Climate Change Facts from the Planet Earth Climate Expedition at the Wonder Rotunda. This material about climate change is drawn from the “Learn More” opportunities presented in the Planet Earth Climate Expedition at the Wonder Rotunda, an on-line educational theme park for kids, ages 7-12.
North Pole Environmental Observatory
Beginning in 2000, an international research team supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) has conducted annual expeditions each April to the North Pole to learn how the world’s northernmost sea helps regulate global climate. Each year the scientists set up a temporary camp on the sea ice near the North Pole to retrieve a two and a half mile-long line, known as a mooring, containing scientific instruments, to insert buoys into the ice and to otherwise sample the waters of the Arctic Ocean.
The team records data on everything from the salinity (amount of salt) of the water to the thickness and temperature of the ice cover. In addition to the challenge of establishing an observatory in such harsh conditions, the team has to contend with scuba diving in the icy Arctic Ocean, dealing with shifting sea ice that is frozen solid one day and open water the next, and keeping an ever-watchful eye for polar bears.
The mooring is recovered by sending an acoustic message to one of the releases, ordering it to separate the buoyant mooring from the anchor on the seabed. Since there is no certainty of being able to land an airplane at the mooring coordinates, a helicopter is often necessary.
Research Instruments Used at the North Pole Environmental Observatory
Each year the scientists retrieve the prior year’s mooring line and instruments to collect data on sea temperatures, salinity, current flows and ice thickness. Then, they lower a new mooring to collect another year’s worth of information.
To put a mooring in place, scientists melt and cut a 4 ft. hole in the ice using hot water melting apparatus, set up a tripod over hole, put a heavy chain and anchor on the line and then lower cable, adding to the line, at different depths, more than 17 instruments including current meters, salinity meters, temperature gathering instruments and an upward looking sonar to measure the thickness of the ice above. The entire mooring is 2.5 miles (or 14,000 feet) in length. Since satellite signals cannot reach beneath the ice, the scientists cannot communicate with the instruments.
Each instrument must be pulled out of the sea to obtain the data it has recorded. To ensure recovery of the instruments, also mounted on the mooring is a beacon to help find the mooring when it comes up under the ice. Getting the components out of the water is an operation requiring divers.
Global Ocean Conveyor
The Global Ocean Conveyor is the pattern by which sea water travels the world’s oceans. The conveyor functions like the human heart. Warmer water is pumped up to the North Pole and freshwater (runoff from melting ice) gets pumped down. This pattern occurs because of differences in water density. In the North Atlantic, the differences in water density are mainly caused by differences in temperature. Colder water is denser than warmer water. Water heated near the Equator travels at the surface of the ocean north into cold high latitudes where it becomes cooler. As it cools, it becomes denser and sinks to the deep ocean.
More warm surface (fresh) water flows in to take its place. It cools, then it sinks, and the pattern continues. As the Earth continues to warm and Arctic sea ice melts, the increasing flow of freshwater from the melting ice is making seawater at high latitudes less dense. The fresher, less dense water will not be able to sink and circulate through the deep ocean as it does currently.
Scientists estimate that this could slow or stop the Global Ocean Conveyor within the next few decades. This could change the climate of northern Europe and parts of North America which depend upon the ocean currents to carry warmth from the tropics up to their higher latitudes.
Threat to Animal Habitats from Melting Sea Ice at the North Pole
Almost all of a polar bear’s food, which includes seals, fish, and even beluga whales, comes from the sea. The floating sea ice is a perfect vantage point for the bears as they hunt for food. Unfortunately, the amount of sea ice floating in the Arctic region is shrinking each year.
Pieces of sea ice are getting smaller and further apart. The bears must swim farther– 60 miles or more– through the chilly Arctic Ocean to get from one piece of ice to another. Even though bears are exceptional swimmers, because the bears now have to swim farther to find the next piece of sea ice, some become exhausted during the long journey and drown.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service recently added polar bears to the threatened species list. Another species threatened by shrinking ice in Antarctica are the Adele and Emperor Penguins, which like Polar Bears, use the ice for hunting and breeding.
Albedo Effect and Evidence of Melting Polar Ice Cap
At the North Pole, the climate has warmed rapidly in the past few decades. Average temperatures in the Arctic are rising twice as fast as they are elsewhere in the world. In the opposite hemisphere, the Antarctic Peninsula has also warmed rapidly- five times faster than the global average.
Why are the polar regions particularly susceptible to global warming? The ice and snow in the polar regions, because of their light color, reflect most incoming solar energy back out to space. his reflection of solar energy is known as ice albedo. However, as the Earth’s oceans get warmer, the polar ice caps are shrinking.
As a result, less of the incoming solar radiation is reflected back out to space and more of it is absorbed by the Earth’s surface and oceans. The solar radiation creates an escalating cycle: warmer oceans cause melting ice, leading to even warmer oceans and even more rapidly melting ice.
Mountain glaciers are flowing ice, or what some people call ice rivers. Glaciers are first formed by snow. When snowflakes pile up to a certain thickness, the snowflakes get pressed together in the shape of a snowball under high pressure. These are called firn.
