28 Chapter 28: Climate Change Introduction

Anastasia Chouvalova

All biomes are universally affected by global conditions, such as climate, that ultimately shape each biome’s environment. Scientists who study climate have noted a series of marked changes that have gradually become increasingly evident during the last sixty years. Global climate change is the term used to describe altered global weather patterns, especially a worldwide increase in temperature and resulting changes in the climate, due largely to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Climate and Weather

A common misconception about global climate change is that a specific weather event occurring in a particular region (for example, a very cool week in June in central Indiana) provides evidence of global climate change. However, a cold week in June is a weather-related event and not a climate-related one. These misconceptions often arise because of confusion over the terms climate and weather.

Climate refers to the long-term, predictable atmospheric conditions of a specific area. The climate of a biome is characterized by having consistent seasonal temperature and rainfall ranges. Climate does not address the amount of rain that fell on one particular day in a biome or the colder-than-average temperatures that occurred on one day. In contrast, weather refers to the conditions of the atmosphere during a short period of time. Weather forecasts are usually made for 48-hour cycles. Long-range weather forecasts are available but can be unreliable.

To better understand the difference between climate and weather, imagine that you are planning an outdoor event in northern Wisconsin. You would be thinking about climate when you plan the event in the summer rather than the winter because you have long-term knowledge that any given Saturday in the months of May to August would be a better choice for an outdoor event in Wisconsin than any given Saturday in January. However, you cannot determine the specific day that the event should be held on because it is difficult to accurately predict the weather on a specific day. Climate can be considered “average” weather that takes place over many years.

Reading Question #1

Which statement(s) correctly contrasts weather and climate? Select all that apply.

A. Weather is more predictable than climate.

B. Weather is less predictable than climate.

C. Climate encompasses the longer-term conditions of a specific area, while weather encompasses shorter-term conditions.

D. Climate encompasses the shorter-term conditions of a specific area, while weather encompasses longer-term conditions.

E. Weather encompasses changes in temperature, precipitation, wind, air pressure, and humidity while climate encompasses only temperature.

Global Climate Change

Climate change can be understood by approaching three areas of study:

  • evidence of current and past global climate change
  • drivers of global climate change
  • documented results of climate change

It is helpful to keep these three different aspects of climate change clearly separated when consuming media reports about global climate change. We should note that it is common for reports and discussions about global climate change to confuse the data showing that Earth’s climate is changing with the factors that drive this climate change.

Evidence for Global Climate Change

Since scientists cannot go back in time to directly measure climatic variables, such as average temperature and precipitation, they must instead indirectly measure temperature. To do this, scientists rely on historical evidence of Earth’s past climate.

Antarctic ice cores are a key example of such evidence for climate change. These ice cores are samples of polar iceobtained by means of drills that reach thousands of meters into ice sheets or high mountain glaciers. Viewing the ice cores is like traveling backwards through time; the deeper the sample, the earlier the time period. Trapped within the ice are air bubbles and other biological evidence that can reveal temperature and carbon dioxide data. Antarctic ice cores have been collected and analyzed to indirectly estimate the temperature of the Earth over the past 400,000 years (Figure 27.1a). The data represented in Figure 27.2 is an example of such analyses. The 0 °C on this graph refers to the long-term average. Temperatures that are greater than 0 °C exceed Earth’s long-term average temperature. Conversely, temperatures that are less than 0 °C are less than Earth’s average temperature. This figure shows that there have been periodic cycles of increasing and decreasing temperature.

Figure 27.1 a) Scientists drill for ice cores in polar regions. b) The ice contains air bubbles and biological substances that provide important information for researchers. (credit: a: Helle Astrid Kjær; b: National Ice Core Laboratory, USGS)

Before the late 1800s, the Earth has been as much as 9 °C cooler and about 3 °C warmer. Note that the graph in Figure 27.2b shows that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has also risen and fallen in periodic cycles. Also note the relationship between carbon dioxide concentration and temperature. Figure 44.27b shows that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have historically cycled between 180 and 300 parts per million (ppm) by volume.

