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.
A good backup generator can help you keep your home running smoothly, even in the event of a major power outage. And, when you choose a solar generator, you can power your home using clean, renewable energy from the sun. By contrast, gas and diesel generators burn fossil fuels, and are extremely loud and spew harmful emissions into the atmosphere. Here are the best solar power generators available today that can provide a cleaner alternative for home generators.
Our Picks for the Top Solar Generators
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. You can learn more about our review methodology here. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
- Best Overall - Renogy Lycan Powerbox
- Best All-Purpose - Goal Zero Yeti 6000X
- Best for Camping - Jackery Explorer 1000
- Most Affordable - Westinghouse iGen600s
- Fastest Charging- EcoFlow DELTA
- Best for Appliances - MAXOAK Bluetti AC200P
- Most Powerful - Point Zero Energy Titan
How We Reviewed the Best Solar Generators
There are a number of factors we considered when choosing which solar power generators to recommend, including:
- Battery capacity. Battery storage capacity is an important ranking factor. A greater battery capacity means the generator can store more energy, which ultimately means it will last longer without requiring a recharge. This is measured in watt-hours (Wh).
- Power output. When your generator is up and running, it will put out a certain amount of energy, measured in watts. It's important to select a generator that offers enough watts for you to power your essential home appliances.
- Inverter rating. The inverter is a critical part of any backup power generator. Basically, this is the component that turns solar energy into AC (alternating current) electricity. Inverter rating, along with battery capacity, determine how much power you can get from your home backup generator.
- Expandability. In order for your backup generator to function, you'll need some way of charging it. And if you plan to rely on solar energy, that means using solar panels. Expandability means that you can add solar panels to your generator as needed, making it easier to absorb more sunlight for energy.
- Number of outlets. How many devices or appliances do you need to charge? The functionality of your backup generator will be determined by how many outlets or ports are available.
- Price. Of course, as you look for the best home backup generator, one of the most crucial considerations of all is your budget. We've sought to emphasize generators that offer maximum value.
Based on these criteria, we've determined the solar backup generators that offer the most consumer value.Check out our complete list of recommendations below. You can also read our complete review of the best solar energy companies for rooftop home solar systems.
The Best Solar Energy Generators
Best Overall: Renogy Lycan Powerbox
Renogy produces several different power stations and chargers, but we especially like the Lycan Powerbox, a solar power solution that's only a little bit bigger than a suitcase. It comes with an easy-grip handle and heavy-duty wheels, making it one of the most portable solar generators around while still offering 1200W of output, which is enough power for most electronic devices and some appliances.
Why buy: The Lycan Powerbox can provide 1075 watt-hours of continuous power without the noise or fumes associated with gas generators. It offers great portability and includes an LCD display and easy, intuitive controls that allow you to switch between DC power and AC power as needed, as well USB ports and 12 volt car charger ports.
Best All-Purpose: Goal Zero Yeti 6000X
The Yeti 6000X is actually a portable power station that can be used for off-grid camping or powering an RV. With 6,000 watt-hours and two 2000W AC charger ports, it will give you plenty of power for your home. With a home integration kit, it's easy to use the Goal Zero Yeti 6000X to power essential circuits.
Why buy: Though it isn't exactly cheap, the Yeti 6000X power station is a great all-purpose backup generator, including a top-of-the-line charge controller and two robust AC outlets that make it easy for you to keep your household essentials up and running. It can even power a full-size refrigerator or microwave.
Best for Camping: Jackery Explorer 1000
The Jackery Explorer 1000 portable power station is one of the best all-around options, equally suited for outdoor activities and for emergency power readiness. Though it's rated for 1,000 watts, it can actually get closer to 2,000. The lithium battery pack offers a capacity of 1,200 watt-hours, and Jackery's professional MPPT technology makes it easy to get your unit fully charged in a relatively short span of time (usually just eight hours if you have two panels going).
Why buy: Jackery is one of the leading names in outdoor equipment and in clean energy products. This portable power station is a great pick for campers and can also be a very effective home backup power solution for small appliances and electronics thanks to its pure sine wave inverter AC outlets.
Most Affordable: Westinghouse iGen600s
Westinghouse Outdoor Power
Westinghouse is another company that specializes in solar powered generators, most of which are more ideally suited for camping trips. Their iGen600s portable generator, however, offers a wattage of up to 1,200 peak watts, which can certainly function as a decent emergency backup for certain household appliances and small devices.