As new snow falls on the mountain, the old snow gets packed down. The shapes create a mass of solid ice. When the ice accumulates to around 300 feet in thickness, the ice at the bottom begins to move slowly down the mountainside, and a glacier is created.
In 1827, a stone hut was built on the Eagle Glacier in the European Alps. Thirteen years later, the hut had moved further down the glacier by 5000 feet. Scientists said that the hut couldn’t move by itself and it hadn’t – the glacier had. The hut had simply been moving down on top of the glacier.
Shrinking Mountain Glaciers
One of the important functions of glaciers is their ability to supply water to people. Glaciers store water in the form of ice during wet and colder periods. But, in the dry and warmer periods, they provide water through the runoff of melting ice. As glaciers shrink and disappear, this supply of water will be diminished and eventually be lost. This will affect the entire range of the tropical Andes, in South America, home to over 30 million people. Many large cities and farming communities in the Andes depend on glacial runoffs for their water.
According to scientists glaciers are shrinking at record rates and many could disappear within decades. Scientists measuring the health of almost 30 glaciers around the world found that ice loss reached record levels in 2006. The World Glacier Monitoring Service reports that glaciers lost an average of about a foot of ice a year between 1980 and 1999. But since 2000, the pace has accelerated and the average loss has increased to about 20 inches.
The Earth’s Greenhouse Effect
Goldilocks might have said that: “Venus is too hot, Mars is too cold, and Earth is just right.” The fact that Earth is suitable for life cannot be explained simply because the Earth orbits at just the right distance from the Sun.
The Earth’s moderate temperatures are also the result of having just the right kind of atmosphere. Venus’ atmosphere would produce super hot conditions on our planet, and Mars’ atmosphere would leave us in a deep freeze. On Earth, parts of our atmosphere act as an insulating blanket of just the right thickness, trapping sufficient energy from the Sun to keep average temperatures hospitable to life. The Earth’s insulating layer is a collection of gases called greenhouse gases because the gases trap heat like the glass walls of a greenhouse do.
These gases are mainly water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Without the Greenhouse Effect, Earth would heat up, but at night, all of the heat would radiate back into space and the planet’s surface temperature would fall far below zero very rapidly.
Effect of Fossil Fuel Emissions
When fossil fuels, like coal, oil or gasoline, are burned to power factories, electric utility plants, and cars and trucks, most of the carbon emissions enter the atmosphere as carbon dioxide gas.
Five and a half billion tons of carbon are released into the air each year by burning fossil fuels. Of this massive amount, 3.3 billion tons stays in the atmosphere.
The increasing amount of carbon that is being emitted from the burning of fossil fuels into the Earth’s atmosphere is making the Greenhouse Layer thicker. This is trapping more heat from the Sun, and thus, preventing it from escaping into space.
Alternatives to burning fossil fuel, such as energy created from wind, using wind turbines, from the sun, using solar panels, and nuclear energy, do not release carbon into the atmosphere. This makes them helpful alternative energy sources in the fight against global warming.
Important Role of Oceans and Rainforests in Absorbing Carbon Emissions
Oceans absorb vast amounts of carbon dioxide gas. Carbon dioxide is also absorbed by billions of tiny plankton, also known as phytoplankton, which fall to the ocean bottom when they die, trapping carbon in deep bottom layers of sediment.
Scientists are currently experimenting to see if they can stimulate the growth of the ocean’s plankton by adding iron to the ocean floor. If scientists are successful, iron might be used to increase the absorption of carbon dioxide by oceans as part of the fight against global warming.
Rain forests are like sponges when it comes to carbon emissions. Through the process of photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon dioxide gas and use it as fuel for their growth.
International Cooperation on Climate Change
In 1992, 192 countries joined an international treaty — the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — to begin to consider what can be done to reduce global warming and to cope with whatever temperature increases are inevitable.
The Convention recognizes that the global climate is shared by all nations and people, and the stability of the global climate can be damaged by emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
More than 180 countries approved an addition to the treaty in 1997 called the Kyoto Protocol, which sets specific targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
While the Convention on Climate Change encouraged countries to stabilize their greenhouse gas emissions, the Kyoto Protocol legally commits them to do so.
Your Carbon Footprint
Your carbon footprint is the amount of carbon produced by all of your activities. For instance, producing the electricity that powers your video game may be putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere if fossil fuels were used to create that electricity. Carbon dioxide is given off when you ride in a gasoline powered car.
You can think of your carbon footprint as a measure of your impact on the environment. Having a small carbon footprint is better than having a large one. Using less energy reduces our carbon footprint.
Ideas for Reducing Your Carbon Footprint
Here are some ideas you might consider: Turn things off when they are not being used, such as lights, video games, computers, and televisions. Use compact fluorescent light bulbs which use one-quarter of the energy of standard ones.
Recycle paper, plastic, aluminum cans, or glass. Turn off the water while you are brushing your teeth. (Pumping and cleaning drinking water is a large user of electricity in some places.) Decide what you want before opening the refrigerator door so it doesn’t stay open longer than needed.
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Interested in getting more climate change facts for kids? Wonder Rotunda offers educational games for kids ages 7 -12 to help them learn about important subjects such as global warming and marine life conservation. Visit us today to learn more about our theme park.
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