A Changing Climate

The debate about global warming has been ongoing for many years. It seems to be when the U.S. experiences unseasonably warm or cold temperatures or a series of natural disasters like hurricanes or forest fires, then the talk of climate change becomes big news. California was recently in the national news because it has reported 840 wildfires since January. This is about 320 more than the typical yearly average.

Hurricane Luis seen from space

Photo Credit: Comstock Images
This image of Hurricane Luis shows the scale of global climate. Understanding it is complicated, but vital to tacking the issue of climate change.

Global warming is the theory that the Earth’s average temperature is increasing due to rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. There is continuing controversy among scientists and politicians around global warming. The disagreements focus on is their solid evidence for how much temperatures have changed, whether this is a man-made event or a natural cycle of temperature change, hypotheses about the long-term effects of rising temperatures, and what actions, if any, should be taken  The understanding of the global environment is very complex, so determining the main causes and potential solutions is a difficult topic.

How Does Global Warming Happen Anyway?

The sun warms the earth, and then the heat from the earth travels back into space. But some of the heat gets trapped in the earth’s atmosphere by what are called “greenhouse gases.” These gases includes water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Some greenhouse gases help keep the planet at a certain temperature. However, there are man-made events that also create greenhouse gas, including burning fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas, reducing trees across the globe, and introducing new chemicals into the atmosphere with aerosol sprays, refrigerants, and some foam plastic manufacturing. The altered atmosphere traps too much heat, which affects the overall climate.

A warmer Earth can cause a great deal of change to the environment. It can affect the types of crops that can be grown and what plants or animals can survive in particular areas. Higher temperatures can melt icecaps, which may result in higher sea levels. This can threaten people living in coastal areas or other low-lying areas around the world.

Extreme weather is another effect. In a warmer world, more water is evaporated from both bodies of water as well as the soil. This can cause droughts. Because there is more vapor stored in the atmosphere, the precipitation becomes heavier, leading to harsher rain and snow. In 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a report, calling 2011 “the year of extreme weather events.” The report’s purpose was to help scientists understand the effects of this weather and to begin discussing the data.

 A Political Issue

The global warming controversy continues to divide people along party lines. The debates usually revolve around funding, urgency and regulation. The topic of climate change did not enter the mainstream media until 1988, which saw the worst drought in fifty years, and fires in the Amazon River in South America. An expert at NASA testified before Congress about the dangers of global warming.

People who are more cautious about the reality of global warming believe there is evidence suggesting that temperature fluxuations are a natural cycle, and that some computer model predictions are using biased data. The issue of global warming is a complicated one and will not be resolved soon. Because of the attention on global warming, there have been many efforts to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases the United States (and other nations) generate through energy consumption. Finding cleaner sources of energy and watching the gases that are ventilated to the atmosphere are important steps toward a better environment.

What Do You Think? How much do you know about climate change and its effect on global warming? What efforts are being taken in your school and community to counter its effects?