By Maria Trimarchi and Sarah Gleim
If all the glaciers and ice caps on the planet melted, global sea level would rise by about 230 feet. That amount of water would flood nearly every coastal city around the world [source: U.S. Geological Survey]. Rising temperatures, melting arctic ice, drought, desertification and other catastrophic effects of climate change are not examples of future troubles — they are reality today. Climate change isn't just about the environment; its effects touch every part of our lives, from the stability of our governments and economies to our health and where we live.
Where would you go if, say, a flood devastated the city you live in? Millions of people around the world have been forced to answer this question. In 2017, 68.5 million people were displaced — more than at any point in human history, according to the Brookings Institute. More than one-third of those were uprooted by sudden weather events, including floods, forest fires and intense storms. A 2018 report from the World Bank, which focused on three regions — Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America — found that without tangible climate action, more than 143 million people in just these three areas will be forced to move to escape the impacts of climate change by 2050.
But more than 1 billion people worldwide will live in countries with insufficient infrastructure to withstand climate change by 2050. The Pacific Islands are expected to be affected especially hard. Sea level there is already rising at almost 0.5 inches per year. Eight islands have already been submerged and two more are close to vanishing. By the year 2100, experts fear 48 more islands in the Pacific will be completely underwater.
So what about the people who live there? What do we call these people who will be displaced? It's actually complicated. It's difficult to determine what category these migrants should fall under because no global definition exists. Why does that matter? Without a standard method of classification, there's no way to track how many people are affected or displaced by an environmental or climate event. So the most commonly used term is "environmental refugee."
Experts credit the term and its definition to UN Environment Program (UNEP) researcher Essam El-Hinnawi, who in 1985 wrote the United Nations report titled "Environmental Refugees." El-Hinnawi defined environmental refugees as:
... those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life.
This working definition has been the baseline for current debate.
But according to the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, a refugee "is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion" [source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees]. Environmental refugees do not legally fall under this status.
Why environmental refugees flee their homes is a complicated mixture of environmental degradation and desperate socioeconomic conditions. People leave their homes when their livelihoods and safety are jeopardized. What effects of climate change put them in jeopardy? Climate change triggers, among other problems, desertification and drought, deforestation, land degradation, rising sea levels, floods, more frequent and more extreme storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, food insecurity and famine.
The September 2020 Ecological Threat Register Report, by the Institute for Economics & Peace, predicts the hardest hit populations will be:
- Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa
- Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Chad, India and Pakistan (which are among the world's least peaceful countries)
- Pakistan, Ethiopia and Iran are most at risk for mass displacements
- Haiti faces the highest risk of all countries in Central America and the Caribbean
- India and China will be among countries experiencing high or extreme water stress
The report also suggests that developed countries like the United States and regions like Europe are not immune. "The European refugee crisis in the wake of wars in Syria and Iraq in 2015 saw 2 million people flee to Europe and highlights the link between rapid population shifts with political turbulence and social unrest." Developed countries including Sweden, Norway, Ireland face little to no threat, the report found.
Climate change does not impact all people and all parts of the world in the same way. While floods ravage some areas, deserts are spreading in others. Desertification and depleted resources, including shortages of water and fertile land, are long-term consequences of climate change. But one of the biggest threats will be food insecurity.
"Ecological threats and climate change pose serious challenges to global peacefulness," Steve Killelea, founder and executive chairman of the Institute for Economics and Peace said in the in the 2020 Ecological Threat Report. "Over the next 30 years, lack of access to food and water will only increase without urgent global cooperation. In the absence of action civil unrest, riots and conflict will most likely increase. COVID-19 is already exposing gaps in the global food chain."
The report suggests global demand for food will increase by 50 percent by 2050. That means if there's no increase in food supply, many people could starve or be forced to flee in search of food. Currently, more than 2 billion people around the world are already food insecure.
When faced with the decision to flee, most people want to stay in their own country or region. Leaving a country requires money and could mean leaving behind family; simply relocating from a rural to urban area in search of work and resources may be easier. Plus, the chance to return and resettle back home is unlikely if a family leaves their country entirely. In instances when an area is temporarily inhabitable, like after a destructive hurricane, returning home may be an option. But when coastlines — or entire islands — are underwater, the possibility of going home is out of the question.