Figure 27.2 Ice at the Russian Vostok station in East Antarctica was laid down over the course of 420,000 years and reached a depth of over 3,000 m. a) A graph showing the changes in temperature in the past. b) A graph showing the changes in CO2 concentrations in the past. By measuring the amount of CO2 trapped in the ice, scientists have determined past atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Temperatures relative to modern day were determined from the amount of deuterium (a nonradioactive isotope of hydrogen) present.

Reading Question #2

Take a close look at Figures 27.1a and 27.1b. Approximately how long is one “cycle” of 1) temperature and 2) CO2 changes? Hint: Take a look at the minima and minima, as if looking at a sine function.

A. 1) ∼ 100, 000 years for temperature, 2) ∼200, 000 years for CO2

B. 1) ∼ 200, 000 years for temperature, 2) ∼100, 000 years for CO2

C. 1) ∼ 100, 000 years for temperature, 2) ∼100, 000 years for CO2

D.1) ∼ 200, 000 years for temperature, 2) ∼200, 000 years for CO2


Figure 27.2a does not show the last 2,000 years with enough detail to compare the changes of Earth’s temperature during the last 400,000 years with the temperature change that has occurred in the more recent past. Two significant temperature anomalies, or irregularities, have occurred in the last 2,000 years. These are the Medieval ClimateAnomaly (or the Medieval Warm Period) and the Little Ice Age. A third temperature anomaly aligns with the Industrial Era. The Medieval Climate Anomaly occurred between 900 and 1300 AD. During this time period, many climatescientists think that slightly warmer weather conditions prevailed in many parts of the world; the higher-than-average temperature changes varied between 0.10 °C and 0.20 °C above the norm. Although 0.10 °C does not seem large enough to produce any noticeable change, it did free seas of ice. Because of this warming, the Vikings were able to colonize Greenland.

The Little Ice Age was a cold period that occurred between 1550 AD and 1850 AD. During this time, a slight cooling of a little less than 1 °C was observed in North America, Europe, and possibly other areas of the Earth. This 1 °C change in global temperature is a seemingly small deviation in temperature (as was observed during the Medieval Climate Anomaly); however, it also resulted in noticeable climatic changes. Historical accounts reveal a time of exceptionally harsh winters with much snow and frost.

The Industrial Revolution, which began around 1750, was characterized by changes in much of human society. Advances in agriculture increased the food supply, which improved the standard of living for people in Europe and the United States. New technologies were invented that provided jobs and cheaper goods. These new technologies were powered using fossil fuels, especially coal. The Industrial Revolution starting in the early nineteenth century ushered in the beginning of the Industrial Era. When a fossil fuel is burned, carbon dioxide is released. With the beginning of the Industrial Era, atmospheric carbon dioxide began to rise (Figure 27.3).

Figure 27.3

Current and Past Drivers of Global Climate Change

Because it is not possible to go back in time to directly observe and measure climate, scientists must 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 (a narrow shaft 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 first of these is the Milankovitch cycles. The Milankovitch cycles describe the effects of slight changes in the Earth’s orbit on 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 amount 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. Generally, volcanic eruptions cool the climate. This occurred in 1783 when volcanoes in Iceland erupted and caused the release of large volumes of sulfuric oxide. This led to haze-effect cooling, a global phenomenon that occurs when dust, ash, or other suspended particles block out sunlight and trigger lower global temperatures as a result; haze-effect cooling usually extends for one or more years before dissipating in intensity. In Europe and North America, haze-effect cooling produced some of the lowest average winter temperatures on record in 1783 and 1784.

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, in a similar manner as do 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 and strikes the Earth. This radiation is converted into thermal (infrared) radiation on the Earth’s surface, and then a portion of that energy is re-radiated back 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, heating it up and the atmosphere immediately above it. Greenhouse gases absorb and emit radiation and are an important factor in the greenhouse effect: the warming of Earth due to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Direct evidence supports the relationship between atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and temperature: as carbon dioxide rises, global temperature rises. Since 1950, the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased from about 280 ppm to 382 ppm in 2006. In 2011, the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration was 392 ppm. However, the planet would not be inhabitable by current life forms if water vapor did not produce its drastic greenhouse warming effect.

