The science behind climate change

No challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than Climate Change - Barack Obama

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Antarctica Glaciers
Glaciers seen during NASA's Operation IceBridge research flight to West Antarctica on Oct. 29, 2014. Image credit: NASA/Michael Studinger

The earth’s climate has changed drastically over the decade. Geostationary satellites revolving around our planet help us see the big picture (quite literally), accumulating data constantly and updating us about the conditions of the Earth. Be it from the melting of polar ice caps to erratic monsoons and weather changes, and most definitely warming up of oceans to rise of sea levels. These events essentially indicate the dire condition of the climate all around the globe and its immediate need for attention.

The evidence behind climate change

  • Rising temperatures

Global warming is not a phenomenon we are unfamiliar with. It has had serious implications on our planet in various ways in the last decade and even before. Erratic rainfall, severe droughts, rising sea levels, etc. the main reason behind the rising of temperature was the increase in CO2 levels which was again caused due to pollution. In fact, the last decade 2000-2009 was the hottest on record.

Global Temperature

  • Ocean acidification

Since the industrial revolution swept through our planet bringing in new opportunities, adversely it has brought about some pretty serious implications on our large water bodies. The acidity in ocean waters has increased by 30%. This is due to the CO2 which is being expelled in greater quantities by the minute and in turn being absorbed into the oceans. The amount increasing per year is a whopping 2 billion tons per year. And that is just the upper layer of oceans.

  • Extreme events

Certain events occurring around the globe have captured the attention of various environmentalists and scientists, such as in the United States the number of recorded high-temperature weather phenomenon has been increasing. On the other hand, the number of low-temperature weather phenomenon has been decreasing since 1950. The number of intense rainfall conditions has also increased in this time period.

  • Shrinking glacial cover

From the snowy peaks of Himalayas to the Andes, the Rockies, Alps, etc. glaciers are decreasing everywhere around the world. This is a serious indication of climate change and poses serious threats to sea levels and mountain animals. Even islands remain in threat of disappearing completely under the rising sea levels. Satellite observations have revealed how much of this is true. In the past five decades, the snow cover has melted over the Northern Hemisphere.

  • NASA’s frozen data

The ice sheets that form a huge landmass of Greenland and Antarctica have diminished in mass. According to NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, it shows that per year the loss of ice is 281 billion tons between 1993 and 2016. In Antarctica, the loss is 119 billion tons in that same time period. On top of that, the rate of ice mass loss in Antarctica has tripled in the last ten years.

Signs and science behind climate change

The various compounds, whose abrupt increase in our environment which has caused changes in our climate are CO2, CH4, N2O, O3, etc. Their formations have been explained below:-

6 O2 + C6H12O6 --------> 6 H2O + 6 CO2 + energy

This is the process of combustion during which O2 reacts with glucose (C6H12O6) to produce water (H2O) and CO2. These chemical reactions occur when organic matter burns in our environment releasing chemical energy in the form of heat and light.

CH3COOH --------> CO2 + CH4

This is the microbial process of methanogenesis during which acetate (CH3COOH) is split into CO2 and methane (CH4). Methane has the greatest impact on freshwater wetlands and rice paddies. The amount of methane produced in these fields increases with the area of land required for these rice paddies. This is the direct impact of human population on climate change.

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is another contributing factor which is formed as a by-product of nitrification and denitrification.

CH4 + 4O2 --------> HCHO + H2O + 2O3

Smog is another pollutant that causes irritation of eyes and lungs. Especially those of city inhabitants. Tropospheric ozone (O3) is a constituent of smog that causes the mentioned problems.

NO2 + sunlight --------> NO + O

O + O2 --------> O3

NO2 + O2 --------> NO + O3

This is another process by which tropospheric ozone is emitted in the form of atmospheric nitrate (NO2). First, the breakdown of nitrate occurs from which nitric oxide (NO) and an atom of oxygen (O) is obtained. After that, it combines with O2 and produces O3. Depicted above is the basic science behind climate change.

Random Quiz

Which of the following is not a greenhouse gas?

Correct! Wrong!