The future impacts of climate change will disproportionately affect the world's poorest but will also pressure countries around the globe through mass migration of refugees. Adaptation and resilience will be the key to reducing displacement risk — both temporary and permanent — in the forms of early warning systems and flood-defense infrastructure, sustainable agriculture and drought-resistant crops, as well as other protections.
This story originally appeared in HowStuffWorks and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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If weather is your mood, climate is your personality. That's an analogy some scientists use to help explain the difference between two words people often get mixed up.
In other words, weather exists in the short term. It's the state of the atmosphere in a specific area during a limited period (think minutes, hours, days or weeks). Climate, meanwhile, describes long-term average weather trends.
And if you're interested in the latter, you'd better know geography: Our global climate is made up of smaller regional climates. Break those down and you'll find local variations at just about every conceivable scale.
That brings us to microclimates, an amazing subject with broad applications for farming, conservation, wildlife management and city planning.
Climates are a bit like woven tapestries. The big picture is important, no question. But so are all the seemingly minor details found inside the larger whole.
Tommaso Jucker is an environmental scientist at the University of Bristol. In an email, Jucker says he'd define the term microclimate as "the suite of climatic conditions (temperature, rainfall, humidity, solar radiation) measured in localized areas, typically near the ground and at spatial scales that are directly relevant to ecological processes."
We'll talk about that last bit in a minute. But first, there's another criteria to discuss. According to some researchers, a microclimate — by definition — must differ from the larger area that surrounds it.
Forests provide us with some great examples. "The climate near the ground in a tropical rainforest is dramatically different from the climate in the canopy 50 meters [164 feet] above," says University of Montana ecologist Solomon Dobrowski in an email. "This vertical gradient among other factors allows for the staggering biodiversity we see in the tropics."
Likewise, scientists observed that a 2015 partial solar eclipse caused the air temperature of an Eastern European meadow to change more dramatically than it did in a nearby forest. That's because trees provide not only shade, but their leaves also reflect solar radiation. At the same time, forests tend to reduce wind speeds.
All those factors add up. A 2019 review of 98 wooded places — spread out across five continents — found that forests are 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) cooler on average than the areas outside them.
Now if you hate the cold, don't worry; there's a cozy exception to the rule. According to that same study, forests are usually 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than the external environment during the wintertime. Pretty cool.
A Bug's Life
When does a microclimate stop being, well, micro? In other words, is there a maximum size we should be aware of when discussing them?
Depends on who you ask. "In terms of horizontal scale, some have defined 'microclimate' as anything that is less than 100 meters [328 feet] in range," Jucker says. "I'm personally less prescriptive about this."
Instead, he says the "scale at which we want to measure [a particular] microclimate" ought to be "dictated" by the questions we're trying to answer.
"If I want to know how temperature affects the photosynthesis of a leaf, I should be measuring temperature at centimeter scale," Jucker explains. "If I want to know if and how temperature affects the habitat preference of a large, mobile mammal, it's probably more relevant to capture temperature variation across [tens to hundreds] of meters."
For instance, solitary plants have the power to generate itty-bitty microclimates. Just ask Peter Blanken, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the co-author of the 2016 book, "Microclimate and Local Climate."
"A single stalk of corn can create its own microclimate through the shading and changes in soil properties in the immediate vicinity of the stalk," Blanken says via email. "For a field of corn, the microclimate created would be much larger, extending over the entire field," Blanken says via email.
Many organisms eke out a living in some of the dinkiest microclimates you can imagine.
Take aphids, spider mites and leaf miner insects. All those critters are dwarfed by the plant leaves they feed on. And every leaf comes with its own microclimate. Observations show that aphids seek out cooler leaves while those other invertebrates prefer warmed ones.
Because none of these animals can generate their own body heat, leaf microclimates have a critical effect on their well-being.
