Science is complicated.

It is, you know. Really, really complex – which may seem obvious, but it was when I was reading a Guardian article about global warming and the shrinking (or not) of the Greenland ice sheet that it struck me: there are so many interlinking processes and systems involved in climate change that it is impossible for the popular media to explain it properly in the space available, to the lay person.

That is not to say that people are too stupid to understand it; far from it. Just that it is not something that can be explained in a page; or even two pages. It is one of those subjects that, when written about in the daily press, should encourage people – not just suggest to them – to go forth and find out more. There is tons of information out there; you don’t have to be doing an Open University degree, or even buying loads of books. There is New Scientist magazine, Nature magazine, their websites, countless phenomenal bloggers (some of whom are over on the right) all scrambling to educate and inform people.

This issue isn’t about convincing everybody that the world is going to end, it’s about educating the masses on the amazing planet we all share. And how we should really be looking after it a bit better.

Climate change is a fact. It’s not something that can be denied. The climate is in constant flux, and has been since the dawn of time. We are, at present, reaching the end (if previous Earthly form is anything to go by) of an interglacial period. Yes: we are in an ice age.

This interglacial period, which is pretty pleasant, has been pottering along for around 10,000 years. Modern humans  have been around for much longer than that. (I’m not talking mp3 players and Pop Tarts here, either.) So it seems reasonable, with all we know and have achieved, that when the ice returns the human race will survive (for good or bad…) and there will be Interesting Times.

What I’m interested in is how much of the climate change that is going on at the moment is anthropogenic. I suspect that we are speeding things up a little… Here is where we look at rates of temperature increase.

Looking at ice cores, we know that the Earth’s mean temperature rose about 10°C during the past 20,000 years, and it happened over the space of about 10,000 years within that time. The rate of increase of the Earth’s mean temperature was about 0.1°C per century.

We also know that between 1850 and 2004, the Earth’s mean temperature rose by about 0.8°C. This means that over the last couple of hundred years, the rate of increase is around 0.5°C per century.

So, it appears that this recent global warming is unusual when the bigger picture is examined. But we don’t really know, yet, why this should be so. And this is were it becomes so very complicated! So far, in Book One of S104, Exploring Science, I have studied:

  • The Earth’s surface temperature: how it’s measured; uncertainties; GMST (global mean surface temperature); GMST in the recent past; GMST in the distant past (and how we find out); ice ages
  • What determines the Earth’s GMST? energy and power; a balance of energy gains and losses; modelling the behaviour of the GMST; rate of energy gain from solar radiation; solar radiation in the Earth’s atmosphere and at its surface; rate of energy loss from the Earth’s surface; atmospheric infrared radiation absorbed by the Earth’s surface; the greenhouse effect
  • The Earth’s atmosphere: its structure and composition; greenhouse gases; processes of recycling
  • The water cycle: reservoirs and transfers between reservoirs; the stability of the water cycle; feedback effects
  • The carbon cycle: carbon reservoirs and transfers between reservoirs; biogeochemical cycles; the biological carbon cycle; the geochemical carbon cycle; human impacts on cycles in balance

This is a HUGE amount of information – and it’s only an overview of the processes affecting climate change! How on Earth a summary of all this can be presented to people in such a way that they understand how it works is beyond me. It’s beyond the scope of most of the daily press – they simply don’t have the room.

Part of my mission is to talk to people I know about all this. In person, and through this blog – not to preach about saving the planet, but to encourage people to open their eyes and their minds and learn about our home. Do you have an opinion? Good! What is it based upon? If it’s just based upon what you read in the Daily Mail, or the Guardian, GO AND FIND OUT MORE!

Don’t just read one side of an argument – take a look at the bigger picture, and then begin to make up your mind. Science is fantastic. It’s awesome. It is too easy, in this age of instant news, to simply be told what to think, especially when people are so busy. But a little bit of time spent reading – or watching – about a subject is enriching; being informed is being powerful.

Go forth and educate yourselves. Please!

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