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18.13: What is Climate Change? - Biology

18.13: What is Climate Change? - Biology



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Learning Objectives

  • Define global climate change

A common misconception about global climate change is that a specific weather event occurring in a particular region (for example, a very cool week in June in central Indiana) is evidence of global climate change. However, a cold week in June is a weather-related event and not a climate-related one. These misconceptions often arise because of confusion over the terms climate and weather.

Climate refers to the long-term, predictable atmospheric conditions of a specific area. The climate of a biome is characterized by having consistent temperature and annual rainfall ranges. Climate does not address the amount of rain that fell on one particular day in a biome or the colder-than-average temperatures that occurred on one day. In contrast, weather refers to the conditions of the atmosphere during a short period of time. Weather forecasts are usually made for 48-hour cycles. Long-range weather forecasts are available but can be unreliable.

To better understand the difference between climate and weather, imagine that you are planning an outdoor event in northern Wisconsin. You would be thinking about climate when you plan the event in the summer rather than the winter because you have long-term knowledge that any given Saturday in the months of May to August would be a better choice for an outdoor event in Wisconsin than any given Saturday in January. However, you cannot determine the specific day that the event should be held on because it is difficult to accurately predict the weather on a specific day. Climate can be considered “average” weather.

Climate change can be understood by approaching three areas of study:

  • current and past global climate change
  • causes of past and present-day global climate change
  • ancient and current results of climate change

It is helpful to keep these three different aspects of climate change clearly separated when consuming media reports about global climate change. It is common for reports and discussions about global climate change to confuse the data showing that Earth’s climate is changing with the factors that drive this climate change.

Climate Change

Climate change, and specifically the anthropogenic (meaning, caused by humans) warming trend presently underway, is recognized as a major extinction threat, particularly when combined with other threats such as habitat loss. Scientists disagree about the likely magnitude of the effects, with extinction rate estimates ranging from 15 percent to 40 percent of species committed to extinction by 2050. Scientists do agree, however, that climate change will alter regional climates, including rainfall and snowfall patterns, making habitats less hospitable to the species living in them. The warming trend will shift colder climates toward the north and south poles, forcing species to move with their adapted climate norms while facing habitat gaps along the way. The shifting ranges will impose new competitive regimes on species as they find themselves in contact with other species not present in their historic range. One such unexpected species contact is between polar bears and grizzly bears. Previously, these two species had separate ranges. Now, their ranges are overlapping and there are documented cases of these two species mating and producing viable offspring. Changing climates also throw off species’ delicate timing adaptations to seasonal food resources and breeding times. Many contemporary mismatches to shifts in resource availability and timing have already been documented.

Range shifts are already being observed: for example, some European bird species ranges have moved 91 km northward. The same study suggested that the optimal shift based on warming trends was double that distance, suggesting that the populations are not moving quickly enough. Range shifts have also been observed in plants, butterflies, other insects, freshwater fishes, reptiles, and mammals.

Climate gradients will also move up mountains, eventually crowding species higher in altitude and eliminating the habitat for those species adapted to the highest elevations. Some climates will completely disappear. The rate of warming appears to be accelerated in the arctic, which is recognized as a serious threat to polar bear populations that require sea ice to hunt seals during the winter months: seals are the only source of protein available to polar bears. A trend to decreasing sea ice coverage has occurred since observations began in the mid-twentieth century. The rate of decline observed in recent years is far greater than previously predicted by climate models.

Finally, global warming will raise ocean levels due to melt water from glaciers and the greater volume of warmer water. Shorelines will be inundated, reducing island size, which will have an effect on some species, and a number of islands will disappear entirely. Additionally, the gradual melting and subsequent refreezing of the poles, glaciers, and higher elevation mountains—a cycle that has provided freshwater to environments for centuries—will also be jeopardized. This could result in an overabundance of salt water and a shortage of fresh water.


Better predicting how plants and animals will weather climate extremes

IMAGE: Trees and other organisms facing air or water flow will experience forces that could bend, break, or dislodge them. By understanding the variables that help resist those forces, as well. view more

A team of scientists has devised a more accurate way to predict the effects of climate change on plants and animals -- and whether some will survive at all.

Frequently, ecologists assess an organism's fitness relative to the climate by quantifying its functional traits.

"These are physical properties you can measure -- height, diameter, the thickness of a tree," said UC Riverside biologist Tim Higham. "We believe more information is needed to understand how living things will respond to a changing world."