Scientists look at patterns in data and try to explain differences or deviations from these patterns. The atmospheric carbon dioxide data reveal a historical pattern of carbon dioxide increasing and decreasing, cycling between a low of 180 ppm and a high of 300 ppm. Scientists have concluded that it took around 50,000 years for the atmospheric carbon dioxide level to increase from its low minimum concentration to its higher maximum concentration. However, beginning only a few centuries ago, 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. What is the reason for this difference in the rate of change and the amount of increase in carbon dioxide? A key factor that must be recognized when comparing the historical data and the current data is the presence and industrial activities of modern human society; no other driver of climatechange 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 (Figure 27.4). 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. Anaerobic conditions can happen when organic matter is trapped underwater (such as in rice paddies) or in the intestines of herbivores. Methane can also be released from natural gas fields and the decomposition of animal and plant material that occurs in landfills. Another source of methane is the melting of clathrates. Clathrates are frozen chunks of ice and methane found at the bottom of the ocean. When water warms, these chunks of ice melt and methane is released. 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.

Figure 27.4. The burning of fossil fuels in industry and by vehicles releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. (credit: “Pöllö”/Wikimedia Commons)

Greenhouse Gases in detail

Gardeners that live in moderate or cool environments use greenhouses because they trap heat and create an environment that is warmer than outside temperatures. This is great for plants that like heat, or are sensitive to cold temperatures, such as tomato and pepper plants. Greenhouses contain glass or plastic that allow visible light from the sun to pass. This light, which is a form of energy, is absorbed by plants, soil, and surfaces and heats them. Some of that heat energy is then radiated outwards in the form of infrared radiation, a different form of energy. Unlike with visible light, the glass of the greenhouse blocks the infrared radiation, thereby trapping the heat energy, causing the temperature within the greenhouse to increase.

The same phenomenon happens inside a car on a sunny day. Have you ever noticed how much hotter a car can get compared to the outside temperature? Light energy from the sun passes through the windows and is absorbed by the surfaces in the car such as seats and the dashboard. Those warm surfaces then radiate infrared radiation, which cannot pass through the glass. This trapped infrared energy causes the air temperatures in the car to increase. This process is commonly known as the greenhouse effect.

The greenhouse effect also happens with the entire Earth. Of course, our planet is not surrounded by glass windows. Instead, the Earth is wrapped with an atmosphere that contains greenhouse gases (GHGs). Much like the glass in a greenhouse, GHGs allow incoming visible light energy from the sun to pass, but they block infrared radiation that is radiated from the Earth towards space (Figure 27.5). In this way, they help trap heat energy that subsequently raises air temperature. Being a greenhouse gas is a physical property of certain types of gases; because of their molecular structure they absorb wavelengths of infrared radiation, but are transparent to visible light. Some notable greenhouse gases are water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane (CH4). GHGs act like a blanket, making Earth significantly warmer than it would otherwise be. Scientists estimate that average temperature on Earth would be -18º C without naturally-occurring GHGs.

Figure 27.5. The enhanced greenhouse effect. Step 1: Some solar radiation reaches the Earth’s surface, and some is reflected back into space. Step 2: The rest of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the land and the oceans, heating the Earth. Step 3: Heat radiates from Earth towards space. Step 4: Some of the heat is trapped by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, warming the Earth. Step 5: Human activities such as burning fossil fuels, agriculture, and land clearing have increased the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Step 6: This is trapping extra heat, causing the Earth’s temperature to rise.

The most important GHGs directly emitted by humans include CO2 and methane. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the primary greenhouse gas that is contributing to recent global climate change. CO2 is a natural component of the carbon cycle, involved in such activities as photosynthesis, respiration, volcanic eruptions, and ocean-atmosphere exchange. Human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use, release very large amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere, causing its concentration in the atmosphere to rise.

