Climate Change: A World Finally Warming Up To The Idea PART 1

Climate change and severe weatherBeneath the fads, the fashion, the loud headlines, media threats and intimidating claims lies a totally rational story; the bare science of a shifting environment that, once explained, is simply irrefutable. You can be skeptical about going on a blind date or about eating Indian food before said blind date, but you can’t be skeptical about the fact that humankind has and is having a definite and permanent effect on the climate of our planet. That’s naivety at its worst.

In this blog post and the next, we’ll be taking a journey through the fancy terms thrown around by the media and redefine them to yield a totally new and more scientifically accurate understanding. We’ll come to appreciate what’s normal (historically speaking) and what definitely isn’t in terms of climate variability. We’ll also take a closer look at Earth’s atmosphere in order to get a better perspective on how our relentless and ruthless industrial activities are able to cause such significant global-scale changes in weather patterns and climate.

And so, let’s begin…

Weather and Climate: The Difference Between Them And So Help Me If You Don’t Remember This!

Bart Simpson chalkboardYou know what sand is, you know what clouds are and you definitely know a week old breakfast burrito when you smell one. We know all of this because we are exposed to it just about every day (maybe not the burrito, but point made). And yet, in spite of the fact that we are directly exposed to weather and climate all the time, very few people actually know the difference between them.

That ignorance ends today!

Weather is the day-to-day expression of the atmosphere as it is experienced on the ground. It’s the warm sun beating down upon the beach, it’s the rain on your parade, it’s the tornado relocating your house and it’s the humidity causing you to sweat like George Bush Junior’s publicity team during a press conference. The weather encompasses a great variety of atmospheric parameters and they include things such as wind speed, wind direction, temperature, humidity and precipitation. All of these come together to either put a skip in your step or to totally ruin your day.

Extreme weather frozen rain
February 5th 2012: a severe storm blows in to Versoix, Switzerland, bringing with it super-cooled rain known aptly as “freezing rain”. The temperature of this precipitation is well beneath the freezing point (0°C), but because the air is beautifully clear of dust, pollution and other particulates, the water has no condensation nuclei around which a crystal lattice can form and grow. As a consequence, this water exists as a supercooled liquid rather than freezing to form snow or hail. That is, until it hit this person’s car. It then found the solid anchor it needed to which the crystal lattice could grow causing the rain to freezes instantly upon impact, thereby trapping the world in a crysallis of ice that is very reminiscent of Hans Solo becoming frozen in carbonite in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Nerd reference!

Climate, on the other hand, describes the average weather characteristics of a region over a minimum period of 30 years. Texas is hot and prone to severe thunderstorms in summer; New York is balmy and mostly clear in autumn, Cape Town is pissy and freezing cold in winter and Seattle is just pissy and freezing cold all year round. THAT’S what the climate is.

It makes my eye twitch when I hear people saying: “The climate is great today!”

Imma stab a bitch!

Orange is the new black crazy-eyes

Climate Change Lost In Translation

“Climate Change™” has become celebrity verbiage to such an extent that I felt the need to add capitalize the first letter of each word even though it’s grammatically incorrect to do so. Al Gore has used climate change so much in his political campaigning in the past that he really should have trademarked it. And so, climate change has become so easily tossed about by the media that few people truly understand what it is anymore. It’s almost as though it has become totally divorced from its original and true meaning. The consequence of this and of the sensationalism with which the media presents its information on the science of climate is that the lay man and woman will look outside their window, see an unseasonably cold, wet, hot or windy day, blame it on climate change and become convinced that the end is nigh. You can catch these people on National Geographic Channel’s “Doomsday Preppers.”

Waterspout, Tampa Florida
Somewhere in Tampa, Florida… “Aw sheeet babe, ma boat’s just gon an disappeared up one o’ them water tornadas. Global warming be at it again. When the gov’ment gon feex that?”

