INTRODUCTION: WHAT IS CLIMATE CHANGE?
We hear about climate change all the time
We often hear about climate change in the news, at school, and on television. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what all the scientific numbers and graphs really mean. Data are certainly important – you know that from science class. But it gives us only part of the climate change story.
In this multi-media learning resource, we take a different and exciting approach to looking at climate change and its impacts on people and places around the world. In addition to learning about the science of climate change, we have the opportunity to go on amazing journeys to incredible places through photographs, videos, and adventure stories. We’ll jump into some of the exciting field expeditions that scientists and artists take to find out about climate change. We’ll look into the role that people have played in shaping the past, present and future of our blue planet, Earth.
By the end we’ll see one huge thing: the actions that each of us take matter. Together we can create a better atmosphere, environment, and world. Everyone has the power to make our world a better place.
What is this thing called climate change?
Climate is the long-term average of the Earth’s weather, including temperature, wind patterns, humidity and rainfall. Our planet’s climate has changed throughout history. If we look back over time, we see that our planet has experienced cycles of warming and cooling, of temperatures rising and temperatures falling. Climate change is when the typical climate for a region has changed significantly, and new kinds of weather extremes and patterns occur.
We can look at Earth’s climate over long periods of time. The graph here shows us how temperature and carbon dioxide on Earth have varied over the past 800,000 years! We will learn a great deal more about our Earth’s past climate in chapter 1. And we'll find that, more recently, something in the Earth’s temperature has changed significantly, and that humans play a big role in this. In particular, scientists have found that there is a connection between rising temperatures and increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the air. We'll learn about where all the CO2 is coming from, and what we can do differently to help keep our planet healthy.
Scientists who study our weather and climate have seen our overall global temperature – the average temperature of the whole planet – rise an average of 0.8° Celsius (1.4° Farenheit) in the past 100 years. While this might not seem like a big increase, this rise is different from all the cycles that came before it.
The overall rise in temperature shows no signs of slowing down or reversing. Looking at the graph of recent global temperature, you can see the cycle rise and fall over the past 100-plus years. Now look to the far right of this graph. Compared with the rest of the graph, the temperature rise over the past 40 years has been remarkably fast.
Our planet is huge. It’s covered with ice caps, deserts, oceans, forests, and many people and animals. It may be hard to imagine that humans alone could influence the temperature of the entire planet. While temperatures have been warm on our planet in the past, human civilization was not around to experience it. We now know that the planet’s recent warming is due to changes in the air we breathe – and that humans are directly contributing to this change.
It is important to understand the difference between climate and weather. Weather is the day-to-day state of the atmosphere, such as rain, snow, sun, or wind, and is usually measured in hours, days or weeks. Climate, on the other hand, is the average weather in a particular region and is measured over many years. It’s helpful to remember that weather refers to short-term conditions, while climate is the long-term average of weather conditions.
An increase of .8°C (1.4oF) may not seem like it could have a very big impact on our planet. After all, the outside temperature changes by many degrees every day. However, even a fractional change of a degree in global temperature can result in broad changes in the ability of animals, plants and even people to exist in certain parts of the world. The entire planet is currently warming, and in some areas the impact is more visible than in others. Eventually, the continued rise in temperature will affect us all.
Why is Earth warming?
To find out more about the recent changes on Earth, scientists looked back in time. They saw that the increase in temperature became noticeable around the early 1800s, just as the Industrial Revolution really got going.
Think back to history class. For a long time, many things that people used – clothing, shoes, wagons, furniture – were made with manual labor. But during the Industrial Revolution, people started to use many more machines, with much greater power, to make things in factories. The scale of manufacturing grew rapidly, as did the burning of coal to power these machines. Coal is a major fossil fuel, along with oil (petroleum) and natural gas. We’ll learn a great deal more about fossil fuels and the energy they provide in chapter 2.
Burning fossil fuels releases large amounts of gases into our air. Some of the gases in our atmosphere are naturally occurring, and they help to keep the planet warm and allow us to live on Earth. Collectively, these gases are known as greenhouse gases. They essentially trap heat in our atmosphere – like wrapping a thick blanket around the Earth. Burning fossil fuels increases the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – which in turn causes Earth’s temperature to rise. This process of warming is called the greenhouse effect. The major greenhouse gas that climate scientists study is carbon dioxide (CO2), because it is the most abundant one produced by people’s activities. Excessive amounts of CO2 upset the natural carbon cycle on Earth, which we will learn more about in chapter 3. Other major greenhouse gases include water vapor (H2O), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and ozone (O3).
