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6 causes and 10 consequences of climate change

Climate change is the variation in the conditions that define a region’s climate between two periods of time. During its evolution, the Earth has experienced several climate changes, for example in the glaciations.

The causes of current climate change are mainly due to the activities of human beings and their consequences can be devastating for life on the planet.

Causes of climate change

1. Increase in global surface temperature

There are records of temperature measurement with thermometers since 1760. Other strategies have been used to estimate before this time, such as tree growth rings.

However, it is known that in the last 50 years the temperature increased compared to the previous 200 years. This is what we currently know as global warming.

2. Emission of greenhouse gases

Gases such as water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrogen oxide can absorb infrared radiation. This causes the greenhouse effect on Earth, a phenomenon that causes the atmosphere to warm.

This phenomenon has existed for millions of years and without it, the Earth’s temperature would be below zero centigrade, preventing life.

However, following the industrial revolution and the excessive consumption of fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has increased, and with this, global warming atmosphere

3. Solar radiation

The most important source of energy for the Earth is the Sun, star of the solar system. The activity of the Sun undergoes cycles and although this has increased since 1900, its impact on current climate change is not considerable.

4. Volcanic activity

Volcanic eruptions can cause changes in the climate of certain regions. In general, volcanic eruptions induce a cooling of the atmosphere and the surface of the oceans.

5. Atmospheric aerosols

Atmospheric aerosols are small particles that float in the air. For example, volcanic ash and desert sand can affect visibility and solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface.

Tropospheric aerosols act mainly by cooling the climate system, as they reflect solar radiation. In other words, they act as a kind of solar blockers, preventing the sun’s rays from reaching the earth’s surface.

6. Land use and deforestation

The transformation of forests and jungles into arable land and urban areas has contributed greatly to regional climate change.

It is known that urban areas retain more heat, due to the constructions and the lower density of plants. On the other hand, less forest density means less fixation of the carbon dioxide that remains free in the atmosphere.

Consequences of climate change

1. Ocean warming

The ocean has warmed since 1971 and the trend will continue until the end of the 21st century, even with the reduction of CO₂ levels.

This leads to changes in the life pattern of marine species, which seek to move to deeper areas or to greater latitudes, or favoring warm water species.

2. Sea level rise

Global mean sea level rose 20 cm between 1901 and 2018, at a faster rate in the period 2006-2018. This is due to the thermal expansion of the ocean and the contribution of the melted ice from the land.

3. Heavy precipitation

There has been an increase in rainfall, both in frequency, intensity and quantity. This is most noticeable on a regional scale.

For example, in June 2022, Pakistan received three times more rain than in the previous 30 years, and it was reflected in large and severe floods, with many human and material losses.

4. More common and intense droughts

In some regions, the lack of water has intensified due to high temperatures. This also brings with it the danger of forest fires.

5. Arctic polar cap in decline

layer of ice
The Arctic ice cap has lost size and thickness over the last 50 years.

Since the end of 1970 the area and thickness of the Arctic sea ice layer is in constant reduction. By December 2022, the extent of the polar ice cap was nearly 12 million square kilometers, representing a 12% reduction since 1978 (data from the National Snow & Ice Data Center).

6. Alteration of the carbon cycle

The carbon cycle is the passage of carbon through different states and compounds between organic matter, the atmosphere, the oceans and the earth’s crust. Carbon in the form of carbon dioxide is used by plants for photosynthesis, while forming carbonates they are deposited in rocks and soil.

The continuous increase in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere stimulates its uptake by the oceans and vegetation. This is reflected in more green on the satellite maps.

7. Acidification of the ocean

With the increase in CO₂ in the atmosphere, this part dissolves in the water and reacts to produce an increase in the acidity of the ocean. This is a consequence of the alteration of the carbon cycle that we mentioned earlier.

With more acidic waters, many marine ecosystems are affected. For example, the oyster industry on the west coast of the United States suffered damage due to acidification of the waters.

8. Reduction of northern hemisphere snow cover in spring

In Europe, North America and Russia there has been a decrease in the snow cover during the spring months since 1978. This leads to a reduction in the water storage capacity for the summer months, which affects the vegetation and fauna of these regions.

9. Duration of the planting season in the Northern Hemisphere longest

In agricultural areas of Europe, farmers have reported a longer period in which they can sow and harvest. Warmer temperatures stimulate the growth of seeds and plants.

In addition, there has been an increase in the vegetation of the earth’s surface since 1980 and an advance in the flowering of trees in the spring.

10. Displacement of terrestrial and marine species

Certain species, such as mosquitoes and other insects, develop better in high temperatures, so it is estimated that these moved to temperate regions. For example, mosquitoes transmitting dengue fever and other tropical viral diseases have been detected in Europe.

In the oceans, the movement of fish towards polar areas where the waters remain colder has been recorded.

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References

Arias, PA et al. (2021) Technical Summary. In Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, p. 33−144. doi: 10.1017/9781009157896.002.

Barton A. et al. (2015) Impacts of coastal acidification on the Pacific Northwest shellfish industry and adaptation strategies implemented in response. Oceanography. 28:146–159. doi: 10.5670/oceanog.2015.38

Cheung, WWL, Watson, R., Pauly, D. (2013) Ocean warming signature in global fisheries catch. Nature 497:365-368

Dessler, A. (2016) Introduction to modern climate change. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press. New York

Sigl, M. et al. (2015) Timing and climate forcing volcanic eruptions for the past 2,500 years. Nature 523>543-549

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