The urban heat island effect is a good example of how microclimates work. NOAA
Microclimates on a Grand Scale
It's no secret that our planet is going through some rough times at the macro level. The global temperature is climbing; nine out of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2005. And by one recent estimate, roughly 1 million species around the world are facing extinction due to human activities.
"One of the big questions that ecologists and environmental scientists are trying to answer right now is how will individual species and whole ecosystems respond to rapid climate change and habitat loss," says Jucker. "...To me, [microclimates are] a key component of this research — if we don't measure and understand climate at the appropriate scale, then predicting how things will change in the future becomes a lot harder."
Developers have long understood the impact small-scale climates have on our daily lives. Urban heat islands are cities that have higher temperatures than neighboring rural areas.
Plants release vapors that can moderate local climates. But in cities, natural greenery is often scarce. To make matters worse, plenty of our roads and buildings have a bad habit of absorbing or re-emitting heat from the sun. Vehicle emissions don't exactly help the situation.
Still, it's not like Boston or Beijing are thermal monoliths. Sometimes, the documented temperatures within a single city vary by 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (8.3 to 11.1 degrees Celsius).
That's where metro parks and city trees come in. They have nice cooling effects on nearby neighborhoods. "Several cities around the world have developed programs to increase urban green spaces," says Blanken. "Tree planting programs and green roof programs, have been shown to lower surface temperatures, decrease air pollution and decrease surface water runoff (urban flash-flooding) in urban areas."
This story originally appeared in HowStuffWorks and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
Portable generators allow you to power your devices and certain appliances, even away from home or when your primary power source is taken offline. These devices are also perfect for camping or outdoor adventures. A portable solar generator can give you the power you need with a smaller ecological footprint by using solar panels. In this article, we'll outline some of the top options available in 2021.
Our Picks for the Best Portable Solar Generators
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
- Best Overall - Goal Zero Yeti 1500X
- Best High-Capacity - MAXOAK Bluetti EB150
- Best Expandable Power - EcoFlow RIVER Pro
- Best Compact Design - Renogy PHOENIX 300
- Best Portability - Suaoki S370
- Best for Camping - Jackery Explorer 300
- Best Price - Westinghouse iGen200s
How We Reviewed Portable Solar Generators
A good portable generator will offer you backup power in a convenient and reliable way. We have reviewed some of the top models on the market today, and arrived at a few that we think stand out from the rest.
To rank the best solar generators, we considered the following criteria:
- Size and weight. Smaller, more lightweight units offer much greater ease of use. We sought portable solar generators that aren't too challenging to lug around your home, or take with you when you go camping.
- Battery storage capacity. While your generator absorbs light through a solar panel, that energy is ultimately stored in a battery. The battery storage capacity, measured in watt-hours (Wh) determines how long you can use the generator before it requires a recharge.
- Inverter rating. Basically, inverter rating refers to the total number of watts that the solar generator can extract at any given time. Inverter rating, along with battery capacity, determine the wattage and power output of your generator.
- Expandability. Some generators come with a predetermined number of solar panels, while some allow you to add more solar panels as needed. This is an important feature to consider when looking for generators.
- Price point. Naturally, when looking for a new solar generator, staying on budget is always going to be a factor. We chose generators that are competitively priced.
The Best Portable Solar Generators
With these ranking factors in mind, here are our picks for the best portable solar generators available in 2021.
Goal Zero's line of Yeti portable power stations are well-suited for a wide range of off-grid uses, including emergency power, camping trips, and more. The Goal Zero Yeti 1500X is their most-popular large power station with enough power for everything from cell phones and laptops to medical devices like CPAP machines and even full-size refrigerators.
Why buy: The Goal Zero Yeti 1500X includes a 2000W AC (3500W Surge) inverter giving you the equivalent of a wall outlet power supply on-the-go. It also has seven different port options and a top-of-the-line app that makes it easy to monitor and manage your solar powered generator, no matter where you are.
For a high-capacity power station, check out the Bluetti EB150 from MAXOAK. Though it's not the most affordable option, you'll get a lot of features and utility for your investment. It includes a lithium ion battery capacity of 1500 Wh. When connected to three 150W solar panels, it can be recharged in about 3.5 to 4 hours.
