The Earth is Changing on Human Timescales

Earth's atmosphere from the International Space Station. (Image Credit: NASA Image of the Day)

Earth's atmosphere from the International Space Station. (Image Credit: NASA Image of the Day)

We know so little about Earth.

There's an expression floating around out there that we know less about the ocean floor than we know about the moon. This is true if you're talking about high resolution maps of the ocean floor as compared to high resolution maps of the moon surface.

Something that has been bothering me a lot lately is how little we know about Earth's climate and how the oceans, land, ice, weather, and atmosphere interact. I'm not here to diss climate scientists; in fact, kudos to them for embarking on a journey to explore a complicated interconnected web of Earth systems. 

No. Instead, I'm talking about everything I've been learning about the effects climate change. Our world is changing in ways that we couldn't have predicted. In fact, climate change is making some areas warmer, some colder, some wetter, some drier, some stormier, and some calmer in a complicated web of cause and effect.

Here is a chart from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on some climate anomalies from August 2016:

(Image Credit: NOAA)

(Image Credit: NOAA)

I'd like to take some time to focus on some of the surprising results of climate change that we see here. It turns out that climate change doesn't always imply global warming. There's the famous example of a senator throwing a snowball to disprove 'global warming' on the floor of the senate. And you have to think, he sort of has a point.

For example, the Antarctic sea ice extent is above average this year. I've been talking to a glaciologist who says that the ocean ice has actually built up over the last year as a result of increased precipitation in the region.

This increased precipitation is an interesting effect of climate change because it means our atmosphere is changing it's normal behavior. This can be devastating as we've seen in the floods in Louisiana, for example, which were made more extreme as a result of climate change. 

However, if you look to the north to the Arctic sea ice extent, you'll notice that it is 23.1% below the 1981-2010 average. So the northern ice is melting while the Antarctic sea ice is increasing. Slightly. The net effect is a decrease in ice and thus an increase in global sea levels. 

There is a lesson to be learned here. If we're talking about global climate change, we have to think both long-term and globally. Although there are often surprising local effects such as extreme weather and colder temperatures that occur due to previously unseen interactions between the ocean currents, atmosphere, and changing weather patterns, the August 2016 report and other studies show that the earth is warming. Globally. 

As we're learning, this global change drives smaller, sometimes devastating effects as well as the long term concern of higher sea levels (which have equally, if not more devastating effects on global economies, coastal cities and habitats, international displacement, etc, etc). 

So as our home planet changes, let's keep our eyes and ears open to the new (sometimes scary, sometimes fascinating, sometimes both) ways that our climate changes and evolves. Because now, more than ever, it's increasingly important to understand the interconnected climate web of our home planet.

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