Although this concentration is far less than that of CO2, methane (CH4) is 28 times as potent a greenhouse gas. Methane is produced when bacteria break down organic matter under anaerobic conditions and can be released due to natural or anthropogenic processes. Anaerobic conditions can happen when organic matter is trapped underwater (such as in rice paddies) or in the intestines of herbivores. Anthropogenic causes now account for 60% of total methane release. Examples include agriculture, fossil fuel extraction and transport, mining, landfill use, and burning of forests. Specifically, raising cattle releases methane due to fermentation in their rumens produces methane that is expelled from their GI tract. Methane is more abundant in Earth’s atmosphere now than at any time in at least the past 650,000 years, and CH4 concentrations increased sharply during most of the 20th century. They are now more than two and-a-half times pre-industrial levels (1.9 ppm), but the rate of increase has slowed considerably in recent decades.

Water vapor is the most abundant greenhouse gas and also the most important in terms of its contribution to the natural greenhouse effect, despite having a short atmospheric lifetime. Some human activities can influence local water vapor levels. However, on a global scale, the concentration of water vapor is controlled by temperature, which influences overall rates of evaporation and precipitation. Therefore, the global concentration of water vapor is not substantially affected by direct human emissions.

Ground-level ozone (O3), which also has a short atmospheric lifetime, is a potent greenhouse gas. Chemical reactions create ozone from emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from automobiles, power plants, and other industrial and commercial sources in the presence of sunlight (as discussed in section 10.1). In addition to trapping heat, ozone is a pollutant that can cause respiratory health problems and damage crops and ecosystems.

Reading Question #3

Match the following four greenhouse gases (GHGs) to their respective descriptions.

A) CO2       B) Methane   C) Ozone     D) Water vapor

  1.  Derived from nitrogen oxides and causes respiratory health problems, such as asthma.
  2. Many times more potent than CO2 and comes from agricultural practices.
  3. Is the principal GHG.
  4. Is the most abundant GHG and is not extremely related to anthropogenic causes.

Reading Question #4

It is important for you to understand the mechanism of greenhouse gases and how they are related to rising Earth temperatures. Which statement accurately describes this relationship?

A. Increasing amounts of GHGs cause more heat to be trapped within the Earth’s atmosphere, causing temperatures to increase.

B. Decreasing amounts of GHGs cause more heat to be trapped within the Earth’s atmosphere, causing temperatures to increase.

C. Increasing amounts of GHGs cause less heat to be trapped within the Earth’s hydrosphere, causing temperatures to increase.

D. There is very weak evidence that GHGs are related to rising Earth temperatures.

Documented Results of Climate Change: Past and Present

Scientists have geological evidence of the consequences of long-ago climate change. Modern-day phenomena such as retreating glaciers and melting polar ice cause a continual rise in sea level. Meanwhile, changes in climate can negatively affect organisms.

Geological Climate Change

Global warming has been associated with at least one planet-wide extinction event during the geological past. The Permian extinction event occurred about 251 million years ago toward the end of the roughly 50-million-year-long geological time span known as the Permian period. This geologic time period was one of the three warmest periods in Earth’s geologic history. Scientists estimate that approximately 70 percent of the terrestrial plant and animal species and 84 percent of marine species became extinct, vanishing forever near the end of the Permian period.

Organisms that had adapted to wet and warm climatic conditions, such as annual rainfall of 300–400 cm (118–157 in) and 20 °C–30 °C (68 °F–86 °F) in the tropical wet forest, may not have been able to survive the Permian climate change.

Link to learning

Take a look at this NASA video which discusses how global warming impacts plant growth. Interestingly, the increased temperatures in the 1980s-1990s led to increased plant productivity but this benefit has been counteracted by more frequent droughts. This reveals the complexity and mixed nature of the effects of global warming on plant growth.

