Climate change

Discovering Geology


What is climate and what is climate change?

‘Weather’ describes the combination of wind, rain, temperature and other natural atmospheric conditions we experience at a particular time and place. Climate is the pattern of weather of an area averaged over many years. So, if we have extremes in weather conditions, such as a long summer drought or a very cold winter, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the climate is changing. We can only show whether climate change has occurred after decades of careful measurements and analysis.

The climate system

We can see from the above diagram that the climate system has many components that interact with each other; a change in one component may alter the operation of another. The effects of changes are often dependent on the operation of feedback mechanisms. A feedback that enhances an initial change in climate is positive, but those that decrease the size of the change are negative.

For example, if the amount of solar energy absorbed on the Earth’s surface were to increase, then the surface temperature would increase. This would lead to a decrease in the amount of snow cover. As snow reflects more solar energy than land, vegetation or water, a decrease in the amount of land covered by snow would allow more solar radiation to be absorbed and so a positive feedback is initiated.

Skaftafellsjökull Glacier

What causes the Earth’s climate to change?

Geological records demonstrate that there have been a number of large variations in Earth’s climate.

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Thawing permafrost in Herschel Island, 2013. Source: Boris Radosavljevic.

The carbon story

The carbon cycle describes the process in which carbon atoms continually travel from the atmosphere to the Earth, where they get stored in rocks, oceans and organisms, and then released back into the atmosphere.

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The greenhouse effect: some of the infrared radiation passes through the atmosphere, but most is absorbed and re-emitted in all directions by greenhouse gas molecules and clouds. The effect of this is to warm the Earth's surface and the lower atmosphere.

The greenhouse effect

Burning fossil fuels puts more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, which acts as an insulating blanket around the Earth, trapping more of the Sun’s heat.

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Sandstone coloured red with iron oxides, indicating a hot climate at the time of deposition.

Impacts of climate change

Temperature rises can affect agriculture, sea levels and the frequency of extreme weather incidents. We can study past climate change by looking at the evidence in rocks, fossils and changes in the landscape.

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Understanding carbon capture and storage

Carbon capture and storage involves capturing carbon dioxide at emission sources, such as power stations, then transporting and storing it underground.

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What are we doing about climate change?

What are we doing about climate change?

BGS is committed to research aimed at slowing down the effects of a changing climate, whilst helping society to become resilient to climate change.

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You may also be interested in:

Climate through time feature image

Climate change through time

The Climate through time poster helps explain our planet’s changing climate and the different rocks that formed as environmental conditions varied through geological time.

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Wood River, Chiloquin, South Oregon.

Geological processes

Planet Earth is dynamic with a surface that is always changing.

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Rocks and minerals

Find out more about the differences between rocks and minerals and how they are formed.

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