Climate change is a complex concept because it pertains to the long-term characteristics of Earth’s atmosphere and the atmosphere is incredibly complex. It consists of several sort-of distinct layers, a multitude of parameters, countless variables and infinite outcomes based upon the precise interaction and behavior of these variables. This is why the weatherman doesn’t always get the forecast spot on: not because he or she is an idiot, but because true accuracy in that job is about as impossible as an adrenalin spike at a dentures convention.

And so, climate change is something that should be treated with great humility and reverence. Even I am reluctant to make any broad or sweeping statements with regards to climate change and I have a Masters Degree in Atmospheric Science.

Name drop!

Awesome WomenNow that we know the difference between weather and climate and can appreciate that one day of unseasonable weather doesn’t mean the apocalypse is upon us, we can FINALLY get around to discussing exactly what climate change is. We can also meet its celebrity cousin, global warming, because believe it or not these two are NOT the same thing.

What IS Climate Change?

earth clouds-from-space1Climate change is a lasting shift in average global weather patterns and characteristics. This shift is also significant enough for us, our fancy equipment and, of course, Mother Nature to notice it and it usually takes place over a time period of decades to millions of years. What causes the climate of Earth to change?

All sorts of things actually!

Climate change has, historically, been caused by factors that range from variations in solar energy and plate tectonic activity to volcanic eruptions and meteorite strikes. Any one of these can cause local climate to change over varying periods of time. For example, a particularly violent and belchy volcanic eruption can release enough gas, dust and ash into the atmosphere to create gorgeous sunsets halfway around the world and deflect sufficient sunlight to cause very slight global cooling. It might not be much and the degree of cooling may be more isolated to the regions surrounding the eruption, but it is by definition climate change.

Augustine volcano at sunsetChanges in land surface type – what covers the crusty portions of our globe – can also lead to climate change. Dark verdant forests soak up sunshine like the delinquents from Mötley Crüe soaked up Jack Daniels, whereas concrete jungles, with all their reflective shiny surfaces sends sunshine right back where it came from. This changes the heat characteristics of the land, which, in the long term, has an impact on climate. So, climate change, in the traditional sense of the word, refers to any shift in local or global climate and it is caused by a myriad of factors. Climate Change™ on the other hand is believed to be the cause of the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.

Wait!! Come back!! I swear I can explain! It’s not as difficult as it sounds!

Greenhouse Gases: Baking the Lower Atmosphere Since, Like, Ever

pollution and climate changeThe word “anthropogenic” quite simply means of human origin or to be generated by human beings. So, anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases would be those generated by human-related activities such as those clearly shown in the above picture.

Now what the hell are greenhouse gases?

Our atmosphere is composed predominantly of nitrogen (78,09%), oxygen (20,95%) and argon (0,93%). The remaining fraction consists of a soup of other trace gases, many of which are “greenhouse gases.” Carbon dioxide and water vapor are two super important ones; methane, sulfur dioxide, ozone and nitrous oxide are others. Molecules of these gases absorb the thermal energy emitted by the sun and they then re-radiate this energy as heat in all directions, including down upon our little heads. The effect this has upon the lower atmosphere is to warm it. This is why it’s referred to as the “greenhouse effect,” since green houses, which aren’t actually green at all, are purposefully built to achieve this same effect and in doing so provide a warmer growing environment for plants and flowers that would otherwise die from the cold.

greenhouse effect climate changeIn the absence of greenhouse gases, sunshine would pass through our atmosphere as per usual, except it would hardly be absorbed by the air at all and as a result, tits would be frozen off around the world. In fact, the greenhouse effect is a vital atmospheric process for life on Earth because without it, the average surface temperature of our planet would plummet by an approximate 30°C or 60°F. So, whatever average temperatures you’re used to in winter, knock off another 30°C or 60°F. You may as well live in Antarctica. Even midday at mid-summer in the tropics would warrant a warm sweater and a scarf. So, greenhouse gases are good! But, too much of a good thing is definitely bad, as tequila repeatedly demonstrates to me every Saturday night.

Thank God for amnesia or else I’d remember not to drink tequila every Saturday night.

drink tequila happy friday!Anthropogenic climate change is the change in global weather patterns and characteristics that have arisen as a direct result of human activity: our factories, our refineries, our agriculture, our motor vehicles and more.