Present Climate Change

A number of global events have occurred that may be attributed to climate change during our lifetimes. Glacier National Park in Montana is undergoing the retreat of many of its glaciers, a phenomenon known as glacier recession. In 1850, the area contained approximately 150 glaciers. By 2010, however, the park contained only about 24 glaciers greater than 25 acres in size. One of these glaciers is the Grinnell Glacier (Figure 27.5) at Mount Gould. Between 1966 and 2005, the size of Grinnell Glacier shrank by 40 percent. Similarly, the mass of the ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic is decreasing: Greenland lost 150–250 km3 of ice per year between 2002 and 2006. In addition, the size and thickness of the Arctic sea ice is decreasing.

Figure 27.5. The effect of global warming can be seen in the continuing retreat of Grinnel Glacier. The mean annual temperature in the park has increased 1.33 °C since 1900. The loss of a glacier results in the loss of summer meltwaters, sharply reducing seasonal water supplies and severely affecting local ecosystems. (credit: modification of work by USGS)

This loss of ice is leading to increases in the global sea level. On average, the sea is rising at a rate of 1.8 mm per year. However, between 1993 and 2010 the rate of sea level increase ranged between 2.9 and 3.4 mm per year. A variety of factors affect the volume of water in the ocean, especially the temperature of the water (the density of water is related to its temperature: water volume expands as it warms, thus raising sea levels), as well as the amount of water found in rivers, lakes, glaciers, polar ice caps, and sea ice. As glaciers and polar ice caps melt, there is a significant contribution of liquid water that was previously frozen.

In addition to some abiotic conditions changing in response to climate change, many organisms are also being affected by the changes in temperature. Temperature and precipitation play key roles in determining the geographic distribution and phenology of plants and animals. (Phenology is the study of the effects of climatic conditions on the timing of periodic life cycle events, such as flowering in plants or migration in birds.) Researchers have shown that 385 plant species in Great Britain are flowering 4.5 days sooner than was recorded earlier during the previous 40 years. In addition, insect-pollinated species were more likely to flower earlier than wind-pollinated species. The impact of changes in flowering date would be mitigated if the insect pollinators emerged earlier. This mismatched timing of plants and pollinators could result in injurious ecosystem effects because, for continued survival, insect-pollinated plants must flower when their pollinators are present.

Scientific Consensus: Global Climate Change is Real

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization. It is charged with the task of evaluating and synthesizing the scientific evidence surrounding global climate change. The IPCC uses this information to evaluate current impacts and future risks, in addition to providing policymakers with assessments. These assessments are released about once every every six years. The most recent report, the 5th Assessment, was released in 2013. Hundreds of leading scientists from around the world are chosen to author these reports. Over the history of the IPCC, these scientists have reviewed thousands of peer-reviewed, publicly available studies. The scientific consensus is clear: global climate change is real and humans are very likely the cause for this change.

Additionally, the major scientific agencies of the United States, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), also agree that climate change is occurring and that humans are driving it. In 2010, the US National Research Council concluded that “Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems”. Many independent scientific organizations have released similar statements, both in the United States and abroad. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every scientist sees eye to eye on each component of the climate change problem, but broad agreement exists that climate change is happening and is primarily caused by excess greenhouse gases from human activities. Critics of climate change, driven by ideology instead of evidence, try to suggest to the public that there is no scientific consensus on global climate change. Such an assertion is patently false.

Past and Present-day GHG Emissions Will Affect Climate Far into the Future

Many greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for long periods of time. As a result, even if emissions stopped increasing, atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations would continue to remain elevated for hundreds of years. Moreover, if we stabilized concentrations and the composition of today’s atmosphere remained steady (which would require a dramatic reduction in current greenhouse gas emissions), surface air temperatures would continue to warm. This is because the oceans, which store heat, take many decades to fully respond to higher greenhouse gas concentrations. The ocean’s response to higher greenhouse gas concentrations and higher temperatures will continue to impact climate over the next several decades to hundreds of years.

Future Temperature Changes

Climate models project the following key temperature-related changes:

  • Average global temperatures are expected to increase by 2°F to 11.5°F by 2100, depending on the level of future greenhouse gas emissions, and the outcomes from various climate models.
  • By 2100, global average temperature is expected to warm at least twice as much as it has during the last 100 years.
  • Ground-level air temperatures are expected to continue to warm more rapidly over land than oceans.
  • Some parts of the world are projected to see larger temperature increases than the global average.