The team, led by Higham, outlines an alternative model for researchers in an article published today in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

This new model incorporates the functional traits of an organism as well as environmental variables, such as temperature, habitat structure, and the speed of wind or water an organism interacts with. The team calls these "ecomechanical models."

As oceans rise, strong storms will reach farther inland. The intensity of hurricanes, and the proportion of hurricanes that reach very intense levels, will likely increase with climate change. As a result, Higham said that fluids will exert greater forces on anything in their path. These forces could cause organisms with roots, such as trees, to break or be uprooted.

"If you measure the functional traits of a tree, and we know the speed of the wind, we can predict how much bending will occur," Higham said. "At certain wind speeds, the tree will potentially come down."

The way wind disperses seeds, or how insects and birds fly in the face of strong winds, can potentially influence their fitness. When considering the fate of living things, the physics governing the way they move through space is another important factor accounted for by this new framework. In this sense, ecomechanical models are not limited to understanding the impacts of climate change.

"They can help scientists understand evolutionary patterns and how animals interact differently with their environment as they grow," Higham said.

Environmental conditions can affect how some animals attach to surfaces. For example, geckos can use their famous adhesive system to attach to smooth surfaces. However, the real-world is not often smooth. Therefore, understanding how geckos attach requires knowledge of both the animal's functional traits and the environment's texture, for example.

In order to facilitate use of this model by many different types of scientists, the research team urges the expansion of freely available online databases in which functional traits of organisms have been described in a uniform, standardized way.

This work was years in the making, the product of a working group funded by the National Science Foundation. The group is composed of 24 scientists from Arizona State University Claremont Colleges University of British Columbia University of Illinois, Clark University the University of Calgary, The State University of Northern Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Rutgers University University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada University of Washington George Washington University Trinity University UC Berkeley Cornell University Towson University, and the American Museum of Natural History.

Many of the participating faculty identify as members of underrepresented groups in science. "Including faculty in early career stages, and from a diversity of backgrounds and lived experiences was of paramount importance to us as we created the working group," said Lara Ferry, biologist and President's Professor from Arizona State University. "We know the best results come from the collective contributions of many different perspectives."

Should these recommendations become widely adopted, the research team feels there will be profound impacts on multiple areas of biology.

"The use of ecomechanical models can help us understand the rules of life," Higham said.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.


The Mail's Arctic Ice Inaccuracy Received Widespread Coverage, Even After Correction

David Rose's Most Egregious Myth: Arctic Sea Ice Is Increasing, Proving “Global COOLING.” Daily Mail reporter David Rose, who often covers climate change in a misleading way and was previously known for uncritically repeating Weapons of Mass Destruction claims by an untrustworthy source, wrote a September 7 article titled “And now it's global COOLING! Return of Arctic ice cap as it grows by 60% in a year.” In the article for the Daily Mail's sister paper, the Mail on Sunday, he claimed that Arctic sea ice levels had increased by almost one million square miles in the course of a year, citing data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). [Mail On Sunday, 9/7/13] [The Guardian, 12/8/10]

Mail Was Forced To Issue A Correction After Inflating The Increase By Over 200 Percent. Journalist Bob Ward reported that the Mail's figure was incorrect, based on Rose's interpretation of a typographical error on the NSIDC website and “faulty reasoning”:

Rose told me by e-mail that the source of his claim that the ice extent was 60 per cent higher this year was an announcement posted on the website of the United States National Snow and Ice Data Center on 4 September: “August 2013 ice extent was 2.38 million square kilometers (919,000 square miles) above the record low August extent in 2012. The monthly trend is -10.6% per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.”

Elsewhere on its website, the NSIDC indicated that the average Arctic sea ice extent in August 2012 was a record low figure of 1.82 million square miles. This should have led Rose to claim that the Arctic sea ice was 50.5 per cent higher last month, but further faulty reasoning led him to conclude the difference was 60 per cent.

However, the NSIDC confirmed to me yesterday that the main figure used by Rose for his article was mistyped and that the mistake was corrected on 10 September, showing that Arctic sea extent in August 2013 was only 29 per cent higher than was recorded for the same month last year. [Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, 9/18/13]

Mail On Sunday subsequently corrected their article, including a headline change to “And now it's global COOLING! Return of the Arctic ice cap as it grows by 29% in a year” (down from 60 percent). However, even disregarding the statistical error, Rose's argument was misleading: 2012 was a record-breaking year for Arctic sea ice lows, and an increase from such an anomaly was to be expected. Nevertheless, the August 2013 sea ice extent was the sixth lowest for that month on record -- a point that Rose neglected to mention. Skeptical Science illustrated the fallacy of using a single year's data to discredit a long-term trend:

U.S. Media Repeated Rose's Inaccurate Arctic Ice Claim At Least 38 Times. The false claim that Arctic sea ice had increased 60 percent was picked up by U.S. news outlets at least 38 times, including 22 instances after the correction, by 36 news outlets. These mentions primarily came from conservative media, and also includes several state outlets that published the same inaccurate column -- one op-ed written by Cal Thomas (nationally syndicated columnist and Fox News contributor) appeared in 10 different news outlets, and another written by Robert L. Bradley Jr. (CEO of the fossil fuel-funded Institute for Energy Research) appeared in three. Several of the reports repeated Rose's absurd suggestion of a long-term decline of Arctic sea ice showing that the planet is “cooling.” Not included in our count were at least six letters to the editor that were published using his false statistic, five of which were published after the correction. [American Thinker, 9/8/13] [Bowling Green Daily News, 9/21/13, via Factiva] [Breitbart, 9/8/13] [Bristol Herald-Courier, 9/21/13, via Factiva] [Casa Grande Dispatch, 9/21/13, via Factiva] [CNS News, 9/13/13] [Fox News Channel, Cashin In, 12/14/13] [Daily Caller, 9/8/13] [Daily Review Atlas, 10/3/13] [Examiner, 9/17/13] [FoxNews.com, 9/9/13] [Hawaii Reporter, 10/9/13] [Hot Air, 9/8/13] [Idaho State Journal, 10/8/13] [Independent Journal Review, 9/8/13] [Investors' Business Daily, 9/9/13] [Investors' Business Daily, 9/24/13] [Investors' Business Daily, 9/26/13] [Jefferson City News-Tribune, 9/23/13, via Factiva] [Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 9/9/13] [McClatchy-Tribune Regional News, 9/23/13, via Factiva] [MSN.com, 9/9/13] [National Review, 9/9/13] [Newsbusters, 9/8/13] [North Platte Telegraph, 9/12/13] [Orange County Register, 9/20/13] [Shreveport Times, 9/24/13, via Factiva] [Standard Journal, 10/28/13] [telegram.com, 10/3/13] [The Coeur d'Alene Press, 9/30/13] [The Daily-Tribune, 9/29/13] [The Desert Sun, 9/28/13, via Nexis] [Fox News Channel, The Five, 9/11/13 via Media Matters] [The Herald-Journal, 9/11/13] [The Leaf-Chronicle, 9/21/13, via Factiva] [The News Journal, 9/28/13] [The Tulsa World, 9/21/13, via Factiva] [Fox Business, Varney & Company, 12/16/13] [The Virginian-Pilot & The Ledger-Star via Factiva.com, 9/20/13] [Washington Examiner, 9/18/13] [Townhall, 9/19/13] [Wilson County News, 10/29/13] [Pensacola (FL) News Journal, 10/5/13 and 10/5/13, via Factiva] [FoxNews.com, accessed 12/18/13] [Sourcewatch, accessed 12/18/13]

Rose's False Number Repeated By U.S. Congressmen During Hearing. The inaccurate 60 percent Arctic increase figure was also used by two U.S. congressmen to cast doubt on climate change and argue against addressing it. In a September 18 House Energy and Power Subcommittee hearing (a hearing dubbed by Organizing for Action as “DenierPalooza”), Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) stated, “I recently read an article that stated that the Arctic ice had nearly a million more square miles of ocean covered with ice than at this time of year,” and Congressman David McKinley (R-WV) asserted that “Arctic ice has actually grown 60 percent.” [Media Matters, 9/19/13]


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Cleveland - What Climate Equity Could Look Like

Cindy Mumford and her neighbors are working with several organizations in Cleveland, gathering support and financing to get a community solar project up and running.

The Biden Administration is working to fight climate change in a way that also address the country's economic and racial disparities. Emily talks with NPR correspondent Dan Charles about why the ground work for a climate justice plan could be laid in the city of Cleveland.

For more of Dan's reporting, follow him on Twitter @NPRDanCharles and here.
You can email Short Wave at [email protected]

Short Wave

Taking A New Look At Some Old Bones

This episode was edited by Rebecca Ramirez and Gisele Grayson, produced by Thomas Lu, and fact-checked by Rasha Aridi and Indi Khera. The audio engineer was Gilly Moon.


Climate pledges 'like tackling COVID-19 without social distancing'

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Current global pledges to tackle climate change are the equivalent of declaring a pandemic without a plan for social distancing, researchers say.