In order, the most abundant greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere are Water vapor, Carbon dioxide, Methane, Nitrous oxide, Ozone, Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Hydrofluorocarbons (incl. HCFCs and HFCs). Carbon Monoxide does not cause climate change directly.


Main reasons behind climate change

We might not be able to notice changes in our Earth’s climate and enjoy it as normal. However, the Earth’s climate is ever-changing, more rapidly in these times than ever, so before as seen in the geological record. There are a lot of reasons behind climate change and a lot of factors, natural and anthropogenic (human-induced) has contributed to this. The rapid rate of climate change is now a great concern worldwide.

Here are some of the main reasons behind climate change:

  1. Human activity
    • We, humans, have emitted greenhouse gases in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution took place. This led to more heat retention and absorption and in turn, increased surface temperatures.
    • We have emitted aerosols and these, after scattering in the atmosphere have absorbed solar and infrared radiation, which has had an adverse effect on the microphysical and chemical properties of clouds.
    • We have also changed the usage of lands, deforested them, which in turn led to a greater amount of sunlight being reflected from the surface of the earth back into space also known as the surface albedo.
Haiti Deforestation
Satellite image showing deforestation in Haiti, Haiti-Centre. This image depicts the border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic (right). (Source: NASA)
  1. Solar Irradiance

Since the Sun is our nearest star and our most fundamental source of energy, it does have the effect that is instrumental to our climate changes. The Ice Age between 1650- 1850 in Greenland was due to the littlest decrease in solar activity. From 1410-1720 it was cut-off by ice and all the Glaciers shifted in and moved towards the Alps.

  1. Tectonic movements of plates and volcanic activity

Tectonic plates form the very basis of our continents and even the slightest movement can cause them to move to very different positions from their initial location. These plate movements can cause eruptions in volcanoes which in turn contribute to climate change.

The eruptions from volcanoes which consist of gases and dust particles may warm or cool the Earth’s surface altering it’s temperature significantly.

  1. Changes in ocean currents

Ocean currents carry heat to all the other water bodies of the Earth. Hence, the change in direction of these currents can change affecting the warmth or coolness of various continents. These can have a relatively large effect on our overall climate (including coastal climate and global too) because oceans harbor a large amount of heat.

These are some of the main reasons behind climate change.

Remedies for climate change

We, as humans should individually take measures to save our planet Earth and so that our climate is not affected as much.

  • Instead of depleting our reserved fossil fuels, we need to use more renewable resources such as wind, wave, tidal and solar energy.
  • We need to make use of more public transport instead of our private vehicles. We need to gradually replace our petrol driven vehicles with electric ones in the future to reduce the emission of toxic gases in the atmosphere.
  • One of the easiest steps our government can take is cutting methane emissions. Methane is 84 times harmful than carbon dioxide emissions and is a much greater reported problem.
  • We should wisely use our available energies. We can do this by using energy-efficient light bulbs, unplugging computers and other electronic devices when not in use, washing clothes in cold water instead of warm, using natural sunlight to dry our clothes instead of dryers, etc.
  • Focusing our lives in nature rather than consuming and purchasing. If we start practicing composting, recycling, sharing, fixing and making our lives would be greener and cleaner and would significantly enrich nature and our lives in the process.
  • Carbon pricing so that polluting nature has a heavy price. It might sound not as much of an important step but it paves the way for greener solutions. As agreed by market economists, carbon pricing is also a business-friendly way to decrease pollution in nature. The federal needs our individual support to help make this possible.
  • We should consume more organic meals and less meat. By doing so, we will help ourselves to a better diet and also our planet to make it more climate-stable. We should also try growing our own food and never waste it as much as possible.

Final Words

Scientists all around the globe belonging to various scientific societies have published numerous statements, coming to the unanimous conclusion that global warming is the primary factor of climate change and that we, humans are the primary cause. We should definitely stop overloading our atmosphere with carbon dioxide (CO2), which we do when we burn fossil fuels like oil and coal to provide ourselves electricity to power our transports and keep our homes warm. The Earth is steadily warming up in response and this is a dire situation whose consequences will affect us in the very near future in drastic ways.

Read More:

  1. Climate change: How do we know?
  2. Climate change, global warming and greenhouse gases

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