Future Precipitation and Storm Events

Patterns of precipitation and storm events, including both rain and snowfall are likely to change. However, some of these changes are less certain than the changes associated with temperature. Projections show that future precipitation and storm changes will vary by season and region. Some regions may have less precipitation, some may have more precipitation, and some may have little or no change. The amount of rain falling in heavy precipitation events is likely to increase in most regions, while storm tracks are projected to shift towards the poles. Climate models project the following precipitation and storm changes:

  • Global average annual precipitation through the end of the century is expected to increase, although changes in the amount and intensity of precipitation will vary by region.
  • The intensity of precipitation events will likely increase on average. This will be particularly pronounced in tropical and high-latitude regions, which are also expected to experience overall increases in precipitation.
  • The strength of the winds associated with tropical storms is likely to increase. The amount of precipitation falling in tropical storms is also likely to increase.
  • Annual average precipitation is projected to increase in some areas and decrease in others.

Future Ice, Snowpack, and Permafrost

Arctic sea ice is already declining drastically. The area of snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased since 1970. Permafrost temperature has increased over the last century, making it more susceptible to thawing. Over the next century, it is expected that sea ice will continue to decline, glaciers will continue to shrink, snow cover will continue to decrease, and permafrost will continue to thaw.

For every 2°F of warming, models project about a 15% decrease in the extent of annually averaged sea ice and a 25% decrease in September Arctic sea ice.The coastal sections of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are expected to continue to melt or slide into the ocean. If the rate of this ice melting increases in the 21st century, the ice sheets could add significantly to global sea level rise. Glaciers are expected to continue to decrease in size. The rate of melting is expected to continue to increase, which will contribute to sea level rise.

Future Sea Level Change

Warming temperatures contribute to sea level rise by expanding ocean water, melting mountain glaciers and ice caps, and causing portions of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to melt or flow into the ocean. Since 1870, global sea level has risen by about 8 inches. Estimates of future sea level rise vary for different regions, but global sea level for the next century is expected to rise at a greater rate than during the past 50 years. The contribution of thermal expansion, ice caps, and small glaciers to sea level rise is relatively well-studied, but the impacts of climate change on ice sheets are less understood and represent an active area of research. Thus, it is more difficult to predict how much changes in ice sheets will contribute to sea level rise. Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets could contribute an additional 1 foot of sea level rise, depending on how the ice sheets respond.

Regional and local factors will influence future relative sea level rise for specific coastlines around the world. For example, relative sea level rise depends on land elevation changes that occur as a result of subsidence (sinking) or uplift (rising), in addition to things such as local currents, winds, salinity, water temperatures, and proximity to thinning ice sheets.

Future Ocean Acidification

Ocean acidification is the process of ocean waters decreasing in pH. Oceans become more acidic as carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the atmosphere dissolve in the ocean. This change is measured on the pH scale, with lower values being more acidic. The pH level of the oceans has decreased by approximately 0.1 pH units since pre-industrial times, which is equivalent to a 25% increase in acidity. The pH level of the oceans is projected to decrease even more by the end of the century as CO2 concentrations are expected to increase for the foreseeable future. Ocean acidification adversely affects many marine species, including plankton, mollusks, shellfish, and corals. As ocean acidification increases, the availability of calcium carbonate will decline. Calcium carbonate is a key building block for the shells and skeletons of many marine organisms. If atmospheric CO2 concentrations double, coral calcification rates are projected to decline by more than 30%. If CO2 concentrations continue to rise at their current rate, corals could become rare on tropical and subtropical reefs by 2050.

Mismatched Interactions

Climate change also affects phenology, the study of the effects of climatic conditions on the timing of periodic lifecycle events, such as flowering in plants or migration in birds. Researchers have shown that 385 plant species in Great Britain are flowering 4.5 days sooner than was recorded earlier during the previous 40 years. In addition, insect-pollinated species were more likely to flower earlier than wind-pollinated species. The impact of changes in flowering date would be mitigated if the insect pollinators emerged earlier. This mismatched timing of plants and pollinators could result in injurious ecosystem effects because, for continued survival, insect-pollinated plants must flower when their pollinators are present.

