Causes of climate change
The earth’s climate is dynamic and always changing through a natural cycle. What the world is more worried about is that the changes that are occurring today have been speeded up because of man’s activities. These changes are being studied by scientists all over the world who are finding evidence from tree rings, pollen samples, ice cores, and sea sediments. The causes of climate change can be divided into two categories – those that are due to natural causes and those that are created by man.
There are a number of natural factors responsible for climate change. Some of the more prominent ones are continental drift, volcanoes, ocean currents, the earth’s tilt, and comets and meteorites. Let’s look at them in a little detail.
The continents that we are familiar with today were formed when the landmass began gradually drifting apart, millions of years back. This drift also had an impact on the climate because it changed the physical features of the landmass, their position and the position of water bodies. The separation of the landmasses changed the flow of ocean currents and winds, which affected the climate. This drift of the continents continues even today; the Himalayan range is rising by about 1 mm (millimeter) every year because the Indian land mass is moving towards the Asian land mass, slowly but steadily.
Mount Pinatoba, in the Philippine islands erupted in April 1991 emitting thousands of tonnes of gases into the atmosphere. Volcanic eruptions of this magnitude can reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface, lowering temperatures in the lower levels of the atmosphere (called the troposphere), and changing atmospheric circulation patterns. The extent to which this occurs is an ongoing debate.
Another striking example was in the year 1816, often referred to as “the year without a summer.” Significant weather-related disruptions occurred in New England and in Western Europe with killing summer frosts in the United States and Canada. These strange phenomena were attributed to a major eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia, in 1815.
The earth’s tilt
The Earth’s orbit is somewhat elliptical, which means that the distance between the earth and the Sun varies over the course of a year. We usually think of the earth’s axis as being fixed, after all, it always seems to point toward Polaris (also known as the Pole Star and the North Star). Actually, it is not quite constant: the axis does move, at the rate of a little more than a half-degree each century. So Polaris has not always been, and will not always be, the star pointing to the North. When the pyramids were built, around 2500 BC, the pole was near the star Thuban (Alpha Draconis). This gradual change in the direction of the earth’s axis, called precession is responsible for changes in the climate.
Winds push horizontally against the sea surface and drive ocean current patterns.
Another region that is strongly influenced by ocean currents is the North Atlantic. If we compare places at the same latitude in Europe and North America the effect is immediately obvious. Take a closer look at this example – some parts of coastal Norway have an average temperature of -2°C in January and 14°C in July; while places at the same latitude on the Pacific coast of Alaska are far colder: -15°C in January and only 10°C in July. The warm current along the Norewgian coast keeps much of the Greenland-Norwegian Sea free of ice even in winter. The rest of the Arctic Ocean, even though it is much further south, remains frozen.
Ocean currents have been known to change direction or slow down. Much of the heat that escapes from the oceans is in the form of water vapour, the most abundant greenhouse gas on Earth. Yet, water vapor also contributes to the formation of clouds, which shade the surface and have a net cooling effect.
The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century saw the large-scale use of fossil fuels for industrial activities. These industries created jobs and over the years, people moved from rural areas to the cities. This trend is continuing even today. More and more land that was covered with vegetation has been cleared to make way for houses. Natural resources are being used extensively for construction, industries, transport, and consumption. Consumerism (our increasing want for material things) has increased by leaps and bounds, creating mountains of waste. Also, our population has increased to an incredible extent.
All this has contributed to a rise in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas supply most of the energy needed to run vehicles, generate electricity for industries, households, etc. The energy sector is responsible for about ¾ of the carbon dioxide emissions, 1/5 of the methane emissions and a large quantity of nitrous oxide. It also produces nitrogen oxides (NOx) and carbon monoxide (CO) which are not greenhouse gases but do have an influence on the chemical cycles in the atmosphere that produce or destroy greenhouse gases.
Greenhouse gases and their sources
Methane is another important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. About ¼ of all methane emissions are said to come from domesticated animals such as dairy cows, goats, pigs, buffaloes, camels, horses, and sheep. These animals produce methane during the cud-chewing process. Methane is also released from rice or paddy fields that are flooded during the sowing and maturing periods. When soil is covered with water it becomes anaerobic or lacking in oxygen. Under such conditions, methane-producing bacteria and other organisms decompose organic matter in the soil to form methane. Nearly 90% of the paddy-growing area in the world is found in Asia, as rice is the staple food there. China and India, between them, have 80-90% of the world’s rice-growing areas.
Methane is also emitted from landfills and other waste dumps. If the waste is put into an incinerator or burnt in the open, carbon dioxide is emitted. Methane is also emitted during the process of oil drilling, coal mining and also from leaking gas pipelines (due to accidents and poor maintenance of sites).
How we all contribute every day