Climate is a pattern of weather events over a long period of time. The climate of Florida, for example, is generally hot with frequent thunderstorms and the occasional hurricane. But this article isn’t about the definition of the word, it’s about interesting things you may not know about climate. Hope you learn something today. (Note: If you are confused about any of the terms discussed in this article, Google is your friend. I leave these learning opportunities to you.)
There are more than just two greenhouse gases.
Greenhouse gases are the ones that trap heat on Earth and create the greenhouse effect that keeps us all alive. Discussions of human-induced climate change have educated most people on carbon dioxide and methane, but there are more gases with this effect. These include nitrous oxide and several synthetic fluorinated gases. Water vapor is also considered a greenhouse gas.
Volcanoes can affect climate.
Volcanic eruptions can release large amounts of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. Once there, it transforms into a sulfuric acid aerosol, which blocks out solar radiation. This can reduce the temperature of the planet for a few years. The 1991 eruption of Pinatubo, for example, lowered the Earth’s temperature by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit for at least a year. A bigger eruption at Tambora in 1815 led to a phenomenon known as “the year without summer,” when crops failed and snow fell in July.
The thermohaline cycle regulates climate.
The thermohaline cycle is a system of deep oceanic currents that circulate warm and cold water around the planet. This phenomenon acts as a heater for the Earth. When the thermohaline cycle stalls, conditions grow substantially cooler. Extreme melting of polar ice due to climate change is causing the thermohaline cycle to slow and it will eventually stall. That’s a mixed bag for both us and the climate. We will have to deal with much cooler temperatures and more extreme winters, but it may help cool the planet and stop some of the effects of anthropogenic climate change.
There was more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere when the dinosaurs were around.
In the Triassic Period, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were at 4,000 parts per million, which is about 10 times higher than the levels seen today, even with human-induced pollution. No one knows exactly why this happened. This created a much warmer climate than we see on Earth today, with more extreme seasons, vast tropical regions, and very dry areas.
The climate was harsh at the beginning of the Holocene.
With the end of the last Ice Age, rainfall increased substantially. Places that had been dry for thousands of years soon became vast lakes. High solar radiation also led to extremes in seasonal shifts, with more intense winters and summers. The global temperature was 2.5 degrees Celsius higher than it is today, with the polar regions seeing differences up to 4 degrees higher than today. This is the type of pattern we may be seeing if anthropogenic climate change is allowed to progress. Just look at what happened to Death Valley with their recent 1,000-year flood event.
Antarctica is partially responsible for the Ice Ages.
My professor believed that the Ice Ages began occurring after Antarctica drifted to its current location and locked into place. Recent studies have linked oceanic circulation patterns around the continent to global glacial cycles. Changes in these currents can trap large amounts of carbon dioxide in deep ocean layers, robbing it from the atmosphere and resulting in extreme cooling. Large numbers of icebergs drifting from Antarctica and melting at distance have also been linked to global cooling.
Climates of the past are studied in surprising ways.
My professor studied paleoclimate through lake sediment cores, which can show all sorts of things, from the types of plants growing at the time to the number of wildfires that burned. You can also retrieve climate data from ocean sediments, ice cores, tree rings, and even coral reefs. There are even climate studies being conducted on packrat middens and insect droppings. These various sources can tell you anything from the temperatures of past climates to the changing levels of oxygen in the atmosphere.
Stephen Hawking believed the Earth would become like Venus.
In a 2017 interview, the famous physicist claimed that if climate change was allowed to continue, our planet would become a “hot house” just like Venus, with boiling oceans and sulfuric acid rainstorms. According to climate scientists, this is scenario is next to impossible. We are farther from the sun than Venus, our geology is vastly different, and so is the chemical makeup of the planet.
Climate change affects hurricanes in two major ways.
Contrary to popular belief, climate change is not leading to more hurricanes. In fact, extreme oceanic warming and a change in global circulation patterns will lead to fewer tropical cyclones. Those that do occur, however, will be much larger and stronger than average. We are already seeing more category 4 and 5 storms today.
The Little Ice Age has many causes.
The Little Ice Age was a strong global cooling period that occurred between the 1300s and 1800s. Many factors came together to create this phenomenon. Solar radiation decreased dramatically in that time period as larger volcanic eruptions increased. Perhaps most important of all, however, the LIA is linked to the previous warming period known as the Medieval Climate Anomaly, which caused large amounts of polar ice to melt and led to a stalling of the thermohaline cycle. (Just an interesting side note: the temperatures seen during the MCA are similar to what they are today, solar radiation is decreasing, and we are starting to see more large volcanic eruptions. Take that how you will.)
While we’re on the topic of climate and climate change, I have to add my own warning. The IPCC changes and evolves as more climate research comes out and new discoveries are made. That being said, there is one consistency that remains: increased drought and water shortages. In our fight to reduce and reverse the effects of climate change, let us keep that in mind. Some of the “green” alternatives being introduced today are water intensive, sometimes extremely so. Yes, we need to fight climate change, but we need to do so logically and with our minds functional. We do not have room to replace one problem with another.
Natural Resources Defense Council- www.nrdc.org
United States Geological Survey- www.usgs.gov
UCAR Center for Science Education- www.ucar.edu
Columbia University Climate School- www.columbia.edu
Princeton University- www.princeton.edu
NOAA Climate- www.climate.gov
Live Science- www.livescience.com
NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory- www.gfdl.noaa.gov
Science Daily- www.sciencedaily.com
Dr. Megan Walsh, Central Washington University