The Heat is On: Global Climate Change Revisited
Using Mauna Loa and greenhouse gas data, evaluate trends over the past 50 years as well as seasonal variations in sea level.
- Recognize the role of greenhouse gases in relation to global warming.
- Interpret and graph atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations from the Mauna Loa data record.
- Predict and assess global climate trends.
- Compare renewable energy sources.
Global warming, Kyoto protocol, Greenhouse gas, Atmospheric carbon dioxide
evidence has revealed that a warming trend occurred in the last century - on
that there is consensus. The debate is about whether or not this is a natural cycle and how to respond to the
evidence. The scientific uncertainty surrounding climate change makes it
particularly difficult for public policy makers, who must decide whether or not
to implement costly greenhouse gas reduction policies. The views of our
political candidates sometimes vary widely on climate change and the Kyoto Protocol, an
international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Let's investigate the
topic further and examine some data so that you can cast your vote on this
warming refers to an increase over time of the average temperature of the
Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. The
majority of qualified scientists believe that most of the warming observed over
the last 50 years is due to the continued emission of greenhouse gases produced
by industry and agriculture. Greenhouse gases are so named because they trap
heat in the atmosphere by allowing sunlight through but preventing some heat
from escaping into space, thus acting like the glass in a greenhouse. The
majority of this greenhouse effect is natural, keeping the Earth's average
temperature at a pleasant 60° F (15° C), as opposed to the frigid 0° F (-18° C)
we would experience otherwise. However, the atmospheric concentrations of
several greenhouse gases have been rising as a result of human activity. Levels
of carbon dioxide, which is released primarily by the burning of fossil fuels
such as coal, oil and natural gas, have increased by nearly 30% since
pre-industrial times. Levels of methane—emitted during the production and
transport of coal, natural gas and oil, and released from the decomposition of
organic wastes in municipal solid waste landfills and the raising of
livestock—have more than doubled, and levels of nitrous oxide—emitted during
agricultural and industrial activities, as well as during combustion of solid
waste and fossil fuels—are increasing, too.
If average global
temperatures continue to rise, they would, at some point, be expected to cause
changes in precipitation frequency and intensity patterns, changes in soil
moisture, and a rise of global sea level. Sea level would rise as a result of
warmer air temperatures because ocean waters expand when heated, and many
mountain glaciers would melt. Significant sea level rise would eliminate beaches and plague coastal
towns and cities with flooding. Certain islands and low-lying countries such as Bangladesh would be particularly at
risk. In addition to the loss of property and historically and culturally
significant landmarks that would be caused by flooding, mosquito-borne illnesses
and other diseases would increase in incidence. Coastal marine ecosystems would
be severely affected by a combination of sea level rise and warmer
temperatures. The potential impacts of global warming are numerous.
It has recently
been discovered that the polar ice caps have been thinning and shrinking, and that
permafrost is thawing. Most
scientists believe that the chances of the ice shrinkage being due to natural
cycles are slim. If Arctic ice continues to melt at its present rate, in a few
decades it could be nonexistent during summer months. The Arctic would become a huge heat
collector, absorbing 80% of the sunlight that reaches it, rather than
reflecting it back into space as it does now. Major ocean currents that
exchange energy from the tropics to the poles would be altered, as would world weather patterns.
In the past 100
years, Earth's average temperature has increased by 1° Farenheit.
When deciding what to wear in the morning, this seems trivial; however,
consider the fact that during the last Ice Age, the planet was only 9° F cooler
than it is now. It doesn't take much to seriously
affect climate patterns and ecosystems. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, projections for temperature increases in the
next century range from 1.8° F to 6.3° F (assessments by the U.S. National
Academy of Sciences and the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC)). During that same period, sea level is projected to rise six
inches to as much as three feet. If future climate change occurs at this
magnitude, 21st century Earth would experience the fastest warming in the
history of civilization and the warmest temperature since the evolution of
modern humans. What does this mean for our existence? We cannot possibly know.
We are conducting an experiment in real time.
The longest continuous record of atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements in the world dates back to 1958 and comes from a site in Mauna Loa, Hawaii. This site is considered one of the most favorable locations for measuring undisturbed air because possible local influences of vegetation or human activities on atmospheric CO2 concentrations are minimal, and any influences from volcanic vents may be excluded from the records. Because of the favorable site location, continuous monitoring, and careful selection and scrutiny of the data, the Mauna Loa record is considered to be a precise record and a reliable indicator of the regional trend in the concentrations of atmospheric CO2 in the middle layers of the troposphere.
- Access the annual mean Mauna Loa CO2 data, and have students graph year vs. mean (ppm) from 1959 to present.
- Look for trends in the data. Is atmospheric CO2 increasing or decreasing? By how much annually?
- Project what you would expect the data to look like from the present to 2050. What is your predicted value of atmospheric CO2 by 2050? How much would it the CO2 level have changed over those 100 years?
- Optional: graph the monthly mean Mauna Loa CO2 data. What are the seasonal variations of carbon dioxide?
- Compare your graphs to NOAA graphs.
ideas exist for dealing with the pollution which may be causing climate change.
Many of us could take steps in our daily lives to reduce our consumption of
energy. There are also good reasons for switching to renewable energy sources. These
energy sources are rapidly replaced, unlike fossil fuels, and are generally
less polluting. Examples of renewable energy sources are solar power, wind
activities and resources, check out the Bridge's Climate & Atmosphere page, as well as the following sites: