On Earth, a complex web of variables interacts to produce the planet's climates. Factors such as latitude, proximity to oceans and water, and topography all play a role in determining the climate of a specific region. On a global scale, climate is influenced by more dynamic processes, such as ocean circulation, atmospheric greenhouse gases, cloud cover, and rainfall distribution. Even natural hazards, such as the 1991 volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, can alter Earth's climate for several years.
After months of predictive earthquake activity and lava dome growth, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in June, 1991. (Image credit: U.S. Geological Survey)
Climate Change on Earth
With the exception of natural hazard events, climate patterns remain relatively stable over the course of a human lifetime. But on a geologic time scale, Earth's climate undergoes significant fluctuations. To understand the concept of climate change, it is important to distinguish between weather and climate. Weather refers to the day-to-day changes in atmospheric conditions in a specific location; whereas climate refers to the average, prevailing weather conditions at a given location over a longer period of time - such as a season or year - based on long-term records and data. For example, the weather on an August afternoon in the desert region of southern Arizona may be dry and sunny, but the long-term climate pattern of that region shows that summer monsoons typically occur at that time.
The term "climate change" is often used interchangeably with the term "global warming." Although warming trends can be part of a climate change cycle, climate change refers to any significant change from one climatic condition to another.
Researchers remove an ice core from the drill core barrel near the South Pole Remote Earth Science Observatory in Antarctica. (Image credit: U.S. Geological Survey)
Analysis of sediments, rock strata, and air bubbles trapped in glacial ice indicates that temperatures on Earth have fluctuated throughout geologic time. Climatologists are now discovering that climate change can happen more rapidly than was previously believed. Recent studies of ice core samples, which provide a record of past climate, show that Earth has experienced dramatic shifts in average global temperature in a short time span - changing by as much as 8 degrees C (15 degrees F) in a 10- to 30-year period.
This chart illustrates the cycle through which glacial water and ice eventually ends up in the oceans. Glacier and ice cap melt is responsible for about a third of sea level rise. (Image credit: Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA)
During the past 800,000 years, eight ice ages have occurred, during which glacial periods alternated with interglacial periods. Each glacial period lasts about 100,000 years and is followed by an interglacial period that lasts an average of 6,000 years, but sometimes as long as 28,000 years. We are currently living in an interglacial period, which began about 12,000 years ago and represents the second longest interglacial period.
Today, measurements of the global average surface temperature and the temperature of the lower atmosphere show that the climate has warmed since the industrial revolution. The effects of climate change can be felt on many different levels. As a result of warming temperatures, average global sea level will rise, and tropical climates will spread out farther from the equator, which would increase the spread of diseases like malaria, dengue fever, and yellow fever. Changes in precipitation cause floods, landslides, drought, and wildfires. As the upper layers of ocean water heat up, hurricanes and typhoons strike more frequently and with greater intensity. And loss of suitable habitat, due to many of the above changes, will put sensitive species at risk.
The year 2005 was the most intense Atlantic hurricane season on record. These before-and-after images are of the Northern Chandeleur Islands, which lie about 100 km (60 miles) east of New Orleans, Louisiana. The first image was taken in July 2001. The second image shows the same site on August 31, 2005, two days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Louisiana and Mississippi coastline. Storm surge and large waves from Katrina submerged the islands, stripped sand from the beaches, and eroded large sections of the marsh. Today, few recognizable landforms are left on the islands. (Image credit: U.S. Geological Survey)
The Mojave Desert in the western United States is a prime example of a microclimate. Because of its location in the "rain shadow" of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it experiences less precipitation and more arid conditions than surrounding regions. (Image credit: U.S. Geological Survey)