Climate Change Geography

Climate change refers to changes in the climate on a long-term time scale. This includes global temperatures, as well as other climatic components. Climate change is a very relevant topic and is discussed a lot across subjects. In geography, we explore climate change as it relates to weather, the causes of climate change, real-world examples and how all of this might affect people and the planet. 

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Table of contents

    Climate change definition in geography

    Climate change is the long-term change in average weather patterns experienced around the globe. It can occur because of natural causes and/or through human activity.

    The long-term shifts in the climate commonly referred to as ‘climate change,' take many forms. Some examples include:

    • Global warming (an increase in temperatures on Earth)

    • Changes in precipitation patterns

    • Increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events

    Climate Change: Global warming

    Global warming has occurred rapidly on Earth over the past century and is exponentially increasing. Essentially, global warming is the process of global temperatures increasing. There is plenty of evidence that there has been a dramatic increase in global temperatures. As well as just temperatures being recorded as higher, the melting ice caps, sea ice, glaciers and rising sea levels demonstrate that global warming is having tangible impacts across the world.

    Climate Change: Changes in precipitation

    Climate change will likely include changes in precipitation patterns across the world. Some scientists believe that areas that receive lots of precipitation will get wetter, and areas that receive little precipitation will get drier. Others believe that wet areas will become drier, and dry areas will become wetter. Uncertainties in projections make it difficult to predict specific precipitation changes. This is because, unlike temperature, precipitation cannot always be predicted by scientific laws. However, most models agree that global warming will be accompanied by significant changes to precipitation.

    Climate change geography, desertification, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Some areas are already experiencing desertification

    Climate Change: Extreme weather events

    There are many types of extreme weather events, including:

    • Tropical storms/cyclones
    • Heatwaves/cold waves
    • Droughts/floods

    Climate models indicate that extreme weather events will likely become more frequent and intense as a result of climate change. You may have noticed in the news that these events are happening more often and more intensely across the world! This will have a wide range of impacts which will be discussed later on.

    Climate Change, A man riding his bike in a flood, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Increased flood risk is likely to occur as the climate changes

    Causes of climate change

    Climate change geography is very strongly linked with both the carbon cycle and Water Cycle:

    Climate change and the carbon cycle

    One of the major causes of climate change is an increased level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gases cause global temperatures to rise because they have the ability to trap energy from the sun, which heats up the planet. Higher levels of carbon dioxide, in particular, have been shown to account for a large proportion of global warming because of its influence over the water cycle. Therefore, as more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, the Earth continues to get warmer. Methane (CH4) also contributes to warming temperatures. We discuss natural carbon cycle variations in our 'Climate Change Causes' article and touch on anthropogenic-induced variations in our 'Carbon Cycle' article.

    Climate change and the water cycle

    Another example of a prominent greenhouse gas is water vapour. In fact, water vapour is the greenhouse gas responsible for most of the so-called ‘greenhouse effect’. The influence of other greenhouse gases (e.g. carbon dioxide) creates a positive feedback loop. As greenhouse gases warm the Earth, sea temperatures rise. These rising sea temperatures create more evaporation, which releases more water vapour into the atmosphere. Water vapour is a greenhouse gas and so warms the planet even more.

    As well as its impact on global temperatures, climate change is altering precipitation regimes across the world. This leads to water surpluses in some areas, and water deficits in others, which can result in flooding and drought events. This is built on more in our 'Climate Change and the Water Cycle' article.

    A water surplus occurs when more water enters a system than leaves.

    A water deficit occurs when more water leaves a system than enters.

    Anthropogenic climate change

    The climate has always been variable because of natural forces, like changes in the Earth’s orbit and natural fluctuations in the carbon budget (balance between the inputs and outputs of carbon throughout the Earth system).

    However, the ongoing and projected climate change we are now experiencing has been largely attributed to anthropogenic (human) activities. One key way that humans are causing climate change is through their modification of the carbon cycle. There are lots of ways that humans do this, including:

    • The extraction and burning of fossil fuels (putting more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere)

    • Deforestation (reducing the amount of greenhouse gases being absorbed out of the atmosphere)

    Climate Change, World map with CO2 emissions from food productions highlighted on it, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Food production is the largest cause of deforestation and emits a large amount of CO2

    The effects of climate change

    Climate change generates effects of all different types, from environmental effects to social and economic effects.

    Here are a few examples of the effects of climate change:

    Effect

    Secondary effect

    Tertiary effect

    Increased temperatures

    Melting ice/glaciers

    As ice can help cool the planet, its removal can increase the rate of global warming.

    Increased sea temperatures

    Melting sea ice; sea-level rise

    Destruction of habitats; submergence of land.

    More CO2 is absorbed by the ocean

    Ocean acidification

    Loss of habitat; death of animals; interruption of ocean currents.

    More extreme weather events

    There are several potential secondary effects, such as destruction of houses and infrastructure; displacement of people; and deaths.

    Recovering from extreme events can put significant financial pressure on areas, some of which cannot afford it.