Why buy: For a portable solar generator designed to power most household appliances under 1000W, the high-powered Bluetti EB150 is a great choice. MAXOAK also backs their product with a 24-month replacement or maintenance warranty.
EcoFlow boasts an impressive catalog of portable power stations, as well as reliable solar panels. We like the EcoFlow RIVER Pro power station because its technology enables incredibly fast recharging; you can connect it to two 110W solar panels to recharge in as little as 4.5 hours.
Why buy: The EcoFlow RIVER Pro includes a wide range of best-in-class technologies. Offering 720 Wh of power with three pure sine wave AC outlets, and weighing only 15.9 pounds, these units are well-suited for camping and hiking, as well as use around the house. You can also add an additional EcoFlow battery pack to upgrade the power of your generator as needed.
Renogy produces several different power stations and chargers, but we especially like the PHOENIX 300, a solar power solution that's extremely lightweight and compact. It comes with an easy-grip handle and only weighs 6.4 pounds, making it one of the most portable solar generators around while still offering up to 200W of AC power for off the grid activities.
Why buy: The PHOENIX 300 can provide 337 watt-hours for up to 8 hours of AC continuous power without the noise or fumes associated with gas generators. It includes a number of the most common charging ports like two AC adaptors, a USB-C, USB-A, USB, and a D-Tap port for photography equipment.
Suaoki is a company that's known for simple, functional, reliable technology. Their S370 portable solar generator isn't necessarily flashy, but it's an extremely lightweight option, perfect for camping, hiking, and other outdoor adventures. It includes 14 outlet ports and a pure sine wave inverter, making it a versatile power option.
Why buy: This is one of our top picks for camping and hiking, though it may also serve your needs as a backup power station for small appliances and electronics. A lithium-ion battery gives this generator an incredible capacity battery life, particularly in relation to its compact size.
Jackery's portable power stations are ideally suited for camping and hiking. The Explorer 300 offers great portability and fast rechargeable power at an affordable price. It includes two AC outputs, a USB-C, USB-A, USB ports, and a 12-volt car port.
Why buy: The Explorer 300 generator is a good option for those who are new to solar power, thanks to its low price and easy-to-use controls. Jackery offers a number of portable solar panel options, and the power station's MPPT technology means that it can be recharged from the sun in just 5.5 hours.
There are plenty of reasons to consider the Westinghouse iGen200s portable generator. This is one of the more affordable options on the market today, which makes it a good entry-level solar power solution. The unit offers four charging options. You can recharge with solar panels, with the power from your vehicle, with a household power outlet, or with a separate generator.
Why buy: For a simple and inexpensive solar power generator, Westinghouse makes an outstanding product. You can charge up to nine devices at a time; and, depending on how you use it, you can potentially get more than 40 hours out of your generator.
What Types of Batteries Do Solar Generators Use?
It's important to note that solar power generators may employ different kinds of batteries. The most common option is the lithium-ion battery. These tend to be more expensive than lead-acid batteries, at least on the front end. With that said, a lithium-ion battery will prove more durable, which usually makes it the smarter investment in the long run. Solar generators include charge controllers, which regulate the volts of energy coming from the solar panels to the battery to make sure the battery isn't overcharged and damaged.
The energy stored in the battery is converted from DC power into AC power using an inverter or adapter.
What Can You Power With a Portable Solar Generator?
There are different types of solar generators. A backup generator is primarily used to power your home, should your electricity go out. In this article, we focused on portable generators, which are mostly used for hiking and camping. With that said, a portable generator can also be really useful during power outages, potentially keeping your lights, electronic devices, and small devices or appliances on for several hours. Depending on the watts of power your solar system generator kit can support, you can use it to power things like phones, tablets, laptops, TVs, coffee makers, a mini-fridge, certain medical devices, and most anything you would plug into a car charger.
Some of the generators we've listed here can be charged by solar energy or via other sources, including vehicles and power outlets. These different charging solutions make a generator more versatile, though of course, solar energy is what you'll want to use if staying away from fossil fuels is your goal.
