Scientists around the world are trying to learn more about how rising global average temperatures are affecting weather. They say it is increasingly likely that climate change will make weather events more intense, more frequent or of longer duration.
It raises temperatures in heat waves and adds a percentage of rain to intense storms. It can also cause weather events to occur outside of times or locations where they typically occurred in the past.
But what causes climate change? Why are temperatures rising worldwide? And is the warming climate responsible for wild weather conditions? Here’s some important information:
What does climate change mean?
The weather is what you see outside the window. Climate is what happens in an area over years or decades. Climate change is the difference observed in long-term trends in air, water and ocean temperatures and longer-term weather patterns.
Monitoring stations around the world contribute to a growing wealth of information showing how temperatures and rainfall change. Some have decades of measurements, while others have more than a century of data. In Japan, they have been recording the beginning of the flowering of the cherry tree for more than 1200 years.
Scientists use this historical data to study the rise in average global temperatures. For example, records show how sap rises earlier in maple trees or when wildfire seasons start earlier. They know that warmer temperatures are slowing ice formation on the Great Lakes, while warmer water temperatures are fueling more lake-effect snow.
DEFINITIONS:Is climate change the same as global warming?
EFFECTS:How climate change disrupts our daily lives and causes disasters.
What is the main cause of climate change?
The biggest influence on the planet’s changing climate is the release of emissions into the atmosphere from the burning of oil, gas and coal to move people and goods from one place to another and to generate energy, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Here’s how that works:
- Carbon dioxide and other naturally occurring gases have always existed in the atmosphere, keeps the world warm just as a greenhouse keeps tropical plants alive in winter. Scientists see that “greenhouse effect” in ice cores, sediments and tree rings.
- Modern measurements show that CO2 emissions are rising. Since 1958, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, has grown from 316 parts per million to 417 parts per million.
- Measured in such small amounts, the change seems miniscule. However, because CO2 has risen by more than 30 percent, say NASA and others the changes are having a huge impact on global average temperatures.
- National and international studies document how excess carbon dioxide traps excess energy and causes the planet to heat up faster.
If CO2 emissions double above pre-industrial levels, the draft of the latest National Climate Assessment states that global temperatures could rise by 4.5-7.2 degrees, with deadly heat waves, crop damage and other cascading effects around the world.
What are other causes of climate change?
- Manufacturing, mining and forest clearing.
- The release of methane and nitrous oxide also contribute to the greenhouse effect.
- The El Niño Southern Oscillation, a pattern of changing water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, can alter weather patterns.
- Volcanic eruptions can cause carbon dioxide emissions that warm the Earth, as well as aerosol particles that have a cooling effect.
How to stop climate change
So what can be done to avoid the dire consequences predicted if emissions and temperatures continue to rise?
United Nations scientists and governments around the world say fossil fuel emissions must be reduced and soon to avoid “catastrophic consequences”. To keep the rise in global average temperature at 2.7 degrees compared to temperatures in the late 1800s, the world must reach “net zero” CO2 emissions by 2050, according to the latest climate assessment.
The world cannot reduce all emissions, so to achieve the result of net zero emissions, carbon dioxide must be removed from the air by both natural and mechanical means, reports the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That includes measures such as preserving and protecting forests and wetlands that store carbon and developing technologies that can effectively suck carbon out of the air.
Other methods urged by the UN and others include a less carbon-intensive lifestyle and increased use of renewable energy sources.
Even if the world reaches net-zero emissions, the National Climate Assessment states it will be impossible to trigger some of the warming already underway.
Dinah Voyles Pulver covers climate and environmental issues for USA TODAY. She can be reached at email@example.com or at @dinahvp on Twitter.