This page is a short introduction to climate change science.
Our climate change resources page contains a list of additional resources from reputable scientific sources. Please go directly to those sources for more detailed information.
New on climate resources page: Fall 2010 Yale report on Americans' Knowledge of Climate Change.
And please take our short survey at the end of this page. Thanks!
The kids and adults that we talk to have heard lots of things - some of it is scientifically sound and some of it is not supported by scientific research. On these pages we will bring you information from the scientific community that you can share with your friends, your teachers and your parents.
In short, scientific research has shown us that the climate is currently changing, it has changed many times over millions of years, and some of the warming we are seeing now is part of naturally occuring cycles and some of it is due to the many ways that humans perturb the system. A big difference between ancient climate fluctuations and what we are seeing today is the rate of change. Our climate is warming much faster than it ever has in the past and scientists have concluded that human activities have amplified the natural fluctuation. Regardless of how much of the change is found to be contributed by humans, working to reduce the impact that we have on the climate and other Earth systems is the best plan for now.
Fluctuations in average global temperatures throughout ancient history.
graph source: pending
As recorded in ice cores from Vostok, Antarctica, the temperature near the South Pole has varied by more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit during the last 350,000 years. There have been peaks of warmth approximately every 100,000 years. The temperature and the carbon dioxide concentrations at the south pole parallel each other. The rise and fall of temperatures gives rise to the ice age/interglacial cycle. Image and text courtesy of Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences: Global Warming Facts and Our Futures, originally provided to that site by Kurt Cuffey, University of California, Berkely.
You will be called on to make decisions in your life that may have an impact on our climate. Everyone needs some understanding of the science behind climate change to make responsible choices.
According to the Climate Literacy booklet (www.globalchange.gov), people who are climate science "literate" have an understanding of their influence on climate and climate’s influence on them and on society.
A climate-literate person:
Here is the direct link to the Climate Literacy booklet - it is a big file (11MB) so may take a few minutes to download to your browser. http://downloads.climatescience.gov/Literacy/Climate%20Literacy%20Booklet%20Hi-Res.pdf
A document written by scientists and educators working together was recently released. It is called Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Sciences. It is written for learners of all ages and can be downloaded for free at http://www.climatescience.gov/Library/Literacy/ .
The 7 essential priniciples outlined in the Climate Literacy document are:
1. The sun is the primary source of energy for Earth's climate system.
2. Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system.
3. Life on Earth depends on, is shaped by, and affects climate.
4. Climate varies over space and time through both natural and man-made processes.
5. Our understanding of the climate system is improved through observations, theoretical studies, and modeling.
6. Human activities are impacting the climate system.
7. Climate change will have consequences for the Earth system and human lives.
Scientists pretty much agree that the earth is currently undergoing a warming trend. How much of that warming is due to human causes is still under study, but one thing is clear. During times in the ancient past that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was highest, the average global temperature was highest. And humans are putting much more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than we were before the industrial age.
source: NESCC Climate Change Backpack
Compare the graphs above. Pick a few ages - 125,000 years, 50,000 years and 1,000 years - and compare the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere to the average Antarctic temperature at those times. Do you see a correlation between carbon dioxide and temperature?
The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen very fast since the beginning of the industrial age. Scientists are confident that some of the warming we have seen during those years is due to the carbon dioxide we are emitting into the atmosphere. Regardless of the questions that still remain about how much of climate change is natural and how much is contributed by humans (this is called anthropogenic), it is prudent to take steps to reduce our contribution of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and therefore help to "mitigate" the problem.
NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Earth System Research Laboratory monitors CO2 at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. The mean monthly atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements from 1960-2010 are shown in the graphs below.
Source: Dr. Pieter Tans, NOAA/ESRL (www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/)
There are several ways scientists are attempting to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere. Terrestrial sequestration involves the transfer of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into soils and vegetation. Geologic sequestration involves capturing carbon dioxide emitted from industrial sources like power plants and cement factories and injecting it underground into appropriate rock formations. A good summary of different methods of carbon sequestration can be found on a Princeton University website.
Geologists, including some geologists at WMU, are responsible for studying and implementing geologic sequestration which is often called Geological Carbon Sequestration (GCS), Carbon Capture and Storage or CO2 Sequestration. Apparently there is now ANOTHER name -- (Scientists really like to confuse each other!) -- CC&SGS or Carbon Capture and SAFE Geological Storage or CC&SGS. Regardless of its name, when the rocks deep beneath us (1) have the right amount of pore space, (2) are capped with a rock layer that is impermeable, and (3) are not at risk for being fractured by earthquakes, they might be perfect reservoirs for storing carbon dioxide to keep it out of the atmosphere. Many of Michigan's rocks are very good candidates. Find out more about Geological Carbon Storage and the role played by WMU scientists on our MichCarb GCS page.
Please see our Climate Change Resources page for links to more information from scientifically reputable sources.