In the Paris Agreement, nations agreed to limit global warming to "well below 2°C".

But University of Exeter scientists say governments are engaged in "climate hypocrisy" by publicly supporting the agreement while subsidising the fossil fuel industry, destroying forests and pursuing other harmful policies.

Writing in the journal Global Sustainability, they highlight two other crises—ozone depletion and the COVID-19 pandemic—and call for similar action on the climate crisis.

The call comes as world leaders including UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson discuss climate action and a "sustainable recovery" from the pandemic at the UN General Assembly.

"Restoring the ozone layer and minimising the COVID-19 pandemic both required governments to enact specific legislation to address the precise causes of these problems," said Professor Mark Baldwin, of Exeter's Global Systems Institute (GSI).

"By contrast, Paris Agreement commitments are the equivalent of intending to restore the ozone layer without a plan for eliminating ozone-depleting substances, or intending to end the COVID-19 pandemic without a plan for social distancing to reduce the spread of the virus.

"We know the climate crisis is caused mainly by fossil fuels.

"Current climate and energy policies are therefore nonsensical because they condemn greenhouse gas emissions by individuals while promoting fossil fuel production.

"Today we have governments publicly supporting the Paris Agreement, but simultaneously opening new coal mines, destroying forests, supporting fracking, subsidising the fossil fuel industry and supporting fossil fuel projects in the developing world."

Professor Tim Lenton, director of the GSI, said: "The fundamental reason we are not solving the climate crisis is not a lack of green energy solutions—it is that many governments continue energy strategies that prioritise fossil fuels.

"These entrenched energy policies subsidise the discovery, extraction, transport and sale of fossil fuels, with the aim of ensuring a cheap, plentiful, steady supply of fossil energy into the future.

"Some governments are introducing policies to reduce demand for fossil fuels and shift to green energy sources, but these policies are not enough.

"Green energy is not yet replacing fossil fuels—it is merely augmenting it. Energy from both fossil fuels and green sources is increasing.

"Individual behaviour choices—such as diets and modes of travel—are important, but more fundamental is to replace the supply of fossil fuels with green energy."

The researchers call for a "comprehensive global plan" to solve the climate crisis.

They make seven recommendations:

1. End all government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.

2. Ban all exploration for new oil/gas/coal reserves anywhere in the world.

3. Enforce a policy that no public money can be spent on fossil fuel infrastructure anywhere in the world.

4. Stop justifying fossil fuel use by employing carbon offset schemes.

5. Redirect most fossil fuel subsidies to targeted programmes for enabling the transition to a green energy economy.

6. Minimise reliance on future negative-emissions technologies. They should be the subject of research, development, and potentially deployment, but the plan to solve the climate crisis should proceed on the premise that they will not work at scale.

7. Trade deals: Do not buy products from nations that destroy rainforests in order to produce cheaper, greater quantities of meat and agricultural products for export.

Professor Baldwin added: "To bring about real change, we must address complex issues involving politics, fake news, human behaviour, government subsidies, taxes, international trade agreements, human rights, lobbying by the fossil fuel industry, and disinformation campaigns."


Climate change: hard rain, hard truths

C anoes, community spirit and sandbags the very occasional watery tragedy, and heartening tales of rescued old ladies. These have been the currents of British conversation in recent days, or at least of those parts of it not directly dealing with the appalling realities of being submerged. Marvelling from a safe distance at Blackpool sea-foam that looks just like snow, or tittering at troops who turn up without knowing what to do, the general mood has been "oh, to be alive in such times". Meanwhile the "debate" – if it can be so called – was bogged down in the venerable practice of river dredging, before being distracted by a proposal to divert aid for the world's poorest people into building flood barriers at home.

The acres of coverage this past fortnight have contained few clues that an increased incidence of extreme weather events was both predicable and predicted. When the BBC finally got round to discussing how wild weather might link back to a changing climate on Thursday's Today programme, it afforded false equivalence to the caveated observations of leading scientist Professor Sir Brian Hoskins and the clever-clever sideswipes of a retired Conservative politician, Nigel Lawson. It is now time to cast eyes up above low dismal clouds, to confront the sky beyond.

