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With Explore the Planets, investigate the planets, their moons, and understand the processes that shape them. By G. Jeffrey Taylor, Ph.D. See our DVD collection.

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.

<a href="/earth/climate/cli_define.html&dev=1">Regional climate</a> is
the average weather pattern in a place over more than thirty years,
including the variations in
<a href="/earth/climate/cli_seasons.html&dev=1">seasons</a>.
The climate of a region depends on many factors including sunlight,
altitude, topography, and proximity to oceans. Since the equatorial regions
receive more sunlight than the poles, climate varies with
<a href="/earth/climate/cli_latitude.html&dev=1">latitude</a>.
This image shows how sea surface temperatures change at different latitudes.<p><small><em>Image courtesy of NOAA.  Public domain.</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&dev=1">nitrogen
oxides</a>,
<a href="/earth/Atmosphere/vocs.html&dev=1">VOCs</a>,
<a href="/physical_science/chemistry/carbon_monoxide.html&dev=1">carbon monoxide</a>,
<a href="/physical_science/chemistry/carbon_dioxide.html&dev=1">carbon dioxide</a>,
<a href="/physical_science/chemistry/sulfur_oxides.html&dev=1">sulfur dioxide</a> and
<a href="/earth/Atmosphere/particulates.html&dev=1">particulates</a>.
Some of these gases are <a href="/earth/climate/cli_greengas.html&dev=1">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&dev=1">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&dev=1">crop withering</a>. <a href="/teacher_resources/online_courses/health/events_health.html&dev=1">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&dev=1">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&dev=1">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&dev=1">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>Scientists at the University of Michigan have found that <a href="/earth/polar/cryosphere_permafrost1.html&dev=1">permafrost</a> in the <a href="/earth/polar/polar_north.html&dev=1">Arctic</a> is extremely sensitive to sunlight.  Exposure to sunlight releases carbon gases trapped in the permafrost, including <a href="/earth/climate/earth_greenhouse.html&dev=1">climate-warming</a> <a href="/physical_science/chemistry/carbon_dioxide.html&dev=1">carbon dioxide</a>, to the <a href="/earth/Atmosphere/overview.html&dev=1">atmosphere</a> much faster than previously thought.<p><small><em>George Kling, The University of Michigan</em></small></p>How did life evolve on <a href="/earth/earth.html&dev=1">Earth</a> during the <a href="/earth/past/Archean.html&dev=1">Archean</a>, when the <a href="/sun/sun.html&dev=1">Sun</a> was about 25% weaker than today?  The Earth should have been <a href="/earth/polar/cryosphere_glacier1.html&dev=1">glaciated</a>, if <a href="/earth/climate/earth_greenhouse.html&dev=1">greenhouse</a> gas concentration was the same as today.  <a href="http://www.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/news/display/?id=10798">Researchers</a> studying the <a href="/physical_science/physics/atom_particle/isotope.html&dev=1">isotopic</a> signatures of Earth's early atmosphere in <a href="/earth/geology/rocks_intro.html&dev=1">rocks</a> from Northern Australia have ruled out high levels of <a href="/physical_science/chemistry/nitrogen_molecular.html&dev=1">nitrogen</a> as a possible way to increase warming from <a href="/earth/Atmosphere/overview.html&dev=1">atmospheric</a> <a href="/physical_science/chemistry/carbon_dioxide.html&dev=1">carbon dioxide</a>.<p><small><em>Image courtesy of Manchester University</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