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Become a nitrogen atom in the nitrogen cycle in our Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit/Game. See all our games, activity kits and classroom activities.

Climate and Global Change

Warm near the equator and cold at the poles, our planet is able to support a variety of living things because of its diverse regional climates. The average of all these regions makes up Earth's global climate. Climate has cooled and warmed throughout Earth history for various reasons. Rapid warming like we see today is unusual in the history of our planet. The scientific consensus is that climate is warming as a result of the addition of heat-trapping greenhouse gases which are increasing dramatically in the atmosphere as a result of human activities.

Earth's global average surface <a
  href="/earth/climate/ipcc_feb2007.html">warming</a> relative to the
  1980-1999 average over the past 100 years is shown in the black line.
  Predictions of the amount of warming in the future are shown by the red,
  green, and purple lines. These predictions, developed with <a
  href="/earth/climate/cli_models.html">computer models</a>, make different
  assumptions about how many <a
  href="/earth/climate/cli_greengas.html">greenhouse gases</a> we release into the
  atmosphere in the future.<p><small><em> A Windows to the Universe image based on a graph from the IPCC 4th Assessment Report</em></small></p><a href="/earth/polar/cryosphere_permafrost1.html">Permafrost</a> is
ground that is below the freezing point of water (0°C or 32°F) for two
or more years. Permafrost is found at high latitudes like the
<a href="/earth/polar/polar_north.html">Arctic</a> and
<a href="/earth/polar/polar_south.html">Antarctic</a>.
It is also common at high altitudes - like mountainous areas wherever the
<a href="/earth/climate/cli_define.html">climate</a> is
cold. 
Permafrost has been thawing relatively quickly in recent years. Scientists
have found that the rate of permafrost thaw has increased because of <a href="/earth/climate/cli_effects.html">global
warming</a>.<p><small><em>Image courtesy of the    USGS</em></small></p>Although we humans have never experienced fast <a href="/earth/climate/climate.html">global
warming</a>, our
planet has. And our planet keeps records of what happened. The oldest
records that the
<a href="/earth/earth.html">Earth</a> keeps
are in its
<a href="/earth/geology/sed_intro.html">rocks</a>.
In this image, <a href="/headline_universe/olpa/methane_28may08.html">geologists Chris von der Borch and Dave
Mrofka</a> collect
sediment samples in South Australia. These rocks hold clues to help
explain why climate changed abruptly 635 million years ago.<p><small><em>                    Courtesy of Martin Kennedy, UCR</em></small></p>Many forms of air pollution are human-made. Industrial plants, power plants
and vehicles with internal combustion engines produce <a href="/earth/climate/nitrogen_airpollution.html">nitrogen
oxides</a>,
<a href="/earth/Atmosphere/vocs.html">VOCs</a>,
<a href="/physical_science/chemistry/carbon_monoxide.html">carbon monoxide</a>,
<a href="/physical_science/chemistry/carbon_dioxide.html">carbon dioxide</a>,
<a href="/physical_science/chemistry/sulfur_oxides.html">sulfur dioxide</a> and
<a href="/earth/Atmosphere/particulates.html">particulates</a>.
Some of these gases are <a href="/earth/climate/cli_greengas.html">greenhouse
gases</a>,
meaning that they retain heat in the Earth's atmosphere, due to the Earth's
<a href="/earth/climate/earth_greenhouse.html">greenhouse effect</a>.<p><small><em>Image copyright UCAR</em></small></p>As temperatures rise and soil moisture decreases, plants are stressed, which can lead to <a href="/earth/climate/crops_withering.html">crop withering</a>. <a href="/teacher_resources/online_courses/health/events_health.html">Droughts</a> accompanied by increased temperatures can lead to famine, social and political disruptions. Scientists are  helping with early identification of drought that might trigger food shortages. Watch the NBC Learn video - <a href="/earth/changing_planet/withering_crops_intro.html">Changing Planet: Withering Crops</a> to find out more.<p><small><em>Image taken by Tomas Castelazo, Creative Commons <a href=&quot;http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en&quot;>Attribution 3.0 Unported</a> license.</em></small></p><b><i>Looking for online resources to use in support of climate change education?</i></b>  Our <a href="/teacher_resources/climate.html">Climate Change Educator Resources page</a> provides links to online content, classroom activities, interactives, and videos as well as resources provided by other leading organizations and agencies on this topic.  Our <a href="/teacher_resources/climate_change_course.html">Climate Change Course Content page</a> provides links to online content for a range of climate change associated topics.<p><small><em>Image courtesy of   Mila Zinkova, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license</em></small></p>

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF