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Climate change

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Climate change is a long-term change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns over periods of time that range from decades to millions of years. It may be a change in the average weather conditions or a change in the distribution of weather events with respect to an average, for example, greater or fewer extreme weather events. Climate change may be limited to a specific region, or may occur across the whole Earth.

In recent usage, especially in the context of environmental policy, climate change usually refers to changes in modern climate. It may be qualified as anthropogenic climate change, more generally known as global warming or anthropogenic global warming (AGW).



The most general definition of climate change is a change in the statistical properties of the climate system when considered over periods of decades or longer, regardless of cause.[1][2] Accordingly, fluctuations on periods shorter than a few decades, such as El Niño, do not represent climate change.

The term sometimes is used to refer specifically to climate change caused by human activity; for example, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change defines climate change as "a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods."[3] In the latter sense climate change is synonymous with global warming.


Factors that can shape climate are climate forcings. These include such processes as variations in solar radiation, deviations in the Earth's orbit, mountain-building and continental drift, and changes in greenhouse gas concentrations. There are a variety of climate change feedbacks that can either amplify or diminish the initial forcing. Some parts of the climate system, such as the oceans and ice caps, respond slowly in reaction to climate forcing because of their large mass. Therefore, the climate system can take centuries or longer to fully respond to new external forcings.

Plate tectonics

Over the course of millions of years, the motion of tectonic plates reconfigures global land and ocean areas and generates topography. This can affect both global and local patterns of climate and atmosphere-ocean circulation.[4]

The position of the continents determines the geometry of the oceans and therefore influences patterns of ocean circulation. The locations of the seas are important in controlling the transfer of heat and moisture across the globe, and therefore, in determining global climate. A recent example of tectonic control on ocean circulation is the formation of the Isthmus of Panama about 5 million years ago, which shut off direct mixing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This strongly affected the ocean dynamics of what is now the Gulf Stream and may have led to Northern Hemisphere ice cover.[5][6] During the Carboniferous period, about 300 to 360 million years ago, plate tectonics may have triggered large-scale storage of carbon and increased glaciation.[7] Geologic evidence points to a "megamonsoonal" circulation pattern during the time of the supercontinent Pangaea, and climate modeling suggests that the existence of the supercontinent was conducive to the establishment of monsoons.[8]

The size of continents is also important. Because of the stabilizing effect of the oceans on temperature, yearly temperature variations are generally lower in coastal areas than they are inland. A larger supercontinent will therefore have more area in which climate is strongly seasonal than will several smaller continents or islands.

Solar output

Variations in solar activity during the last several centuries based on observations of sunspots and beryllium isotopes.

The sun is the predominant source for energy input to the Earth. Both long- and short-term variations in solar intensity are known to affect global climate.

Three to four billion years ago the sun emitted only 70% as much power as it does today. If the atmospheric composition had been the same as today, liquid water should not have existed on Earth. However, there is evidence for the presence of water on the early Earth, in the Hadean[9][10] and Archean[11][9] eons, leading to what is known as the faint young sun paradox.[12] Hypothesized solutions to this paradox include a vastly different atmosphere, with much higher concentrations of greenhouse gases than currently exist[13] Over the following approximately 4 billion years, the energy output of the sun increased and atmospheric composition changed, with the oxygenation of the atmosphere around 2.4 billion years ago being the most notable alteration. These changes in luminosity, and the sun's ultimate death as it becomes a red giant and then a white dwarf, will have large effects on climate, with the red giant phase possibly ending life on Earth.

Solar output also varies on shorter time scales, including the 11-year solar cycle[14] and longer-term modulations.[15] Solar intensity variations are considered to have been influential in triggering the Little Ice Age,[16] and some of the warming observed from 1900 to 1950. The cyclical nature of the sun's energy output is not yet fully understood; it differs from the very slow change that is happening within the sun as it ages and evolves. While most research indicates solar variability has induced a small cooling effect from 1750 to the present, a few studies point toward solar radiation increases from cyclical sunspot activity affecting global warming.[17] [18]

