Overview: Global warming and climate change

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Authors: Derek Paul and Metta Spencer

This planet is gradually warming, mainly because of the burning of fossil fuels, which add heat-trapping gases to Earth’s atmosphere. The increased temperature changes the climate in other ways too, including the rise in sea levels; ice mass loss in Greenland, Antarctica, the Arctic and mountain glaciers worldwide; shifts in the times when flowers bloom; and extreme weather events.

Life on Earth is dependent on a layer of gases, primarily water vapor, in the lower atmosphere that trap heat from the sun, while radiating some of it back and keeping our planet at a temperature capable of supporting life.

The sunlight that remains trapped is our source of energy and is used by plants in photosynthesis, whereas the remainder is reflected as heat or light back into space. Climate forcing (or “radiative forcing”) is the differential between the amount of sunlight absorbed by Earth and the amount of energy radiated back to space.

Several factors determine the size and direction of this forcing; for example light surfaces are more reflective than dark ones, so geographical regions covered by ice and snow reflect back more than areas covered by dark water or dark forests; this variable is called the “albedo effect.”

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