Each year, burning fossil fuels worldwide produces several billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is much more than the ocean absorbs and land plants can take up through plant respiration. In 2012 alone, the world’s CO2 emissions reached 34.5 billion metric tons. Burning fossil fuels is a global activity that impacts all of us.
GLOBAL GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS
The map below shows the countries with the highest greenhouse gas emissions around the world. It shows us that some countries have much higher emissions than others. The excessive amounts of carbon dioxide that come from greenhouse gas emissions remain in our atmosphere for a very long time and change the air we breathe – and raise global temperatures. You may have heard some people say that warmer temperatures aren't such a bad thing. "What’s a few more days of summer each year?" they may ask. But it’s much more than a few warmer days – as temperatures continue to rise, some places will have dangerously hot summer days, longer fire seasons, more intense storms, and even species extinction. The changes we see from Earth’s rising temperatures have major consequences for all of us.
In this introduction, we’ve begun to see that the planet is changing quickly and that humans play an important role in recent climate change. We learned that the rising CO2in our atmosphere is largely due to fossil fuel emissions, which have been increasing since the Industrial Revolution. Above all, we have learned that global temperatures are on the rise and that people have made a big impact on how our planet is changing.
James Balog and the Extreme Ice Survey team saw that the impacts of climate change were visible in glaciers all around the world. Documenting the rate of change with photographs shows us that glaciers are an important environmental indicator of Earth’s climate. You'll read in the EIS story below how time-lapse cameras are set up to capture glacier changes day after day, week after week, and year after year.
Coming up, we will explore more about the causes and impacts of climate change. Chapter 2 gives an in-depth look at climate change processes. Our warming planet and its impacts on glacier ice and oceans will be investigated in chapter 3. Then we will see the big impacts of climate change on plants and animals around the globe in chapter 4. In chapter 5, we learn how climate change and extreme weather events like hurricanes have affected many people and places. We'll also learn how some people have already made important changes in their own cities to adapt to climate change. Once you learn more about climate change, you can share your own story of how things are changing in your backyard, as you’ll find out in chapter 6.
Next, we will take a closer look at what rapid glacier changes are telling us about our warming climate. We will also explore another important scientific tool — ice core samples — and see what scientists are discovering about our past from information that is stored in glacial ice.
The Extreme Ice Survey:
The Earth is a complex system with many parts working together to maintain a balanced environment to support life. But what happens when something drastically changes, as is happening with glaciers all over the world?
In 2005, James traveled to Iceland to photograph a glacier for a magazine. He found that glaciers not only are spectacular to photograph, but that they are changing in ways that were unexpected. One glacier he photographed is named Sólheimajökull. Here is how the word “Sólheimajökull” (which means "sun-house glacier") sounds in Icelandic:
He soon nicknamed it “Soul-hime”!
When James visited Solheim for the first time, he saw that Icelanders had been documenting its retreat on the ground. They placed stakes in the valley floor to mark where the glacier was at the end of every melt season over several years. The amount of retreat of the Solheim glacier was astonishing. This made James realize that glaciers are excellent indicators of our rapidly changing climate and are also places where the effects of a changing climate could actually be turned into pictures.
In 2006, James traveled to many more places photographing glaciers for National Geographic. He recognized that glaciers everywhere have an important story to tell about climate change that could be captured through photography. In 2007, he created a long-term photography project called the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS). Today, EIS has become the most wide-ranging ground-based photographic study of glaciers ever conducted. James and his EIS team travel to remote places around the world to set up time-lapse cameras to capture the retreat of the glaciers. In the video below, you will see the compilation of hundreds of photographs taken by the EIS time-lapse camera that show the first glacier photographed by James in Iceland – the Sólheimajökull glacier. You will witness what James witnessed – Solheim is melting fast, and a new lake has formed from the glacier runoff. (Glacier runoff is the amount of water that melts off from a glacier and flows downstream.) When he started EIS, James never imagined he would see lakes forming from glaciers melting so quickly.
In their expeditions around the world to document glaciers, James and the EIS team set out to answer two key questions: How fast are the glaciers changing? And why are they changing? We need only to watch and listen to the glaciers to discover the answers to these questions. Throughout all the chapters in this resource, you’ll get a firsthand look at what James and the EIS team have witnessed. The changes in glaciers and many other aspects of our planet show us that climate change is already happening, and fast. But we will also find out how each of us can do something to help keep our Earth healthy. Take a look at the video and pictures here to meet the EIS team and get a glimpse of their adventures.