Climate Change and Human Activity
Why is our planet constantly changing? Could this be human error or something that is naturally occurring? To get down to the root of the problem, one must understand what climate change really is. Most people have heard of the term global warming, which is the long-term rising temperature on the planet. Climate change is global warming on a much broader scale. This includes the rise in temperature along with rising sea levels, shrinking glaciers, and the general shifts in plant life cycles. The goal here is to weigh the pros and cons of human activity on this planet. The burning of fossil fuels is considered one of the main human activities responsible for climate change. These are what effect the CO2 levels in the atmosphere. One common belief is that these human- produced gases are being trapped in the atmosphere causing global warming. On the opposite end of that studies have shown a rise in temperature is within normal limits. Another belief is that sea levels are rising at an alarming rate. However, sea levels have been on the rise for years. Ocean acidity levels are also on the rise but it seems those levels are within a normal range as well. Global warming is said to be the cause of rapid rate of melting glaciers, but glaciers have been growing and receding for years from natural causes. These points lead scientists back to the original inquiry, is global warming actually caused by human activity?
In order to fully understand whether or not climate change is caused by human activity one should look deeper into what climate change is. The dictionary definition of climate change is as follows: a change in global or regional climate patterns, in particular a change apparent from the mid to late 20th century onwards and attributed largely to the increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by the use of fossil fuels. In layman’s terms this means that any changes in the earth’s atmosphere caused by higher levels of CO2 is considered a part of climate change. Another important term to define is fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are non-renewable products like oil and coal that are burned which creates an increase in the CO2 levels in the earth’s atmosphere. Gases like this, greenhouse gases, cause the energy to be trapped underneath the surface from the Sun. The Earth’s surface starts to warm as a result. This is called the greenhouse effect.
Terms like the greenhouse effect, greenhouse gases, and fossil fuels are some of the first words that come to mind whenever climate change is concerned. The theory is that the burning of oil and coal are producing gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. These gases are trapping heat and causing the planet to warm through a process called the greenhouse effect. “Since 1751 about 337 billion metric tons of CO2 have been released into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels and cement production, increasing atmospheric CO2 from the pre-industrial level of about 280 ppm (parts per million), to a high of 400 ppm in 2013” (ProCon 2019). CO2 levels have been rising steadily for the last several years. Many people have taken this to mean that human activity is directly responsible. Researchers have proven that no natural carbon sources could be responsible for the overwhelming amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Negating this, there are some scientists who believe that the current rise in temperature is within the limits of natural temperature fluctuation.
“Although the planet has warmed 1-1.4°F over the 20th century, it is within the /- 5°F range of the past 3,000 years. A 2003 study by researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics found that “many records reveal that the 20th century is probably not the warmest nor a uniquely extreme climatic period of the last millennium” (ProCon 2019). Even though the planet is warming it is not enough to alarm researchers or blame on human interference. Over 1,000 scientists believe there are equal parts environmental and human involvement.
Along with CO2 levels, oceans levels are on a steady increase. Greenhouse gases warm the planet which raises sea levels due to thermal expansion of warmer ocean waters. This is also what is responsible for melting glaciers and polar ice caps. “A 2006 study found that “significant acceleration” of sea-level rise occurred from 1870 to 2004. Between 1961 and 2003 global sea levels rose 8 inches.” It has been predicted that if ocean levels continue to rise at their current rate, over 200 million places will be below sea level or flooded by the end of the century. That being said, the Global Warming Policy Foundation says that ocean levels have been rising at a steady pace for thousands of years with no impact from human activity. The study found that over the course of 10,000 years the ocean levels have been rising naturally with no cause for distress. “When the earth began coming out of the Pleistocene Ice Age 18,000 years ago, sea levels were about 400 feet lower than they are today and have been steadily rising ever since” (ProCon 2019). There is no physical evidence that the rising ocean levels are ‘anthropogenic’, meaning originating in human activity. The ocean levels rising could also be affecting the acidity levels in the water. Some scientists have come to the conclusion that ocean acidity levels are increasing at an unexpected rate that could only be directly related to human activity. Greenhouse gases discussed earlier are being absorbed into the oceans cause the pH levels to increase.