Stay Tuned for Part 2

 We’re getting there! Now that we understand the terminology and the concepts behind weather, climate, climate change and the greenhouse effect, we’re finally ready to discuss anthropogenic climate change and just why the skeptics out there – the people who tell you it’s all a hoax – are full of the proverbial.

Author: Thea Beckman

Domain Eukarya, kingdom Animalia (Metazoa), phylum Chordata, class Mammalia, order Primates, family Hominidae, genus Homo, species Homo sapiens, subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens... essentially. I have a Master's Degree in Atmospheric science, which doesn't entitle me to be generous with my opinion, but my sense of self importance does! I love writing, I love science, I love reading, but I'm not nuts about long walks on the beach. Short to medium walks are preferable. This is my blog and I have something important to say: https://whybecausescience.wordpress.com/

34 thoughts on “Climate Change: A World Finally Warming Up To The Idea PART 1”

  1. This is fantastic – really good explanation of climate change! Hope you don’t mind if I reblog it in the next couple of months?

  2. Good start. I hope you include the effect of ocean circulation changes on climate and the effect of warming on ocean circulation. Those that have a financial interest in the status quo will never change their minds, but more and more people are going to learn they have a negative financial interest in the status quo–like food prices and insurance cost.

    1. You’ll just have to stay tuned for Part 2! Thermohaline circulation is vastly important to the distribution of heat energy around the globe, so naturally that will make an appearance in the second installment. And you’re right about the economics… but in every post-apocalyptic movie, food and wet-wipes are worth more than cash. We should consider that now while we still have the chance.

  3. Take a bow! But I’d like to comment on Al Gore, whose “Inconvenient Truth” contained at least one “convenient untruth”, which I consider an AlGoreithm (forgive the lithp, I couldn’t resist). He featured a Pacific island (Vanuatu, I think but I’m not sure) as being submerged by rising sea level. Since water “finds its own level” this should be repeated globally, but it isn’t. Sinking land mass seems more appropriate.

    1. That definitely sounds suspect! I remember that it was a part of our education to watch an Inconvenient Truth as well as a movie that looks at the flip side of the perspective on climate change. Both used sensationalist and emotive embellishments as well as language, images out of context, etc. We were instructed to critique both films and both sides of the debate make use of dirty tactics. But this is the way the media portrays the debate. We could all benefit by being a little more skeptical when reading what the media has to say about science, but we also need to acknowledge the impact we’ve had and are having.

      1. He also fails to mention the enormous effect of meat production on climate change. Could that be because his family’s into beef farming in a big way?

        (You’ve probably seen Meat the Truth by the Netherlands’ Party for the Animals, but I just thought I’d throw it out there on the off-chance.)

        Dave

  4. A great post. Being a scientist myself, I have studied the climate change in depth. A counter perspective to the whole scenario arose during my study, perhaps it is natural process? Many climatologists also believe that the Earth has gone through many such climate cycles. Which brings an even more dire question at hand, are we the nature’s agent that brings about this cyclic change? This line of thought has some significance, I am not sure of its evidence but it still makes me wonder!

    1. Earth’s climate has indeed been through many cycles of cooling and warming in the past – just think of the ice ages. I plan on covering this in Part 2, but to address your question briefly: the key difference with past variation and what we’ve recorded in the past 100 years is the RATE at which global temperatures are changing. Natural variation is something that typically takes thousands of years. The rate of change we’re currently experiencing is unprecedented and it would seem to have started around the Industrial revolution. Stay tuned!

  5. You got me reading it all the way to the end…!!! Well done. Will read more of it in future.
    and… Love your cheekyness! 😉

  6. Reblogged this on dufluhm and commented:
    ликбез про изменения климата от девушки, которая утверждает, что наука – это круто. поддерживаю.
    репост чтобы самой не забыть и вас просветить.

  7. As a cynical sceptic I’m staying tuned for Part 2. (I’m still waiting in this flip-flop universe to be definitively flipped or flopped on this subject.)

