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Climate Change Background

Climate Change Background

Climate Change Science

The science is clear and scientists have come to a consensus: climate change is happening and it is primarily caused by human activity. As we go about our daily lives, the decisions we make, the things we buy, the places we go, the food we eat, and our homes and businesses all put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in some way. These greenhouse gas emissions include carbon dioxide, which has reached a concentration in the atmosphere that the Earth hasn’t experienced for more than 400,000 years. As the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increases, changes in the climate occur as a result, which in turn is causing devastating environmental, social, and economic effects.

The Greenhouse Effect

When greenhouse gases are emitted they begin to accumulate in the atmosphere, absorbing sunlight and heat. The trapped heat acts like a blanket, causing the Earth to warm through a process called the ‘greenhouse effect’. As global temperatures rise, more polar ice melts, shrinking the white reflective area and expanding dark surface areas, such as oceans, lakes, and land that absorb the sun’s rays. This chain of events speeds up the rate at which the world warms, rather than progressing at a slow and steady pace.

The greenhouse effect is incredibly important. In fact, the greenhouse effect is what allows life on Earth to exist. If it wasn’t for this process, the Earth’s oceans would freeze, and life as we know it would not be able to exist. As a result, there is a very fine balance of greenhouse gases that needs to be achieved. Too few greenhouse gases and the Earth becomes too cold. Too many greenhouse gases and the Earth becomes too warm.

“Climate plays a vital role in Georgian Bay’s environment and ecosystems. Global temperatures, regional climate, and local weather affect the physical and biological conditions of our region, determining which species live here and how human activities are affected. The habitats we know and the systems we depend on are vulnerable to climate change. It is important that we understand these threats so we can reduce them (mitigation) and build resilience by adapting to new and changing climatic conditions.”

Benjamin John, Climate Change & Energy Specialist, Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve

Greenhouse Gases

The Earth’s atmosphere is made up of a number of different gases. Of these gases, the ones that absorb and emit radiant energy and power the greenhouse effect are the ones that we refer to as greenhouse gases. There are lots of different greenhouse gases that exist in our atmosphere, and each one of them has their own characteristics. For example, each greenhouse gas stays in the atmosphere for different amounts of time, and some are more effective than others at warming the Earth.

Some of these greenhouse gases are natural, put into the atmosphere by volcanoes, soil, decomposition, animal and human respiration, and other natural processes. Humans also produce a lot of these natural greenhouse gases through non-natural processes, like driving cars and trucks and burning different fuels to heat our homes. However, some greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are not natural and can only be found in the atmosphere because they were put there by human activities; we call these synthetic greenhouse gases.

Source: United States National Park Service

Common Natural & Synthetic Greenhouse Gases

Simply put, water vapour is water in a gaseous form, made through evaporation. In fact, water vapour is one of the most important greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. As part of the hydrologic cycle, water vapour will eventually return to Earth in the form of rain, snow, hail, or other forms of precipitation, making it a crucial component for life on Earth.

Unlike some of the other greenhouse gases, water vapour in itself cannot force changes on climate. Instead, carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases, and water vapour work together in what is called a positive feedback loop; a process which in this case causes the Earth’s warming to be amplified. As carbon dioxide emissions increase, the resulting temperature increase causes more water to be evaporated, turning it into water vapour. Water vapour is an excellent heat insulator, so as water vapour levels increase, so too does the temperature, causing even more water to be evaporated and repeating the process.

This is why it is so important to limit the amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere. Without the added temperature changes caused by the other greenhouse gases, water vapour’s influence on amplifying temperature changes will not be as severe.

Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring greenhouse gas and is produced by decaying organisms, through animal and human respiration, and from volcanoes, to name a few. When the sun’s energy hits the Earth, carbon dioxide helps hold it close to Earth in the form of heat.

Unfortunately, human activity has been adding unsustainable quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gasoline. As more carbon dioxide is put into the atmosphere through human activities, more of the Sun’s energy is trapped causing the Earth to warm. These added carbon dioxide emissions from human activities are the most prevalent contributor to climate change.

Methane is a naturally occurring greenhouse gas and is produced by underwater decaying plants, wetlands, volcanoes, melting glaciers, and the digestion systems of some animals, to name a few.

Similar to carbon dioxide, human activity has been adding unsustainable quantities of methane into the atmosphere as a result of livestock agriculture, through the burning of fossil fuels, and our solid waste landfills. While methane doesn’t exist in the same quantities as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it is concerning because it is 25 times more effective at warming the Earth in comparison to carbon dioxide.

Ozone is a naturally occurring greenhouse gas that is found in the atmosphere. Together, atmospheric ozone makes up the ozone layer, which protects us from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Ozone can be produced by cars burning gasoline or factories, and when found close to the ground as a result of these activities, it acts as a greenhouse gas.

Nitrous oxide is a naturally occurring greenhouse gas produced by the oceans and soil as part of the nitrogen cycle.

Human activity has been adding dangerous amounts of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere as a result of wastewater management, some manufacturing processes, agriculture, and the burning of fossil fuels. Like methane, nitrous oxide doesn’t exist in the same quantities as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, nitrous oxide emissions produced by humans are concerning because they are 298 times more effective at warming the Earth in comparison to carbon dioxide.

