global climate change

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Global climate change

The periodic fluctuations in global temperatures and precipitation, such as the glacial (cold) and interglacial (warm) cycles of the Pleistocene (a geological period from 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago). Presently, the increase in global temperatures since 1900 is of great interest. Many atmospheric scientists and meteorologists believe it is linked to human-produced carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.

Greenhouse effect

The greenhouse effect is a process by which certain gases (water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide) trap heat within the Earth's atmosphere and thereby produce warmer air temperatures. These gases act like the glass of a greenhouse: they allow short (ultraviolet; UV) energy waves from the Sun to penetrate into the atmosphere, but prevent the escape of long (infrared) energy waves that are emitted from the Earth's surface.

Human-induced changes in global climate caused by release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, largely from the burning of fossil fuels, have been correlated with global warming. Since 1900, the amount of two main greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane) in the Earth's atmosphere has increased by 25%. Over the same period, mean global temperatures have increased by about 0.5°C (0.9°F). The most concern centers on carbon dioxide. Not only is carbon dioxide produced in much greater quantities than any other pollutant, but it remains stable in the atmosphere for over 100 years. Methane, produced in the low-oxygen conditions of rice fields and as a by-product of coal mining and natural gas use, is 100 times stronger than carbon dioxide in its greenhouse effects but is broken down within 10 years.

Chloroflurocarbon (CFC) pollution, from aerosol propellants and coolant systems, affects the Earth's climate because CFCs act as greenhouse gases and they break down the protective ozone (O3) layer. Other pollutants released into the atmosphere are also likely to influence global climate. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) from car exhaust and industrial processes, such as electrical generation from coal, cool the Earth's surface air temperatures and counteract the effect of greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, there have been attempts in industrialized nations to reduce sulfur dioxide pollution because it also causes acid rain.

Possible impact

A rise in mean global temperatures is expected to cause changes in global air and ocean circulation patterns, which in turn will alter climates in different regions. Changes in temperature and precipitation have already been detected. In the United States, total precipitation has increased, but it is being delivered in fewer, more extreme events, making floods (and possibly droughts) more likely.

Global warming has caused changes in the distribution of a species throughout the world. By analyzing preserved remains of plants, insects, mammals, and other organisms which were deposited during the most recent glacial and interglacial cycles, scientists have been able to track where different species lived at times when global temperatures were either much warmer or much cooler than today's climate. Several studies have documented poleward and upward shifts of many plant and insect species during the current warming trend.

Changes in the timing of growth and breeding events in the life of an individual organism, called phenological shifts, have resulted from global warming. For example, almost one-third of British birds are nesting earlier (by 9 days) than they did 25 years ago, and five out of six species of British frog are laying eggs 2–3 weeks earlier.

Community reassembly, changes in the species composition of communities, has resulted from climate change because not all species have the same response to environmental change.

To date, there have been no extinctions of species directly attributable to climate change. However, there is mounting evidence for drastic regional declines. For example, the abundance of zooplankton (microscopic animals and immature stages of many species) has declined by 80% off the California coast. This decline has been related to gradual warming of sea surface temperatures.

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Bioscience. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

global climate change

[¦glō·bəl ′klī·mət ‚chānj]
The periodic fluctuations in global temperatures and precipitation, such as the glacial (cold) and interglacial (warm) cycles.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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