    You have a way with words, and perhaps if truly an expert on the topic you might answer a question that bothers me: do you bite the lemon first, slurp the tequila and lick the salt; or do you suck the salt, bite the lemon and lick the tequila … bugger, just the thinking has me confused.

  8. Here in NZ we are mildly un-climate friendly owing to what comes out of the digestive tracts of our cattle, sheep, Kiwi blokes etc. It’s been wrapped into the Kyoto Protocol carbon market with the result that one of the political parties ended up driving around the capital for months with a van bearing the sign: ‘NO FART TAX’.

    1. This is precisely why I love Aussies and Kiwis. As different as y’all are, you have a similar sense of humour and it’s brilliant! I’d vote for that party 🙂

  9. Nicely done, again! But I believe u could hav done without the literal definitions as for weather, climate n climate change. I missed ur breezy easy funny caricatures for definitions. Maybe ur masters in this field compelled u to keep it precise n rigorous. Yet, an educative piece. N quite seriously, I didnt know plate tectonics can cause climate change. Am on my way to library to check tat out!

    1. While I do try to incorporate a bit of humor into my blogs, they are still about science! Therefore a little bit of learning is expected; it can’t all be boobs and tequila and general iniquity! The public needs to appreciate what weather is so that they can understand what climate is so that they can understand what climate CHANGE is. These are all integral concepts, because so many people blame bad weather on climate change and it’s the source of all the sensationalism that is fuelling the sceptical side of the debate. Plate tectonics = seismic activity and vulcanism, which can liberate huge volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. There’s a start 😉

  10. Reblogged this on Every Week is Green and commented:
    Whether you know a lot about climate change or not, I highly recommend you read this post. It’s called Climate Change: A World Finally Warming Up to the Idea. It’s a really great and informative discussion of climate change and the greenhouse effect. My blog is all about sustainability and going green, so I think a reminder about exactly why I’m doing it is really important once in a while. A long read, but worth it! Let me know what you think!

  11. Hi, I read in some paper about hydrogen generators and a thing that make me very curious. I’ve a MS in electronic and I can realize (roughly) how it works and how much vapor it produces, but I don’t know nothing about it’s relation with the environment. Well, what I read was about the -useless- contribution of this power source with respect to the greenhouse effect issue, because water vapour can still cause this. I remained astonished because I felt that like “don’t do research anymore, nothing can change..”
    I read above that vapor makes a contribution with the other boy CO2, but it is so much to justify what I read in that paper?

    1. You’ve raised a really interesting question to which I’m not 100% clear on the answer. What I can say is:

      Water vapour is indeed a very potent greenhouse gas, because water itself holds far more heat energy than air. What this means is that a more moist (water vapour filled) atmosphere tends to be hotter and more conducive to the development of clouds, rain and storms. That’s why the equator is the breeding ground for hurricanes, tropical storms and other dramatic displays of atmospheric instability.

      However, the atmosphere has its own special way of dealing with moisture, which, if its levels become too high, simply precipitate (rain) out. Carbon Dioxide and the other greenhouse gases can also be precipitated out of the atmosphere, but when this happens you can get acid rain. Carbon Dioxide and water combine to form a weak acid called carbonic acid. Sulphur dioxide and water, however, can form more corrosive chemicals. These gases are also absorbed by the oceans, which makes them more acidic, thereby condemning all the little critters who build their homes and shells from calcium-based minerals.

      Either way, hydrogen is a far cleaner source of fuel and I’d rather breathe air that is laden with water vapour than carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide! And don’t feel defeated… there may not be an immediate solution to climate change, but the changes we make today will certainly help to clean up the environment we leave behind.

  12. Superb. Thorough, but accessible and funny to boot. Will reblog for sure.

    We’re trying (with mixed success) to encourage sensible pro-environment and pro-society action with a little podcast whose audience is slowly growing.

    This episode here > http://tinyurl.com/pujumnh is a pretty typical example. Hopefully it’s as engaging as your work… If you had any thoughts on how we might make it more so, we’d be very grateful to hear it.

    Thanks and best wishes,

    Dave (and Kris)

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