“Acidity levels in the oceans are 25-30% higher than prior to human fossil fuel use. According to a 2014 US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, oceans have absorbed about 30% of the CO2 emitted by humans over the past 200 years, and ocean acidity could rise approximately 100-200 percent above pre industrial levels by 2100” (GAO, 2019).
High levels of acidity will affect marine life and slow the growth of coral reefs. This will inevitably affect all marine organisms and their ecosystems. Those who are not convinced by climate change believe these pH levels are a result of natural fluctuation. The average pH of the ocean’s surface water has only decreased by 0.1 since the start of the industrial revolution. “In 2010 Science published a study of ocean acidity levels over the past 15 million years, finding that the “samples record surface seawater pH values that are within the range observed in the oceans today” (ProCon 2019). Research has shown that increased CO2 levels absorbed by the ocean aids in the rate of photosynthesis and the rapid growth of ocean life such as phytoplankton. These phytoplankton also aid in keeping the ocean water alkaline, or not acidic.
Keeping in the realm of ocean areas, global warming is said to be responsible for glaciers melting at unprecedented rates. Glaciers can be found on every continent except for Australia. Scientists are able to determine how much a glacier has grown or receded based on inputs and outputs. An example of an input is the accumulation of snow and ice while an output is melting and calving. Volume, surface area, and thickness of a glacier are all determined by the balance between these inputs and outputs. This balance can be affected by wind, rain, humidity and temperature. All of this is a direct result of climate change.
“There is widespread evidence that glaciers are retreating in many mountain areas of the world. Since 1850 the glaciers of the European Alps have lost about 30 to 40% of their surface area and about half of their volume. Similarly, glaciers in the New Zealand Southern Alps have lost 25% of their area over the last 100 years” (UCS 2003).
It is disconcerting that these glaciers have minimized so much over a small span of time. It is predicted that about two-thirds of glacial loss is directly related to human produced greenhouse gases. If the glaciers forming the Greenland ice sheet were to melt entirely, sea levels would increase by 20 feet. This is a terrifying reality but it may not be an undeniable fact. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has done research that shows glaciers have been growing and receding naturally for thousands of years. There was a statement put out that the Himalayan glaciers would completely melt away by the year 2035 but this was later redacted due to its invalidity.
“In 2014 a study of study of 2,181 Himalayan glaciers from 2000-2011 showed that 86.6% of the glaciers were not receding. According to a 2013 study of ice cores published in Nature Geoscience, the current melting of glaciers in Western Antarctica is due to “atmospheric circulation changes” that have “caused rapid warming over the West Antarctic Ice Sheet” and cannot be directly attributed to human caused climate change” (National Snow and Ice Data Center 2019).
Glaciers accumulate ice and snow until the weight is too heavy. The glacier then starts to flow outwards and downwards creating continental ice sheets that flow out in all directions. “As long as snow accumulation equals or is greater than melt and ablation, a glacier will remain in balance or even grow. Once winter snowfall decreases, or summer melt increases, the glaciers will begin to retreat.” Glaciers are constantly growing and retreating. Based on what time of year the research is being conducted, the glacier will either be bigger or smaller than expected.
In Conclusion, climate change is a worldwide problem that affects millions of people and marine life every day. Due to the alarming rate of CO2 levels, sea levels, and glaciers melting scientists are trying to find out whether or not climate change is anthropogenic. The high levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases suggests that there is no natural explanation. I believe human activity is responsible for the greenhouse effect. This has lead me to believe that the rising of CO2 levels are also the cause for rising sea levels and melting of glaciers and polar ice caps. If we, the human population as a whole, do not make a serious change this planet will be in turmoil. Small changes such as switching to electric cars and using solar panels would cut our CO2 production exponentially and potentially save the planet.
Early Warning Signs of Global Warming: Glaciers Melting. (2003, November 10). Retrieved July 15, 2019, from https://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/impacts/early-warning-signs-of-global-5.html
Humans and the Greenhouse Effect. (n.d.). Retrieved July 15, 2019, from http://climate.org/humansandthegreenhouseffect/
Is Human Activity Primarily Responsible for Global Climate Change? (2019, May 13). Retrieved July 15, 2019, from https://climatechange.procon.org/
National Snow and Ice Data Center. (n.d.). Retrieved July 15, 2019, from https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/glaciers/life-glacier.html