Orbital variations

Slight variations in Earth's orbit lead to changes in the seasonal distribution of sunlight reaching the Earth's surface and how it is distributed across the globe. There is very little change to the area-averaged annually averaged sunshine; but there can be strong changes in the geographical and seasonal distribution. The three types of orbital variations are variations in Earth's eccentricity, changes in the tilt angle of Earth's axis of rotation, and precession of Earth's axis. Combined together, these produce Milankovitch cycles which have a large impact on climate and are notable for their correlation to glacial and interglacial periods,[19] their correlation with the advance and retreat of the Sahara,[19] and for their appearance in the stratigraphic record.[20]


Volcanism is a process of conveying material from the crust and mantle of the Earth to its surface. Volcanic eruptions, geysers, and hot springs, are examples of volcanic processes which release gases and/or particulates into the atmosphere.

Eruptions large enough to affect climate occur on average several times per century, and cause cooling (by partially blocking the transmission of solar radiation to the Earth's surface) for a period of a few years. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, the second largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century[21] (after the 1912 eruption of Novarupta[22]) affected the climate substantially. Global temperatures decreased by about 0.5 °C (0.9 °F). The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 caused the Year Without a Summer.[23] Much larger eruptions, known as large igneous provinces, occur only a few times every hundred million years, but may cause global warming and mass extinctions.[24]

Volcanoes are also part of the extended carbon cycle. Over very long (geological) time periods, they release carbon dioxide from the Earth's crust and mantle, counteracting the uptake by sedimentary rocks and other geological carbon dioxide sinks. According to the US Geological Survey, however, estimates are that human activities generate more than 130 times the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by volcanoes.[25]

Ocean variability

A schematic of modern thermohaline circulation

The ocean is a fundamental part of the climate system. Short-term fluctuations (years to a few decades) such as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, the Pacific decadal oscillation, the North Atlantic oscillation, and the Arctic oscillation, represent climate variability rather than climate change. On longer time scales, alterations to ocean processes such as thermohaline circulation play a key role in redistributing heat by carrying out a very slow and extremely deep movement of water, and the long-term redistribution of heat in the world's oceans.

Human influences

Increase in Atmospheric CO2 Levels

In the context of climate variation, anthropogenic factors are human activities that change the environment. In some cases the chain of causality of human influence on the climate is direct and unambiguous (for example, the effects of irrigation on local humidity), while in other instances it is less clear. Various hypotheses for human-induced climate change have been argued for many years. Presently the scientific consensus on climate change is that human activity is very likely the cause for the rapid increase in global average temperatures over the past several decades.[26] Consequently, the debate has largely shifted onto ways to reduce further human impact and to find ways to adapt to change that has already occurred.[27]

Of most concern in these anthropogenic factors is the increase in CO2 levels due to emissions from fossil fuel combustion, followed by aerosols (particulate matter in the atmosphere) and cement manufacture. Other factors, including land use, ozone depletion, animal agriculture[28] and deforestation, are also of concern in the roles they play - both separately and in conjunction with other factors - in affecting climate, microclimate, and measures of climate variables.

Physical evidence for climatic change

Evidence for climatic change is taken from a variety of sources that can be used to reconstruct past climates. Reasonably complete global records of surface temperature are available beginning from the mid-late 19th century. For earlier periods, most of the evidence is indirect—climatic changes are inferred from changes in proxies, indicators that reflect climate, such as vegetation, ice cores,[29] dendrochronology, sea level change, and glacial geology.

Historical and archaeological evidence

Climate change in the recent past may be detected by corresponding changes in settlement and agricultural patterns.[30] Archaeological evidence, oral history and historical documents can offer insights into past changes in the climate. Climate change effects have been linked to the collapse of various civilisations.[30]


Variations in CO2, temperature and dust from the Vostok ice core over the last 450,000 years
Decline in thickness of glaciers worldwide

Glaciers are considered among the most sensitive indicators of climate change.[31] Their size is determined by a mass balance between snow input and melt output. As temperatures warm, glaciers retreat unless snow precipitation increases to make up for the additional melt; the converse is also true.

Glaciers grow and shrink due both to natural variability and external forcings. Variability in temperature, precipitation, and englacial and subglacial hydrology can strongly determine the evolution of a glacier in a particular season. Therefore, one must average over a decadal or longer time-scale and/or over a many individual glaciers to smooth out the local short-term variability and obtain a glacier history that is related to climate.

