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What’s REALLY Warming the Earth?

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July 2016 was the hottest July ever recorded.

Same with June.

And also May.

April, though…

April was also the hottest April.

In fact, every month going back to October 2015 has been the hottest since 1880.

Cue the Nelly.

It’s hard to argue Earth isn’t heating up.

Because… unless you have a neck problem… it IS.

But what’s REALLY warming the Earth?

The climate’s a complex system, influenced by everything from our orbit to gases in our

atmosphere to volcanoes.

And when we say warmer… warmer compared to WHAT?

For most of history, temperature records looked something like this…

“Hot today.

Hotter‘n’yesterday.

Gonna be hot tomorrow.”

But with the development of accurate thermometers and standardized temperature scales in the

1700s, we could finally get some real data, from ships crossing the ocean, weather stations

around the world, hashtag colonialism.

But weather isn’t climate, and a few temperature records do NOT a complete global climate history

make.

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that we were collecting enough data in enough places

to figure out an average temperature for the whole world, which is why US climate graphs

start here while the UK goes back to here.

Should we believe what Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson wrote in their weather journal?

Can we really trust all those old records?

These are good questions, but climate scientists have looked at the data through many different

lenses, and every time they do the math, they get the same answer.

Earth is warming up, fast.

But none of this explains the cause.

It could be human activity, but it could also be so many other things.

Earth’s orbit is pretty wobbly.

Our elliptical path around the sun spins like a hula hoop.

Earth’s axis draws a circle every 21,000 years, and wobbles back and forth every 41,000,

and all these affect Earth’s climate.

But scientists understand these changes really well, and when they use them to predict climate

change?

They don’t see any.

The sun provides almost all of Earth’s heat, and it also changes in cycles, dimming and

brightening sorta like a light bulb.

For most of the last thousand years, when the sun turned up, temperatures rose on Earth,

and when the sun dimmed, temperatures fell.

But in the past few decades, the sun’s been cooling slightly, yet Earth keeps getting

hotter.

Solar activity can’t explain today’s climate change.

We know carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere, and the last time Earth’s CO2 levels were

this high, Homo sapiens didn’t exist.

But maybe all this CO2 is Earth’s fault?

When volcanoes erupt, they release tons of the stuff, like little magma powered Earth

burps.

Geologists measured how much, and it turns out humans release about a hundred times more

CO2.

Volcanic activity can’t explain climate change.

Some things actually cool the Earth.

Cutting down more trees makes Earth’s surface lighter, it reflects more light back into

space.

Clouds, pollutants, and aerosols in the atmosphere do the same thing, they make our atmosphere

reflective, so less radiation gets in.

Yet even with these cooling effects getting stronger, Earth’s getting warmer.

But we know that greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane have skyrocketed, and when we

calculate how temperatures should change based based on those levels, we finally see a rise.

Subtract the cooling from trees and clouds and pollution, and it matches more than a

century of data.

This isn’t magic, it’s math.

These climate graphs don’t show absolute temperatures, because absolute temperatures,

the number on a thermometer, can be misleading.

The top of a mountain will always be colder than the valley below, but if they are both

a degree above normal, it gives us a hint that the larger climate might be different.

This is why we look at the “anomaly”… how different today’s average temperature

is from the average temperature somewhere in the past, the degrees above “normal.”

But what IS normal?

The last month Earth’s temperature was below the 20th century average was December…

1984.

Many of you haven’t seen below-average temperatures in your lifetime.

July 2016 was the 379th consecutive month, and the 40th July in a row, of above average

temperatures.

Yet you probably heard more news lately about breaking Olympic records than climate records.

Are we really just… used to this?

Maybe…

In 1995, biologist Daniel Pauly coined the idea of “shifting baselines”, the idea

that we evaluate change very differently depending on what we’re comparing to.

Today, about half a million bison live in North America, a remarkable recovery from

the late 19th century.

But compared to the 20 to 30 million that roamed the plains before 1600, our bison baseline

suddenly paints a very different picture.

We know how hot Earth has been over the past century and a half.

We have the data.

Scientists understand that Earth’s climate is a complex puzzle, whose pieces affect one

another in many ways.

When they put those pieces together, to recreate that history, the picture is clear.

Let’s take a long hard look at it.

Stay curious.