are a highly predictable consequence of basic physics due to the mutual interactions of the Earth, its moon, and the other planets. These variations are considered the driving factors underlying the glacial and interglacial cycles of the present ice age. Subtler variations are also present, such as the repeated advance and retreat of the Sahara desert in response to orbital precession.


A single eruption of the kind that occurs several times per century can affect climate, causing cooling for a period of a few years. For example, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 affected climate substantially. Huge eruptions, known as large igneous provinces, occur only a few times every hundred million years, but can reshape climate for millions of years and cause mass extinctions. Initially, scientists thought that the dust emitted into the atmosphere from large volcanic eruptions was responsible for the cooling by partially blocking the transmission of solar radiation to the Earth's surface. However, measurements indicate that most of the dust thrown in the atmosphere returns to the Earth's surface within six months.

Volcanoes are also part of the extended carbon cycle. Over very long (geological) time periods, they release carbon dioxide from the earth's interior, counteracting the uptake by sedimentary rocks and other geological carbon dioxide sinks. However, this contribution is insignificant compared to the current anthropogenic emissions. The US Geological Survey estimates that human activities generate more than 130 times the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by volcanoes.

Human influences on climate change

Anthropogenic factors are human activities that change the environment and influence climate. In some cases the chain of causality is direct and unambiguous (e.g., by the effects of irrigation on temperature and humidity), while in others it is less clear. Various hypotheses for human-induced climate change have been debated for many years. In the late 1800s, the " rain follows the plow" idea had many adherents in the western United States.

The biggest factor of present concern is the increase in CO2 levels due to emissions from fossil fuel combustion, followed by aerosols (particulate matter in the atmosphere), which exert a cooling effect, and cement manufacture. Other factors, including land use, ozone depletion, animal agriculture and deforestation, also affect climate.

Fossil fuels

Carbon dioxide variations over the last 400,000 years, showing a rise since the industrial revolution.

Beginning with the industrial revolution in the 1850s and accelerating ever since, the human consumption of fossil fuels has elevated CO2 levels from a concentration of ~280 ppm to more than 380 ppm today. These increases are projected to reach more than 560 ppm before the end of the 21st century. It is known that carbon dioxide levels are substantially higher now than at any time in the last 750,000 years. Along with rising methane levels, these changes are anticipated to cause an increase of 1.4–5.6 °C between 1990 and 2100 (see global warming).


Anthropogenic aerosols, particularly sulphate aerosols from fossil fuel combustion, exert a cooling influence. This, together with natural variability, is believed to account for the relative "plateau" in the graph of 20th-century temperatures in the middle of the century.

Cement manufacture

Cement manufacturing is the third largest cause of man-made carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide is produced when calcium carbonate (CaCO3) is heated to produce the cement ingredient calcium oxide (CaO, also called quicklime). While fossil fuel combustion and deforestation each produce significantly more carbon dioxide (CO2), cement-making is responsible for approximately 2.5% of total worldwide emissions from industrial sources (energy plus manufacturing sectors).

Land use

Prior to widespread fossil fuel use, humanity's largest effect on local climate is likely to have resulted from land use. Irrigation, deforestation, and agriculture fundamentally change the environment. For example, they change the amount of water going into and out of a given location. They also may change the local albedo by influencing the ground cover and altering the amount of sunlight that is absorbed. For example, there is evidence to suggest that the climate of Greece and other Mediterranean countries was permanently changed by widespread deforestation between 700 BC and 1 AD (the wood being used for shipbuilding, construction and fuel), with the result that the modern climate in the region is significantly hotter and drier, and the species of trees that were used for shipbuilding in the ancient world can no longer be found in the area.

A controversial hypothesis by William Ruddiman called the early anthropocene hypothesis suggests that the rise of agriculture and the accompanying deforestation led to the increases in carbon dioxide and methane during the period 5000–8000 years ago. These increases, which reversed previous declines, may have been responsible for delaying the onset of the next glacial period, according to Ruddimann's overdue-glaciation hypothesis.

In modern times, a 2007 Jet Propulsion Laboratory study found that the average temperature of California has risen about 2 degrees over the past 50 years, with a much higher increase in urban areas. The change was attributed mostly to extensive human development of the landscape.


According to a 2006 United Nations report, Livestock's Long Shadow, livestock is responsible for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalents. This however includes land usage change, meaning deforestation in order to create grazing land. In the Amazon Rainforest, 70% of deforestation is to make way for grazing land, so this is the major factor in the 2006 UN FAO report, which was the first agricultural report to include land usage change into the radiative forcing of livestock. In addition to CO2 emissions, livestock produces 65% of human-induced nitrous oxide (which has 296 times the global warming potential of CO2) and 37% of human-induced methane (which has 23 times the global warming potential of CO2).

Interplay of factors

If a certain forcing (for example, solar variation) acts to change the climate, then there may be mechanisms that act to amplify or reduce the effects. These are called positive and negative feedbacks. As far as is known, the climate system is generally stable with respect to these feedbacks: positive feedbacks do not " run away". Part of the reason for this is the existence of a powerful negative feedback between temperature and emitted radiation: radiation increases as the fourth power of absolute temperature.