Likewise, migratory birds rely on daylength cues, which are not influenced by climate change. Their insect food sources, however, emerge earlier in the year in response to warmer temperatures. As a result, climate change decreases food availability for migratory bird species.

Spread of Disease

This rise in global temperatures will increase the range of disease-carrying insects and the viruses and pathogenic parasites they harbor. Thus, diseases will spread to new regions of the globe. This spread has already been documented with dengue fever, a disease the affects hundreds of millions per year, according to the World Health Organization. Colder temperatures typically limit the distribution of certain species, such as the mosquitoes that transmit malaria, because freezing temperatures destroy their eggs.

Not only will the range of some disease-causing insects expand, the increasing temperatures will also accelerate their lifecycles, which allows them to breed and multiply quicker, and perhaps evolve pesticide resistance faster. In addition to dengue fever, other diseases are expected to spread to new portions of the world as the global climate warms. These include malaria, yellow fever, West Nile virus, zika virus, and chikungunya.

Climate change does not only increase the spread of diseases in humans. Rising temperatures are associated with greater amphibian mortality due to chytridiomycosis (see Invasive Species). Similarly, warmer temperatures have exacerbated bark beetle infestations of coniferous trees, such as pine an spruce.


Climate Change Affects Everyone

Our lives are connected to the climate. Human societies have adapted to the relatively stable climate we have enjoyed since the last ice age which ended several thousand years ago. A warming climate will bring changes that can affect our water supplies, agriculture, power and transportation systems, the natural environment, and even our own health and safety.

Carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for nearly a century, on average, so Earth will continue to warm in the coming decades. The warmer it gets, the greater the risk for more severe changes to the climate and Earth’s system. Although it’s difficult to predict the exact impacts of climate change, what’s clear is that the climate we are accustomed to is no longer a reliable guide for what to expect in the future.

We can reduce the risks we will face from climate change. By making choices that reduce greenhouse gas pollution, and preparing for the changes that are already underway, we can reduce risks from climate change. Our decisions today will shape the world our children and grandchildren will live in.

You can take steps at home, on the road, and in your office to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the risks associated with climate change. Many of these steps can save you money. Some, such as walking or biking to work, can even improve your health! You can also get involved on a local or state level to support energy efficiency, clean energy programs, or other climate programs.

Reading Question #5

Which of the following is not observed consequence of climate change?

A. Tropical storms will be stronger.

B. Plants will flower sooner.

C. Increases in global sea levels.

D. The pH of oceans will increase.



The Earth has gone through periodic cycles of increases and decreases in temperature. During the past 2,000 years, the Medieval Climate Anomaly was a warmer period, while the Little Ice Age was unusually cool. Both ofthese irregularities can be explained by natural causes of changes in climate, and, although the temperature changes were small, they had significant effects. Natural drivers of climate change include Milankovitch cycles, changes insolar activity, and volcanic eruptions. None of these factors, however, leads to rapid increases in global temperature or sustained increases in carbon dioxide.

The burning of fossil fuels is an important source of greenhouse gases, which play a major role in the greenhouse effect. Two hundred and fifty million years ago, global warming resulted in the Permian extinction: a large-scale extinction event that is documented in the fossil record. Currently, modern-day climate change is associated with the increased melting of glaciers and polar ice sheets, resulting in a gradual increase in sea level. Plants and animals can also be affected by global climate change when the timing of seasonal events, such as flowering or pollination, is affected by global warming.


Adapted from Clark, M.A., Douglas, M., and Choi, J. (2018). Biology 2e. OpenStax. Retrieved from https://openstax.org/books/biology-2e/pages/1-introduction

Adapted from Ha, M., and Schleiger, R. (2022). Environmental Science. LibreTexts Biology. Retrieved from



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