Why buy: For a portable yet still very versatile solar generator, Westinghouse is a company to keep on your list. The iGen600 power system can run a mini fridge for up to 42 hours or a CPAP machine for up to 46 hours thanks to its lithium-ion battery that offers 592 Watt-hours of energy and a long battery life.
Fastest Charging: EcoFlow DELTA
The EcoFlow DELTA power station is a wonderfully rugged, dependable backup generator that can help meet your power needs during a blackout. For one thing, the charging time is incredible; you can potentially go from zero to 80 percent in under an hour with a wall outlet. Should you ever find yourself facing a power outage, this is an emergency energy solution you'll be really thankful for.
Why buy: The DELTA station from EcoFlow offers a lot of value and usability; in particular, it has one of the fastest recharging times of any solar generator, which may be reason enough for you to choose it over the competitors. The DELTA unit offers 13 ports, meaning it's compatible with pretty much any device or appliance you could ever need to charge.
Best for Appliances: MAXOAK Bluetti AC200P
For a heavy-duty emergency power solution, look no further than to MAXOAK, and particularly to a product called the Bluetti AC200P. With a 2000 Watt-hour capacity, this is one of the most robust solar generators you'll find anywhere.
Why buy: MAXOAK's Bluetti AC200P is the one you're going to want for really heavy-duty home energy backup. With massive AC inverters that offer up to 4800W surge capacity, it can provide more than enough power to fuel all your most critical home appliances, even some HVAC units. Also note the two-year warranty, a generous consumer protection.
Most Powerful: Point Zero Energy Titan Solar Generator
Point Zero Energy is one of the foremost names in disaster preparedness, and when you take a look at their product specs, you'll see why. Their Titan model solar generator offers almost twice the storage of similarly priced units with a high-capacity 2,000-watt-hour battery capacity and 3,000 watt high-efficiency inverter.
Why buy: On a purely technical level, this is the beefiest generator on our list, though of course, it's also one of the priciest. The unit is made with high-efficiency components, meaning it doesn't waste a lot of energy running the system; instead, it just supplies you with plenty of functional electricity when you need it the most.
How Does a Solar Generator Work?
Solar generators capture energy from the sun using photovoltaic solar panels, and store it in a built-in battery. Note that in order to absorb the sun's energy, your portable generator will need solar panels. These are typically sold separately, or as a package with the unit, so you'll need to factor in this additional cost. Solar panels contain solar cells, which are typically made of monocrystalline or polycrystalline silicone that acts as a semiconductor.
Once the sun's energy is stored in the battery, it is converted into AC energy. This happens via a component known as an inverter. AC power is required for most of your household appliances, as well as for charging devices like your phone, laptop, or tablet that normally require a wall charger or AC outlet.
Can a Solar Generator Power My Whole House?
Generally speaking, a rechargeable solar generator won't be able to power your entire house if you lose power. With that said, even a smaller generator can be used to power key devices or appliances, sometimes for days at a time depending on its power consumption. For instance, you can keep your refrigerator up and running, and/or ensure plenty of sustained use for medical devices, like CPAP machines.
With an especially robust generator, you may also be able to connect to core circuits, running multiple appliances at one time.
So, while having an emergency power supply from a solar generator may not mean that you can go about your life just like you would normally, you can at least keep the lights on at home, run your air conditioner, or ensure your perishable food items remain fresh until your electricity comes back on.
What are the Benefits of a Solar Generator?
There are a number of advantages you can anticipate from an emergency generator, especially when you choose to go solar. Consider:
You can minimize the disruption of a power outage.
Again, inclement weather can cause power outages that last for hours, sometimes even days. During that time, you can use a backup generator to keep your essential appliances and devices up and running. This level of preparedness can offer ample peace of mind.
Solar generators offer a clean alternative to other energy sources.
Most generators are powered by fossil fuels, which means they emit a lot of noxious emissions. If you want a clean power source and a minimal environmental footprint, these solar solutions are just the ticket. They are also much quieter than traditional gas or diesel generators.
They can be very cost-effective in the long run.
While the initial purchase price of a solar generator may seem steep, keep in mind that sunlight is free. You don't have to worry about buying fuel or any additional expenses associated with your solar unit.
Find the Solar Generator That's Best for You
Disaster preparedness begins by identifying a reliable power source, and if you want that power source to be clean and renewable, solar generators are ideal. Take a moment to explore the options and find the generator that's right for you.
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.
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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.