The one point on which Sir Brian agreed with Lord Lawson is that, owing to randomness of a change in the weather, no one incident can ever be nailed absolutely to the evolution of the climate. Any connection can be seen only by tracing a trend line through the scattergun of dots representing individual storms, droughts and floods around the world. At the start of the week, these columns observed how – from forest fires in Norway to the freezing-over of Hell, Michigan – that we appear to have entered a season of record-breaking weirdness insofar as global weather is concerned. Today, at last, we heard a senior politician join the fray, as the Liberal Democrat energy secretary, Ed Davey, made a speech that warned that we might, perhaps, be seeing the shape of things to come. And now, in the pages of this newspaper, Sir Nicholas Stern – the economist whose official review diagnosed "the greatest … market failure ever seen" – gives his verdict that the current floods represent "a clear sign that we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change" that these are freakish events which can nonetheless be understood as part of a pattern.

The deniers' riposte to the post-millennial cluster of warm and wet British years, or indeed to freakish weather anywhere else, is now reliably distilled down to one seemingly killer fact: the failure of global average surface temperatures to rise in the past 15 years. Some of this stability may be down to the familiar swings of the El Niño cycle some of it is simply fluctuating ebbs around the deeper tide. What the sceptics choose to ignore is the strength of the foundation stones of the science. It is, after all, more than a century since the heat-hugging properties of carbon dioxide were demonstrated in the lab. No one disputes that hotter air will hold more water, a connection that raises the spectre of more extreme downpours. No one contests that warmer water fills more space, a reality with stark implications for sea levels.

And indeed, it is from the ocean – where the most systematic observations, provided through the Argo network of floating probes, only began around the millennium's dawn – that some of the most alarming data is now coming in. Measured sea levels in places are higher waves around Europe appear to be bigger and the water sometimes looks to be getting warmer too. If there has been little rise in average air temperature of late, as the previously under-studied exchange of heat between the Earth and the ocean is factored in, more odd tides are at work in the water than anyone foretold. The bottom line is that as you put more energy into a chaotic system, you get more chaos out. And it may well be that waterlogged Britain is already, albeit unwittingly, discovering that.


Facebook to add labels to climate change posts

Facebook will add labels to posts related to climate change, as part of its ongoing attempt to wrangle misinformation spreading on the platform.

Amid the chaos that is Facebook's news ban in Australia, the social media giant announced the new feature on Thursday in a blog post.

First rolling out in the UK with plans to expand to other countries, the labels will be added to "some posts on climate" and direct people to Facebook's Climate Science Information Centre which launched in September. It's a dedicated Page with the same format as Facebook's COVID-19 Info Center, but this one is filled with resources on climate change from leading organisations.

Facebook did not further detail the type of posts that will be labelled in its announcement, and it's not clear how climate change-related opinion pieces, peer-reviewed studies, and news stories are going to be classified under this new strategy. As The New York Times reported in July last year, "under the company’s guidelines, climate content can be classified as opinion and therefore exempted from fact-checking procedures."

Mashable reached out to Facebook for clarification as to the types of post that will be labelled, and was told that the feature will be applied generally to content about climate for now. Facebook's program policy stipulates that "fact-checkers can review and rate public Facebook and Instagram posts, including ads, articles, photos, videos and text-only posts," and that "content presented as opinion but based on underlying false information may still be eligible for a rating."

In addition to these new labels, Facebook is adding a "common myths" section to the centre, with assistance from climate communication experts from the University of Cambridge, George Mason University, and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

"We added a section that features facts that debunk common climate myths — including too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere harms the earth’s plant life and polar bear populations are declining because of global warming," reads Facebook's blog post.

"The spread of damaging falsehoods endangers the level of international cooperation required to prevent catastrophic global warming," said Dr. Sander van der Linden, University of Cambridge, in a press statement.

"Facebook is in a unique position to counter the circulation of online misinformation, and the new climate ‘mythbusting’ section is an important step toward debunking dangerous falsehoods."

Facebook's Climate Science Information Centre is already available in the UK, the U.S., France, and Germany, and will now reach Belgium, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Spain, South Africa, and Taiwan.

While slapping labels on misleading and inaccurate climate change content is at least a step in the right direction, it can't immediately undo the damage that's been done by Facebook over years of unchecked climate misinformation on the site, not to mention climate change denial ads seen by millions on the site.


Неделя 11

This unit we focus on the potential impacts of continued business-as-usual CO2 emissions. This is also the topic of the Working Group 2 volume of the IPCC reports (the Working Group 1 report is on the scientific basis, which is what we've been studying so far this course). You may find this material distressing, but hang on, because next week we'll go over "Mitigation", which is what it takes to avoid climate change (treated in the Working Group 3 report). Remember that most of the carbon we're worried about is still in the ground, so these impacts are inevitable only if we continue to decide to make them so. In Part II of this class, you can create a simple ice sheet model of your own.


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