A world glacier inventory has been compiled since the 1970s, initially based mainly on aerial photographs and maps but now relying more on satellites. This compilation tracks more than 100,000 glaciers covering a total area of approximately 240,000 km2, and preliminary estimates indicate that the remaining ice cover is around 445,000 km2. The World Glacier Monitoring Service collects data annually on glacier retreat and glacier mass balance From this data, glaciers worldwide have been found to be shrinking significantly, with strong glacier retreats in the 1940s, stable or growing conditions during the 1920s and 1970s, and again retreating from the mid 1980s to present.[32]

The most significant climate processes since the middle to late Pliocene (approximately 3 million years ago) are the glacial and interglacial cycles. The present interglacial period (the Holocene) has lasted about 11,700 years.[33] Shaped by orbital variations, responses such as the rise and fall of continental ice sheets and significant sea-level changes helped create the climate. Other changes, including Heinrich events, Dansgaard–Oeschger events and the Younger Dryas, however, illustrate how glacial variations may also influence climate without the orbital forcing.

Glaciers leave behind moraines that contain a wealth of material—including organic matter, quartz, and potassium that may be dated—recording the periods in which a glacier advanced and retreated. Similarly, by tephrochronological techniques, the lack of glacier cover can be identified by the presence of soil or volcanic tephra horizons whose date of deposit may also be ascertained.


A change in the type, distribution and coverage of vegetation may occur given a change in the climate; this much is obvious. In any given scenario, a mild change in climate may result in increased precipitation and warmth, resulting in improved plant growth and the subsequent sequestration of airborne CO2. Larger, faster or more radical changes, however, may well[weasel words] result in vegetation stress, rapid plant loss and desertification in certain circumstances.[34]

Ice cores

Analysis of ice in a core drilled from a ice sheet such as the Antarctic ice sheet, can be used to show a link between temperature and global sea level variations. The air trapped in bubbles in the ice can also reveal the CO2 variations of the atmosphere from the distant past, well before modern environmental influences. The study of these ice cores has been a significant indicator of the changes in CO2 over many millennia, and continues to provide valuable information about the differences between ancient and modern atmospheric conditions.


Dendroclimatology is the analysis of tree ring growth patterns to determine past climate variations. Wide and thick rings indicate a fertile, well-watered growing period, whilst thin, narrow rings indicate a time of lower rainfall and less-than-ideal growing conditions.

Pollen analysis

Palynology is the study of contemporary and fossil palynomorphs, including pollen. Palynology is used to infer the geographical distribution of plant species, which vary under different climate conditions. Different groups of plants have pollen with distinctive shapes and surface textures, and since the outer surface of pollen is composed of a very resilient material, they resist decay. Changes in the type of pollen found in different layers of sediment in lakes, bogs, or river deltas indicate changes in plant communities. These changes are often a sign of a changing climate.[35][36] As an example, palynological studies have been used to track changing vegetation patterns throughout the Quaternary glaciations[37] and especially since the last glacial maximum.[38]


Remains of beetles are common in freshwater and land sediments. Different species of beetles tend to be found under different climatic conditions. Given the extensive lineage of beetles whose genetic makeup has not altered significantly over the millennia, knowledge of the present climatic range of the different species, and the age of the sediments in which remains are found, past climatic conditions may be inferred.[39]

Sea level change

Global sea level change for much of the last century has generally been estimated using tide gauge measurements collated over long periods of time to give a long-term average. More recently, altimeter measurements — in combination with accurately determined satellite orbits — have provided an improved measurement of global sea level change.[40] To measure sea levels prior to instrumental measurements, scientists have dated coral reefs that grow near the surface of the ocean, coastal sediments, marine terraces, ooids in limestones, and nearshore archaeological remains. The predominant dating methods used are uranium series and radiocarbon, with cosmogenic radionuclides being sometimes used to date terraces that have experienced relative sea level fall.

See also


Climate of the deep past

Climate of the last 500 million years

Climate of recent glaciations

Recent climate


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