    Changes in precipitation

    Alterations in the water supply of areas, potentially leading to water shortage and/or water surplus.

    Increased political tensions as nations sharing a drainage basin compete for water supply.

    At the moment, climate change is disproportionately affecting certain parts of the world and subgroups of society. Here are some examples:

    • The deforestation of the Amazon rainforest destroys the habitat of and marginalises many indigenous communities.
    • Lower-income countries are less able to recover from extreme weather events because there is not the same access to money and resources to recover damages.
    • Some countries/regions are at risk of disappearing entirely. For example, Tuvalu and Kiribati are disappearing because of sea-level rise.

    Evidence for climate change

    These climate change effects provide evidence for climate change as we are able to see them increase in frequency and intensity alongside changes in the climate. The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) was set up in order to investigate and share information relevant to climate change. In its most recent report, it states that

    “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.(1)

    The report provides climate change facts that substantiate this statement, as is summarised in the table below:

    Component

    Difference between 1850-1900 and 2011-2020 averages

    Global surface temperature

    • 1.09°C

    Global land temperature

    • 1.59°C

    Global sea temperature

    • 0.88°C

    Here are some more climate change facts:

    • Average global 2020 temperatures were the second warmest ever on record.
    • Approximately 148 billion tons of ice were lost from Antarctica every year between 1993 and 2019.
    • Surface ocean waters have become 30% more acidic since ~1750.
    • Climate change worsened the 2019-2020 Australian fires, which increased the percentage of species at threat of extinction by 14%.

    If left unabated, climate change will continue on its current trajectory and cause irreversible damage to Earth. There are certain boundaries, referred to as ‘tipping points’, beyond which the Earth cannot be saved from climate change. As we are fast approaching these, it is becoming more and more urgent to take action.

    Climate Change Geography - Key takeaways

    • Climate change comprises long-term changes to global temperatures and precipitation regime
    • Climate change is strongly influenced by the carbon and water cycles.
    • Climate change can be attributed to human activity, primarily through their contributions to rising CO2 in the atmosphere.
    • Climate change has and will continue to have significant environmental, social, political and economic impacts if it isn’t slowed down soon.

    References

    1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2021). Cliamte Change. The Physical Science Basis. Summary for Policy Maker. IPCC Report (2021). https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM_final.pdf
    2. Food Production, Deforestation & CO2, Our World in Data, https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/co2-deforestation-for-food
    3. Fig. 1: Desertification (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Village_Telly_in_Mali.jpg) by the village of Telly (https://www.flickr.com/photos/72092071@N00/2703657040/) licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)
    4. Fig. 2: Flood risk (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Urban_flood_cropped.jpg) by johndal (https://www.flickr.com/photos/johndal/2835286257/in/photolist-5jxzPP-GMYPh-dxZ6YV-99EMz9-dgJGFN-dxSC3t-2jsbwH-5jBTQ5-5jxB8X-gF2qp-GMYQf-5jBUBC-5jxBgX-99ENnh-dgJP17-dgJMcb-9id1Bv-7XTr9i-7PFpsk-5jxz1x-7XWG8j-ampKGU-ampJwY-dgJE6G-5jBSSY-9N5KiH-9ig5N1-dgJQK1-5puhdW-ampMuj-dgJN3h-qXd4uv-4YfCmX-rQv3W4-dy5AQm-7PFpAT-9c7vP2-7cwNtp-5jxARv-9BAN4A-8ChMYf-7PFptx-99P3vb-6zszRC-k7x8Dw-7PJAVs-9bWQFh-Ure6Cq-iYJaX4-aHKMLg/) licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)
    5. Fig. 3: CO2 emissions (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Annual_CO2_emissions_from_deforestation,_global.png) by Our World in Data (https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/co2-deforestation-for-food?stackMode=absolute®ion=World&country=) licensed by CC BB-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Climate Change Geography

    What is climate change?

    Climate change is long-term shifts in the climate (e.g. temperatures and precipitation). It is caused by increased atmospheric greenhouse gases, which has increased exponentially since industrialisation movements began.

    How can we stop climate change?

    There are lots of mitigation and adaptation strategies that could slow or stop climate change. These include switching to renewable energy sources, reforestation (planting more trees) and carbon capture and storage (CCS). 

    What are the effects of climate change?

    Climate change affects the environment (melting ice/glaciers; more frequent and intense extreme weather events and sea level rise); society (death; displacement and political tensions) and economics (causing financial crisis). 

    What are the causes of climate change in geography?

    In geography, the causes of climate change fall under two categories; natural causes and human activity. 

    Natural causes of climate change include the Milankovitch Cycles and natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions. 

    Human activity such as the burning of fossil fuels results in an increased greenhouse effect and causes global temperatures to rise. 



    Why is climate change important?

    Climate change is important as it helps us to better understand the Earth and its natural cycles. Preventing climate change is important to protect and preserve natural habitats and ecosystems. This includes protecting human life. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is climate change?

    What is the evidence of global warming?

    True or false: some people are more affected by climate change than others

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