CFCs and HCFCs are a group of synthetic greenhouse gases made from different combinations of hydrogen, chlorine, fluorine, and carbon. Because CFCs and HCFCs are synthetic greenhouse gases, they are not found naturally in the atmosphere. Instead, they enter the atmosphere as a result of refrigeration, air conditioning, propellants for medical aerosols, blowing agents for foams, solvents, and degreasing and cleaning agents. CFCs and HCFCs are powerful greenhouse gases and are prohibited in Canada because of their ability to destroy the Earth’s protective ozone layer.

HFCs are synthetic greenhouse gasses that were made to temporarily replace CFCs and HCFCs. HFCs are considered a temporary replacement because in comparison to CFCs and HCFCs, they stay in the atmosphere for shorter periods of time and are less damaging to the ozone layer. These greenhouse gases are now used in the same applications as CFCs and HCFCs, as well as in building insulation, and fire extinguisher systems. HFCs are considered ‘super greenhouse gasses’, as they are often thousands of times more effective at warming the Earth in comparison to carbon dioxide.


Other Contributions

As a country, Canada produces approximately 1.6% of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. While this may not seem like much, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions make it one of the top 10 emitters in the world from a total emissions perspective, and one of the top 3 in terms of emissions produced per person.

What does this look like?

In 2016, the average Canadian personally contributed 3.9 tonnes of CO2e. The average Ontarian, however, personally contributed 3.7 tonnes of CO2e. Try our carbon calculator to see how your greenhouse gas emissions compare!

Did you know? Measuring Greenhouse Gases.

It’s common to measure greenhouse gas emissions in CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalents. Each greenhouse gas has its own heat-absorbing capabilities and atmospheric lifetime. By grouping all greenhouse gases into a single unit, it allows researchers and scientists to make equal comparisons of different greenhouse gases.

Climate Change FAQs

Yes, over 97% of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate change is happening and that human activity is the primary cause.

Global warming refers to the long-term temperature trend of progressive warming of the planet. Climate change encompasses a much broader range of changes happening around the world in relation to climatic conditions, such as rising sea levels, accelerated glacial melt, more frequent and severe weather events, shifts in habitat ranges, average temperature and precipitation changes, and more. In fact, global warming is one of the many impacts caused by climate change.

Weather refers to the state of environmental conditions over a short period of time, typically on a day-to-day or hour-to-hour basis. For example, weather can be considered the day-to-day or hour-to-hour combination of temperature, precipitation, cloudiness, wind, humidity, and visibility. Climate is the weather of a place averaged over a long period of time, typically many decades.

Although weather predictions are improving in accuracy, it is difficult to predict weather far in advance because weather is complex and dynamic. Factors from today’s weather will influence tomorrow’s weather, which will then influence the following day’s weather and so on and so forth. As we look further into the future, trying to understand the growing number of factors and uncertainties makes it increasingly difficult to accurately predict weather.

Climate models, on the other hand, don’t predict day-to-day weather. Rather, climate models look at weather experienced in the past to build average trends that suggest what environmental conditions we can expect in the future. To give an example, we don’t know what the precise temperature will be on any given day in the Georgian Bay Biosphere region in 50 years. However, by averaging weather we have experienced in the past, the trend produced by climate models tells us that the temperature will be warmer than it is today.

Some of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does come from natural sources. Biological decomposition, naturally occurring wildfires, human and animal respiration, and venting volcanoes are all examples of natural carbon dioxide sources. On the other hand, the oceans, phytoplankton, and plants and trees are all examples of carbon sinks, meaning they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These carbon dioxide sinks and sources are part of the carbon cycle and help to regulate the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Although the carbon cycle occurs naturally, human activity is having considerable influence on it. Essentially, human activity is removing or degrading carbon sinks while simultaneously putting additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This means that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are increasing while the Earth’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide is decreasing.

This builds upon the difference between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’. As we move into the future, weather will continue to fluctuate naturally, meaning the possibility of cold and snowy winters will still exist. In fact, erratic weather patterns and extreme fluctuations are one of the many impacts of climate change. The difference, however, is the frequency at which we experience these cold and snowy winters. Climate takes into consideration decades of experienced weather and seasonal conditions to produce trends that tell us the weather that we can expect in the future. Therefore, as the warming trend continues we can infer that we will experience gradually warmer and less snowy winters, but it doesn’t eliminate the possibility of an extremely cold and snowy winter occurring.

There are countless ways that climate change affects ecosystems on land and in the water. It’s difficult to say what precise changes will occur, since we still don’t know everything about our ecosystems today. However, what we do know, is that our ecosystems will be different. As temperatures and precipitation levels change, habitat and migration ranges will move north and south and the distribution of plants and animals will be different than today. This will have major impacts on biodiversity, ecosystem compositions, functions, and food webs. Climate change will also affect abiotic ecosystem components. For example, reduced ice coverage on Georgian Bay will alter seasonal ice bridges, affecting how animals move across the landscape.

Yes. Climate change impacts all aspects of our lives and society. Climate change affects everything from the food we eat and the price we pay for it, our recreation opportunities, health, insurance, and much more.

A: There are a number of ways that you can help the Georgian Bay Biosphere take action on climate change. Reducing your greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to future climatic conditions are a great start. Try our carbon calculator to learn how much greenhouse gases you produce in a year. By knowing how much greenhouse gases you produce in a year, it is easier to identify and understand ways you can work towards reducing them. Visit our climate resources for other ways you can take climate action.

Yes, the actions of all individuals matter. The greatest contribution to climate change comes from the greenhouse gas emissions that are produced when we use energy. By changing the types of energy we use, our consumer behaviours, and reducing the amount of emissions we each produce, we can all have a positive impact on climate change.

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