A Overview of Global Warming

An Overview and the Causes of Global Warming

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Getty Images /VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm

Global Warming, the general increase in the earth's near-surface air and ocean temperatures, remains a pressing issue in a society that has expanded its industrial use since the mid-twentieth century.

Greenhouse gases, atmospheric gases that exist to keep our planet warm and prevent warmer air from leaving our planet, are enhanced by industrial processes. As human activity such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation increases, greenhouse gases such as Carbon Dioxide are released into the air.

Normally, when heat enters the atmosphere, it is through short-wave radiation; a type of radiation that passes smoothly through our atmosphere. As this radiation heats the earth's surface, it escapes the earth in the form of long-wave radiation; a type of radiation that is much more difficult to pass through the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere cause this long-wave radiation to increase. Thus, heat is trapped inside of our planet and creates a general warming effect.

Scientific organizations around the world, including The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the InterAcademy Council, and over thirty others, have projected a significant change and future increase in these atmospheric temperatures. But what are the real causes and effects of global warming? What does this scientific evidence conclude in regards to our future?

Causes of Global Warming

The crucial component that causes greenhouse gases such as CO2, Methane, Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC's), and Nitrous Oxide to be released into the atmosphere is human activity.
The burning of fossil fuels (i.e., non-renewable resources such as oil, coal, and natural gas) has a significant effect on the warming of the atmosphere. The heavy use of power plants, cars, airplanes, buildings, and other man-made structures release CO2 into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.

Nylon and nitric acid production, the use of fertilizers in agriculture, and the burning of organic matter also release the greenhouse gas Nitrous Oxide.

These are processes that have been expanded since the mid-twentieth century.

Deforestation

Another cause of global warming is land-use changes such as deforestation. When forest land is destroyed, carbon dioxide is released into the air thus increasing the long-wave radiation and trapped heat. As we lose millions of acres of rainforest a year, we are also losing wildlife habitats, our natural environment, and most significantly, a non-regulated air and ocean temperature.

Effects of Global Warming

The increase in the warming of the atmosphere has significant effects on both natural environment and human life. Obvious effects include glacial retreat, Arctic shrinkage, and worldwide sea level rise. There are also less obvious effects such as economic trouble, ocean acidification, and population risks. As climate changes, everything changes from the natural habitats of wildlife to the culture and sustainability of a region.

Melting of the Polar Ice Caps

One of the most obvious effects of global warming involves the melting of the polar ice caps. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, there are 5,773,000 cubic miles of water, ice caps, glaciers, and permanent snow on our planet.
As these continue to melt, sea levels rise. Rising sea levels are also caused by expanding ocean water, melting mountain glaciers, and the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica melting or sliding into the oceans. Rising sea levels result in coastal erosion, coastal flooding, increased salinity of rivers, bays, and aquifers, and shoreline retreat.

Melting ice caps will desalinize the ocean and disrupt natural ocean currents. Since ocean currents regulate temperatures by bringing warmer currents into cooler regions and cooler currents into warmer regions, a halt in this activity may cause extreme climate changes, such as Western Europe experiencing a mini-ice age.

Another important effect of melting ice caps lies in a changing albedo. Albedo is the ratio of the light reflected by any part of the earth's surface or atmosphere.

Since snow has one of the highest albedo level, it reflects sunlight back into space, helping to keep the earth cooler. As it melts, more sunlight is absorbed by the earth's atmosphere and the temperature tends to increase. This further contributes to global warming.

Wildlife Habits/Adaptations

Another effect of global warming is changes in wildlife adaptations and cycles, an alteration of the natural balance of the earth. In Alaska alone, forests are continually destroyed due to a bug known as the spruce bark beetle. These beetles usually appear in the warmer months but since the temperatures have increased, they have been appearing year-round. These beetles chew on spruce trees at an alarming rate, and with their season being stretched for a longer period of time, they have left vast boreal forests dead and gray.

Another example of changing wildlife adaptations involves the polar bear. The polar bear is now listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Global warming has significantly reduced its sea ice habitat; as the ice melts, polar bears are stranded and often drown. With the continuous melting of ice, there will be less habitat opportunities and a risk in extinction of the species.

Ocean Acidification/Coral Bleaching

As Carbon Dioxide emissions increase, the ocean becomes more acidic. This acidification affects everything from an organism's ability to absorb nutrients to changes in chemical equilibrium and therefore natural marine habitats.