What are the Benefits of a Portable Solar Generator?
There are a number of reasons why you might consider a portable solar generator:
- These units are ideally suited for camping and hiking. The ones on our list range in weight from under 10 pounds to over 50, but they are all fairly easy to cart around as needed, or to keep in your camper or RV.
- Though they are not primarily intended to be emergency backup generators, they can certainly be used in that capacity. In particular, they can provide emergency power to important medical devices as well as phones and computers.
- Unlike gas generators, portable solar generators offer power without making a lot of noise or creating a lot of fumes. This makes them much more appealing for campsites.
- Portable solar generators are better for the environment, since they don't rely on gas or diesel fuel to run.
- Using a solar generator is ultimately more cost-effective as you will never need to purchase fuel to recharge it.
Solar Power Can Take You Further
Solar power is one of the best options for dependable, renewable energy. Not only can it help power your house, but you can use these portable generators to carry that power with you, wherever you may go.
There are clearly lots of options on the market today. We hope our guide is helpful to you as you assess our own backup power needs, and as you determine which portable solar generator will give you the greatest value. Note that you can find many of these solar power options through third-party retailers like Amazon. Do your due diligence as you seek the perfect, portable solar solution for you and your family.
Josh Hurst is a journalist, critic, and essayist. He lives in Knoxville, TN, with his wife and three sons. He covers natural health, nutrition, supplements, and clean energy. His writing has appeared in Health, Shape, and Remedy Review.
By Katie Lambert and Sarah Gleim
The United Nations suggests that climate change is not just the defining issue of our time, but we are also at a defining moment in history. Weather patterns are changing and will threaten food production, and sea levels are rising and could cause catastrophic flooding across the globe. Countries must make drastic actions to avoid a future with irreversible damage to major ecosystems and planetary climate.
But what about individuals? What can we do to pitch in and help save the Earth? There are plenty of things you can do every day to help reduce greenhouse gases and your carbon footprint to make a less harmful impact on the environment. Taking care of the Earth is not just a responsibility, it's a necessity. In that spirit, HowStuffWorks has come up with 10 things you can do now to help save the planet.
1. Conserve Water
The little things can make a big difference. Every time you turn off the water while you're brushing your teeth, you're doing something good. Got a leaky faucet? You might be dripping as much as 90 gallons (340 liters) of water down the drain every day [source: EPA]. So fix it! It's easy and cheap. And stop drinking bottled water. Switch to filtered tap water. You'll save a ton of cash and help reduce a ton of plastic waste in the process.
2. Be Car-conscious
If you can, stay off the road two days a week or more. You'll reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 1,590 pounds (721 kilograms) per year [source: EPA]. It's easier than you think. You can combine your errands — hit the school, grocery store and dog daycare in one trip. And talk to your boss about teleworking. It's a boon for you and your company. But being car conscious also means maintaining your car on a regular basis. You can improve your gas mileage by 0.6 percent to 3 percent by keeping your tires inflated to the proper pressure, and be sure to make necessary repairs if your car fails emission [source: EPA].
3. Walk, Bike or Take Public Transit
Walking and biking are obvious ways to reduce greenhouse gases. Plus you'll get some good cardio and burn some calories while you do it. If you live in an area that's not walkable, take advantage of your local mass transit if you can. Or carpool. Even one car off on the road makes a difference.
4. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
You can help reduce pollution just by putting that soda can in the recycling bin. It really does make a difference. Paper, too. Case in point: If an office building of 7,000 workers recycled all of its office paper waste for a year, it would be the equivalent of taking almost 400 cars off the road [source: EPA]. But you can also take reusable bags to the grocery, and avoid using disposable plates, spoons, glass, cups and napkins. They create huge amounts of waste. And buy products that are made of recycled materials. It all makes a difference.
5. Give Composting a Try
In 2015, (the last year figures were available) Americans generated 262.4 million tons (238 metric tons) of trash. Only 23.4 million tons (21.2 metric tons) of that was composted. Some was recycled and some was combusted for energy, but almost half of it — 137.7 million tons (124.9 metric tons) — ended up in the landfill. Imagine if you could divert more of that to your own compost? It would help reduce the amount of solid waste you produce, and what eventually winds up in your local landfill. Plus, compost makes a great natural fertilizer.
