Climate change factors

May 20, 2009

Climate change is any long-term significant change in the expected patterns of average weather of a specific region (or, more relevantly to contemporary socio-political concerns, of the Earth as a whole) over an appropriately significant period of time. Climate change reflects abnormal variations to the expected climate within the Earth’s atmosphere and subsequent effects on other parts of the Earth, such as in the ice caps over durations ranging from decades to millions of years.

In recent usage, especially in the context of environmental policy, climate change usually refers to changes in modern climate (see global warming). For information on temperature measurements over various periods, and the data sources available, see temperature record. For attribution of climate change over the past century, see attribution of recent climate change.

Climate change factors

Climate change is the result of a great many factors including the dynamic processes of the Earth itself, external forces including variations in sunlight intensity, and more recently by human activities. External factors that can shape climate are often called climate forcings and include such processes as variations in solar radiation, deviations in the Earth’s orbit, and the level of greenhouse gas concentrations. There are a variety of climate change feedbacks that will either amplify or diminish the initial forcing.

Most forms of internal variability in the climate system can be recognized as a form of hysteresis, where the current state of climate does not immediately reflect the inputs. Because the Earth’s climate system is so large, it moves slowly and has time-lags in its reaction to inputs. For example, a year of dry conditions may do no more than to cause lakes to shrink slightly or plains to dry marginally. In the following year however, these conditions may result in less rainfall, possibly leading to a drier year the next. When a critical point is reached after “x” number of years, the entire system may be altered inexorably. In this case, resulting in no rainfall at all. It is this hysteresis that has been mooted to be the possible progenitor of rapid and irreversible climate change.

Plate tectonics
On the longest time scales, plate tectonics will reposition continents, shape oceans, build and tear down mountains and generally serve to define the stage upon which climate exists. During the Carboniferous period, plate tectonics may have triggered the large-scale storage of Carbon and increased glaciation. More recently, plate motions have been implicated in the intensification of the present ice age when, approximately 3 million years ago, the North and South American plates collided to form the Isthmus of Panama and shut off direct mixing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Solar output
Variations in solar activity during the last several centuries based on observations of sunspots and beryllium isotopes.
The sun is the source of a large percentage of the heat energy input to the climate system. Lesser amounts of energy is provided by the gravitational pull of the Moon (manifested as tidal power), and geothermal energy. The energy output of the sun, which is converted to heat at the Earth’s surface, is an integral part of the Earth’s climate. Early in Earth’s history, according to one theory, the sun was too cold to support liquid water at the Earth’s surface, leading to what is known as the Faint young sun paradox.[4] Over the coming millennia, the sun will continue to brighten and produce a correspondingly higher energy output; as it continues through what is known as its “main sequence”, and the Earth’s atmosphere will be affected accordingly.

On more contemporary time scales, there are also a variety of forms of solar variation, including the 11-year solar cycle and longer-term modulations. However, the 11-year sunspot cycle does not appear to manifest itself clearly in the climatological data. Solar intensity variations are considered to have been influential in triggering the Little Ice Age, and for some of the warming observed from 1900 to 1950. The cyclical nature of the sun’s energy output is not yet fully understood; it differs from the very slow change that is happening within the sun as it ages and evolves, with some studies pointing toward solar radiation increases from cyclical sunspot activity affecting Global Warming

Orbital variations
In their effect on climate, orbital variations are in some sense an extension of solar variability, because slight variations in the Earth’s orbit lead to changes in the distribution and abundance of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface. These orbital variations, known as Milankovitch cycles, directly affect glacial activity. Eccentricity, axial tilt, and precession comprise the three dominant cycles that make up the variations in Earth’s orbit. The combined effect of the variations in these three cycles creates changes in the seasonal reception of solar radiation on the Earth’s surface. As such, Milankovitch Cycles affecting the increase or decrease of received solar radiation directly influence the Earth’s climate system, and influence the advance and retreat of Earth’s glaciers. Subtler variations are also present, such as the repeated advance and retreat of the Sahara desert in response to orbital precession.


Volcanism is the process of conveying material from the depths of the Earth to the surface, as part of the process by which the planet removes excess heat and pressure from its interior. Volcanic eruptions, geysers and hot springs are all part of the volcanic process and all release varying levels of particulates into the atmosphere.

A single eruption of the kind that occurs several times per century can affect climate, causing cooling for a period of a few years or more. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, for example, produced the second largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century (after the 1912 eruption of Novarupta)and affected the climate substantially, with global temperatures dropping by about 0.5 °C (0.9 °F), and ozone depletion being temporarily substantially increased. Much larger eruptions, known as large igneous provinces, occur only a few times every hundred million years, but can reshape climate for millions of years and cause mass extinctions. Initially, it was thought that the dust ejected into the atmosphere from large volcanic eruptions was responsible for longer-term cooling by partially blocking the transmission of solar radiation to the Earth’s surface. However, measurements indicate that most of the dust hurled into the atmosphere may return to the Earth’s surface within as little as six months, given the right conditions.

Volcanoes are also part of the extended carbon cycle. Over very long (geological) time periods, they release carbon dioxide from the Earth’s interior, counteracting the uptake by sedimentary rocks and other geological carbon dioxide sinks. According to the US Geological Survey, however, estimates are that human activities generate more than 130 times the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by volcanoes.

Ocean variability


On a timescale often measured in decades or more, climate changes can also result from the interaction between the atmosphere and the oceans. Many climate fluctuations, including the El Niño Southern oscillation, the Pacific decadal oscillation, the North Atlantic oscillation, and the Arctic oscillation, owe their existence at least in part to the different ways that heat may be stored in the oceans and also to the way it moves between various ‘reservoirs’. On longer time scales (with a complete cycle often taking up to a thousand years to complete), ocean processes such as thermohaline circulation also play a key role in redistributing heat by carrying out a very slow and extremely deep movement of water, and the long-term redistribution of heat in the oceans.

Human influences

Anthropogenic factors are human activities that change the environment. In some cases the chain of causality of human influence on the climate is direct and unambiguous (for example, the effects of irrigation on local humidity), whilst in other instances it is less clear. Various hypotheses for human-induced climate change have been argued for many years though, generally, the scientific debate has moved on from scepticism to a scientific consensus on climate change that human activity is the probable cause for the rapid changes in world climate in the past several decades. Consequently, the debate has largely shifted onto ways to reduce further human impact and to find ways to adapt to change that has already occurred.

Of most concern in these anthropogenic factors is the increase in CO2 levels due to emissions from fossil fuel combustion, followed by aerosols (particulate matter in the atmosphere) and cement manufacture. Other factors, including land use, ozone depletion, animal agriculture[11] and deforestation, are also of concern in the roles they play – both separately and in conjunction with other factors – in affecting climate.


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