However, a number of important positive feedbacks do exist. The glacial and interglacial cycles of the present ice age provide an important example. It is believed that orbital variations provide the timing for the growth and retreat of ice sheets. However, the ice sheets themselves reflect sunlight back into space and hence promote cooling and their own growth, known as the ice-albedo feedback. Further, falling sea levels and expanding ice decrease plant growth and indirectly lead to declines in carbon dioxide and methane. This leads to further cooling. Conversely, rising temperatures caused, for example, by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases could lead to decreased snow and ice cover, revealing darker ground underneath, and consequently result in more absorption of sunlight.

Water vapor, methane, and carbon dioxide can also act as significant positive feedbacks, their levels rising in response to a warming trend, thereby accelerating that trend. Water vapor acts strictly as a feedback (excepting small amounts in the stratosphere), unlike the other major greenhouse gases, which can also act as forcings.

More complex feedbacks involve the possibility of changing circulation patterns in the ocean or atmosphere. For example, a significant concern in the modern case is that melting glacial ice from Greenland will interfere with sinking waters in the North Atlantic and inhibit thermohaline circulation. This could affect the Gulf Stream and the distribution of heat to Europe and the east coast of the United States.

Other potential feedbacks are not well understood and may either inhibit or promote warming. For example, it is unclear whether rising temperatures promote or inhibit vegetative growth, which could in turn draw down either more or less carbon dioxide. Similarly, increasing temperatures may lead to either more or less cloud cover. Since on balance cloud cover has a strong cooling effect, any change to the abundance of clouds also affects climate.

Monitoring the current status of climate

Scientists use "Indicator time series" that represent the many aspects of climate and ecosystem status. The time history provides a historical context. Current status of the climate is also monitored with climate indices.

Evidence for climatic change

Evidence for climatic change is taken from a variety of sources that can be used to reconstruct past climates. Most of the evidence is indirect—climatic changes are inferred from changes in indicators that reflect climate, such as vegetation, dendrochronology, ice cores, sea level change, and glacial retreat.

Pollen analysis

Palynology is the science that studies 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 sedimentation levels in lakes, bogs or river deltas indicate changes in plant communities; which are dependent on climate conditions.


Remains of beetles are common in freshwater and land sediments. Different species of beetles tend to be found under different climatic conditions. Knowledge of the present climatic range of the different species, and of the age of the sediments in which remains are found, allows past climatic conditions to be inferred.

Glacial geology

Advancing glaciers leave behind moraines and other features that often have datable material in them, recording the time when a glacier advanced and deposited a feature. Similarly, by tephrochronological techniques, the lack of glacier cover can be identified by the presence of datable soil or volcanic tephra horizons. Glaciers are considered one of the most sensitive climate indicators by the IPCC, and their recent observed variations provide a global signal of climate change. See Retreat of glaciers since 1850.

Historical records

Historical records include cave paintings, depth of grave digging in Greenland, diaries, documentary evidence of events (such as ' frost fairs' on the Thames) and evidence of areas of vine cultivation. Daily weather reports have been kept since 1873, and the Royal Society has encouraged the collection of data since the seventeenth century.

Climate change and biodiversity

The life cycles of many wild plants and animals are closely linked to the passing of the seasons; climatic changes can lead to interdependent pairs of species (e.g. a wild flower and its pollinating insect) losing synchronization, if, for example, one has a cycle dependent on day length and the other on temperature or precipitation. In principle, at least, this could lead to extinctions or changes in the distribution and abundance of species. One phenomenon is the movement of species northwards in Europe. A recent study by Butterfly Conservation in the UK, has shown that relatively common species with a southerly distribution have moved north, whilst scarce upland species have become rarer and lost territory towards the south. This picture has been mirrored across several invertebrate groups. Drier summers could lead to more periods of drought, potentially affecting many species of animal and plant. For example, in the UK during the drought year of 2006 significant numbers of trees died or showed dieback on light sandy soils. In Australia, since the early 90s, tens of thousands of flying foxes ( Pteropus) have died as a direct result of extreme heat. Wetter, milder winters might affect temperate mammals or insects by preventing them hibernating or entering torpor during periods when food is scarce. One predicted change is the ascendancy of 'weedy' or opportunistic species at the expense of scarcer species with narrower or more specialized ecological requirements. One example could be the expanses of bluebell seen in many woodlands in the UK. These have an early growing and flowering season before competing weeds can develop and the tree canopy closes. Milder winters can allow weeds to overwinter as adult plants or germinate sooner, whilst trees leaf earlier, reducing the length of the window for bluebells to complete their life cycle. Organisations such as Wildlife Trust, World Wide Fund for Nature, Birdlife International and the Audubon Society are actively monitoring and research the effects of climate change on biodiversity and advance policies in areas such as landscape scale conservation to promote adaptation to climate change.

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