6. Switch to LEDs
Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are great. They can last 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs and they use at least two-thirds less energy, but even CFLS have issues. They're hard to dispose of because they contain mercury. Enter light-emitting diode, or LED bulbs. They emit light in a very narrow band wavelength so they're super energy-efficient. Start replacing your old incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs now (if you haven't already). They do cost more than CFLs and incandescents, but equivalent LED bulbs can last around 25,000 hours compared to the 1,000 hours that incandescent bulb might have lasted.
7. Live Energy Wise
Make your home more energy efficient (and save money). Your home's windows are responsible for 25 to 30 percent of residential heat gain and heat loss. If they're old and inefficient, consider replacing them. Also be sure your home has proper insulation. Insulation is measured in terms of its thermal resistance or R-value — the higher the R-value, the more effective the insulation. The amount of insulation your home needs depends on the climate, type of HVAC system, and where you're adding the insulation. Smaller things you can do right away include replacing your air filter regularly so your HVAC system doesn't have to work overtime. Keep your window treatments closed when it's extremely hot and cold outside. You can also consider installing a programmable thermostat like Nest so your system isn't running (and wasting energy) when you're not home.
8. Eat Sustainable Foods
Today, large-scale food production accounts for as much as 25 percent of the greenhouse emissions. So how do you eat sustainably? Choosing food from farmers that aim to conserve the natural resources and have as little impact on the land as possible. But even buying as much as you can from local farmers makes a different. Eating more whole grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts, and less red meats and processed foods does too. Grow your own fruits and vegetables. You can grow a garden!
9. Plant a Tree (or Two)
In 2018 the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the U.N. suggests an additional 2.5 billion acres (1 billion hectares) of forest in the world could limit global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) by 2050. That's a lot of trees, but you could plant one or two, right? One young tree can absorb CO2 at a rate of 13 pounds (5 kilograms) per tree. Every. Single. Year. And that's just an itty bitty baby tree. Once that tree reaches about 10 years old, it's at its most productive stage of carbon storage. Then it can absorb 48 pounds (21 kilograms) of CO2 per year. Trees also remove all other kinds of junk from the air, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and small particles. So go ahead, plant a tree. It's good for everybody.
10. Give Up Plastics
The statistics are shocking: People around the world buy 1 million plastic drinking bottles every minute, and use up to 5 trillion single-use plastic bags every year. Humans are addicted to plastic, and hardly any of it — about 9 percent — gets recycled. A staggering 8 million tons (7.25 metric tons) ends up in the ocean every year. Break the cycle. Stop buying bottled water. Say no to plastic shopping bags and use cloth bags instead. Don't use plastic straws. Drink from a reuseable cup instead of a plastic one. Avoiding plastic can divert a ton of waste from the oceans and landfill.
This story originally appeared in HowStuffWorks and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Mark Mancini
On Aug. 18, Iceland held a funeral for the first glacier lost to climate change. The deceased party was Okjökull, a historic body of ice that covered 14.6 square miles (38 square kilometers) in the Icelandic Highlands at the turn of the 20th century. But its glory days are long gone. In 2014, having dwindled to less than 1/15 its former size, Okjökull lost its status as an official glacier.
A plaque was later commissioned to honor the vanishing landmark. At the somber installation ceremony, around 100 people gathered to pay their respects, including hikers, scientists and Iceland's Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir. Speaking to the press, Jakobsdóttir warned that if current trends continue, her country stands to lose even more of its iconic glaciers in the near future.
The evidence is overwhelming: Greenhouse gas emissions (and other human activities) are radically transforming the planet on which we live. As a result, California's wildfire season is getting longer; thawing permafrost has destabilized Russian infrastructure; and yes, most of the world's glaciers are swiftly retreating.
With public concern on the rise, two relevant terms have entered the lexicon: "Climate change" and "global warming." These are often treated like synonyms, but they have different meanings.
