Global climate change is cyclical and happens naturally; however, modern human society’s impact has had unprecedented negative effects.
- Explain the drivers of climate change, past and present
- Data show a correlation between the timing of temperature changes and drivers of climate change.
- Prior to the Industrial Era (pre-1780), there were three drivers of climate change that were not related to human activity: Milankovitch cycles, sun intensity, and volcanic eruptions.
- Greenhouse gases, probably the most significant drivers of the climate, include carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, nitrous oxide, and ozone.
- Human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels, releases carbon dioxide and methane, two of the most important greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere.
- Deforestation, cement manufacture, animal agriculture, the clearing of land, and the burning of forests are other human activities that release carbon dioxide.
- Milankovitch cycle: any of the three cyclic variations in the earth’s orbit around the sun, respectively the obliquity of its axis, the precession of the equinoxes, and the eccentricity of its orbit
- greenhouse gas: any gas, such as carbon dioxide, that contributes to the greenhouse effect (continued warming) when released into the atmosphere
- greenhouse effect: the process by which a planet is warmed by its atmosphere
Current and Past Drivers of Global Climate Change
Since it is not possible to go back in time to directly observe and measure climate, scientists use indirect evidence to determine the drivers, or factors, that may be responsible for climate change. The indirect evidence includes data collected using ice cores, boreholes (narrow shafts bored into the ground), tree rings, glacier lengths, pollen remains, and ocean sediments. The data shows a correlation between the timing of temperature changes and drivers of climate change. Before the Industrial Era (pre-1780), there were three drivers of climate change that were not related to human activity or atmospheric gases: the Milankovitch cycles, solar intensity, and volcanic eruptions.
Natural Causes of Climate Change
The Milankovitch cycles describe how slight changes in the earth’s orbit affect the earth’s climate. The length of the Milankovitch cycles ranges between 19,000 and 100,000 years. In other words, one could expect to see some predictable changes in the earth’s climate associated with changes in the earth’s orbit at a minimum of every 19,000 years.
The variation in the sun’s intensity is the second natural factor responsible for climate change. Solar intensity is the amount of solar power or energy the sun emits in a given length of time. There is a direct relationship between solar intensity and temperature: as solar intensity increases (or decreases), the earth’s temperature correspondingly increases (or decreases). Changes in solar intensity have been proposed as one of several possible explanations for the Little Ice Age.
Finally, volcanic eruptions are a third natural driver of climate change. Volcanic eruptions can last a few days, but the solids and gases released during an eruption can influence the climate over a period of a few years, causing short-term climate changes. The gases and solids released by volcanic eruptions can include carbon dioxide, water vapor, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen, and carbon monoxide.
Human Activity-Related Causes of Climate Change
Greenhouse gases are probably the most significant drivers of the climate. When heat energy from the sun strikes the earth, gases known as greenhouse gases trap the heat in the atmosphere, similar to how the glass panes of a greenhouse keep heat from escaping. The greenhouse gases that affect earth include carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Approximately half of the radiation from the sun passes through these gases in the atmosphere, striking the earth. This radiation is converted into thermal radiation on the earth’s surface; a portion of that energy is re-radiated into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases, however, reflect much of the thermal energy back to the earth’s surface. The more greenhouse gases there are in the atmosphere, the more thermal energy is reflected back to the earth’s surface. Greenhouse gases, as they absorb and emit radiation, are an important factor in the greenhouse effect, or the warming of earth due to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Beginning recently, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have increased beyond the historical maximum of 300 ppm. The current increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide have happened very quickly: in a matter of hundreds of years rather than thousands of years. A key factor that must be recognized when comparing the historical data and the current data is the presence of modern human society. No other driver of climate change has yielded changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at this rate or to this magnitude.
Human activity releases carbon dioxide and methane, two of the most important greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere in several ways. The primary mechanism that releases carbon dioxide is the burning of fossil fuels, such as gasoline, coal, and natural gas. Deforestation, cement manufacture, animal agriculture, the clearing of land, and the burning of forests are other human activities that release carbon dioxide. Methane (CH4) is produced when bacteria break down organic matter under anaerobic conditions (i.e., without oxygen), which can happen when organic matter is trapped underwater, as in rice paddies, or in the intestines of herbivores. Methane can also be released from natural gas fields and the decomposition that occurs in landfills. Another source of methane is the melting of clathrates: frozen chunks of ice and methane found at the bottom of the ocean. When water warms, these chunks of ice melt, releasing methane. As the ocean’s water temperature increases, the rate at which clathrates melt is increasing, releasing even more methane. This leads to increased levels of methane in the atmosphere, which further accelerates the rate of global warming. This is an example of the positive feedback loop that is leading to the rapid rate of increase of global temperatures.