Since coral is very sensitive to increased water temperature over a long period of time, they lose their symbiotic algae, a type of algae that gives them coral color and nutrients. Losing these algae results in a white or bleached appearance, and is eventually fatal to the coral reef. Since hundreds of thousands of species thrive on coral as a natural habitat and means of food, coral bleaching is also fatal to the living organisms of the sea.

Spread of Disease

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Spread of Diseases Due to Global Warming

Global warming will also enhance the spread of diseases. As northern countries warm, disease-carrying insects migrate north, carrying viruses with them that we have not yet built immunity for. For example, in Kenya, where significant temperature increases have been recorded, disease-bearing mosquito populations have increased in once cooler, highland areas. Malaria is now becoming a nation-wide epidemic.

Floods and Droughts and Global Warming

Strong shifts in precipitation patterns will ensue as global warming progresses. Some areas of the earth will become wetter, while others will experience heavy droughts. Since warmer air brings heavier storms, there will be an increased chance of stronger and more life-threatening storms. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate, Africa, where water is already a scarce commodity, will have less and less water with warmer temperatures and this issue could even lead to more conflict and war.

Global warming has caused heavy rains in the United States due to warmer air having the ability to hold more water vapor than cooler air. Floods that have impacted the United States since 1993 alone have caused over $25 billion in losses. With increased floods and droughts, not only will our safety be affected, but also the economy.

Economic Disaster

Since disaster relief takes a heavy toll on the world's economy and diseases are expensive to treat, we will suffer financially with the onset of global warming. After disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, one can only imagine the cost of more hurricanes, floods, and other disasters occurring worldwide.

Population Risk and Unsustainable Development

Projected sea-level rise will greatly affect low-lying coastal areas with large populations in developed and developing countries worldwide. According to National Geographic, the cost of adaptation to a newer climate could result in at least 5% to 10% of gross domestic product. As mangroves, coral reefs, and the general aesthetic appeal of these natural environments are further degraded, there will also be a loss in tourism.

Similarly, climate change impinges on sustainable development. In developing Asian countries, a cyclic disaster occurs between productivity and global warming. Natural resources are needed for heavy industrialization and urbanization. Yet, this industrialization creates immense amounts of greenhouse gases, thus depleting the natural resources needed for further development of the country. Without finding a new and more efficient way to use energy, we will be depleted of our natural resources needed for our planet to thrive.

Future Outlook of Global Warming: What can we do to help?

Studies performed by the British government show that to avert potential disaster in relation to global warming, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by approximately 80%. But how can we preserve this vast amount of energy that we are so accustomed to using? There is action in every form from governmental laws to simple everyday tasks that we can do ourselves.

Climate Policy

In February 2002, the United States government announced a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 18% over a 10-year period from 2002-2012. This policy involves reducing emissions through technology improvements and dissemination, improving the efficiency of energy use, and voluntary programs with industry and shifts to cleaner fuels.

Other U.S. and international policies, such as the Climate Change Science Program and the Climate Change Technology Program, have been reinstated with a comprehensive objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through international cooperation. As the governments of our world continue to understand and acknowledge the threat of global warming to our livelihood, we are closer to reducing greenhouse gases to a manageable size.

Reforestation

Plants absorb the greenhouse gas Carbon Dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere for photosynthesis, the conversion of light energy into chemical energy by living organisms. Increased forest cover will help plants remove CO2 from the atmosphere and help alleviate global warming. Although having a small impact, this would help reduce one of the most significant greenhouse gases contributing to global warming.

Personal Action

There are small actions that we can all take in order to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. First, we can reduce electricity use around the house. The average home contributes more to global warming than the average car. If we switch to energy-efficient lighting, or reduce energy needed for heating or cooling, we will make a change in emissions.

This reduction can also be made through improving vehicle-fuel efficiency. Driving less than needed or buying a fuel-efficient car will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Although it's a small change, many small changes will someday lead to a bigger change.

Recycling whenever possible greatly reduces the energy needed to create new products. Whether it is aluminum cans, magazines, cardboard, or glass, finding the nearest recycling center will aid in the fight against global warming.

Global Warming and The Road Ahead

As global warming progresses, natural resources will be further depleted, and there will be risks of wildlife extinctions, melting of the polar ice caps, coral bleaching and disintegration, floods and droughts, disease, economic disaster, sea level rise, population risks, unsustainable land, and more. As we live in a world characterized by industrial progress and development aided by the help of our natural environment, we are also risking depletion of this natural environment and thus of our world as we know it. With a rational balance between protecting our environment and developing human technology, we will live in a world where we can simultaneously progress the capabilities of mankind with the beauty and necessity of our natural environment.