Climate and Weather
Before proceeding further, there's another bit of terminology that we probably should clear up. The difference between climate and weather. Weather is the short-term state of the atmosphere in a specific corner of the world. Humidity, temperature, wind speed, atmospheric pressure and visibility are all factors that help dictate the weather at a particular moment in time.
In other words, weather doesn't last very long. It unfolds over the course of days, hours or even minutes. Therefore, it's liable to change quickly — which is why so many of us yearn for constant updates. Whenever you ask if your hometown is "supposed to get any rain" on a given day, you're inquiring about the weather.
Don't confuse weather with climate. The latter is far broader in scope. Basically, climate reflects an area's long-term weather averages and trends. Those are often established by decades (at least) of meticulous observation. Given the difference in scale, it makes sense that the climate is much slower to change than the weather.
And yet changes do occur. Averaged together, all the world's regional climates form what scientists know as the "global climate." This is liable to evolve and fluctuate over time — as are its regional components.
So far, 2018 is the fourth hottest year on record. Higher than normal temperatures are shown in red and lower than normal temperatures are shown in blue.
Ralf Goebel / GEMA
Ok, so what exactly does the term "climate change" mean? By the broadest definition, climate change includes any and all long-term fluctuations in one or more climate-related variables — such as average rainfall — within the same location.
Note that this applies to both regional climates and the global climate itself. So let's say northern Europe saw a dramatic spike in rainstorms and the trend continued for decades on end. That hypothetical scenario would count as an example of regional climate change, no matter what happened elsewhere in the world.
On the other hand, global warming is — well, global. More to the point, the term refers to an increase in a planet's average surface temperature. And here on Earth, that's definitely been climbing.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that between the years 1880 and 2016, our home planet's average surface temperatures increased to the tune of 1.71 degrees Fahrenheit (0.95 degrees Celsius).
Mind you, this is nothing to sneeze at. A planet-wide temperature shift of only a few degrees can have enormous ramifications. Fifteen thousand years ago, in a geologically-recent ice age, our world was only about 9 degrees Fahrenheit cooler (5 degrees Celsius) than it is today. And yet, that temperature was enough to keep almost a third of the planet's surface blanketed in ice.
Ah, but we're getting off-track. The main takeaway here is that global warming is a form of climate change — but climate change doesn't always manifest itself as global warming.
An Unprecedented Problem
Strange as it may sound, the recent warming caused by our greenhouse gas emissions may be provoking an increase in both flooding and droughts. While certain areas across the globe now receive enhanced precipitation, soils in some dryer parts of the world stand to lose a great deal of moisture.
To learn more, we reached out to Dr. Nathan Steiger. An atmospheric scientist at Columbia University, Steiger studies the effects that variations in climate have had — and still have — on human civilizations.
"Historically, societies were impacted most by the same kinds of disruptive climate events that occur today: prolonged and extreme heat and cold, droughts and floods," he said via email. "Often these climate changes in the past simply happened to people due to no fault of their own ... But sometimes these disruptive climate extremes were made worse by human mismanagement of their environments."
He points to agriculture-driven soil erosion as an example of the latter. "Areas that lose thick, rich soils are more susceptible to drying out during droughts, thus making the droughts even worse than they would have been."
In 2019, Steiger co-authored a comprehensive study which appeared in the journal, Nature. Using ice cores, coral samples, historical records and other lines of evidence, his team reviewed the history of climate shifts — large and small — over the past two millennia.
During that swath of time, there were a number of aberrant periods, including the unusually hot "Medieval Climate Anomaly" which lasted from 800 to 1200 CE.
Most of these events were regional in nature. Yet, Steiger and his colleagues found that for 98 percent of the planet, the single hottest period during the last 2,000 years was the late 20th century, when global temperatures were absolutely soaring.
So let's do a quick recap. More than 20 centuries of human history, our forebears never had to withstand any climate-related phenomenon that was as universally impactful — or frankly, alarming — as modern-day climate change.
Aren't we lucky?
This story originally appeared in HowStuffWorks. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.