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What doesn’t change with climate?

Posted on 7 March 2013 by Ari Jokimäki

Global warming and subsequent climate change have a lot of different effects. The composition of the atmosphere changes. The troposphere swells and the atmosphere gets wetter. Oceans warm and expand. There are chemical changes in the ocean waters. Well known example of that is the ocean acidification caused by the increasing carbon dioxide concentration.

The biosphere gets shuffled. Some species shift to other places looking for more suitable conditions in which to live. Body shape and/or size changes for some species. The timetables between species get all mixed up. For example, because of an earlier spring the available food (caterpillars) is gone before the eggs of migratory birds hatch. Some, or according to predictions quite many, of the species will even go extinct.

Glaciers and ice sheets are melting. There are changes even in the lithosphere when the pressing weight of the ice sheets and glaciers is reduced as they melt into the ocean. Today at some places we can still see this same effect at work as the Earth’s crust is uplifting because the weight of the ice sheets that were there during the last glaciation (i.e. the “ice age”) was removed when the ice melted away. This effect also affects the asthenosphere, a viscous layer below the lithosphere.

So the climate change shows up everywhere – in the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere, asthenosphere, and beyond. Is there anything within Earth’s system that doesn’t change with climate?

Changes in the Earth’s core are probably small. However, as the ice sheets are melting and their weight is redistributed to the Oceans, rotation of the Earth is affected. This might also have some minor effect in the Earth’s core.

Warming affects the rate of weathering and changes in rainfall affects the erosion processes which means that also mountains, for example, change with climate.

Outside the Earth things of course don’t change that much because we are talking about a change in Earth’s climate. This means that the Sun doesn’t change, so perhaps the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth remains unaffected? It seems that this isn’t so as the changes in the atmosphere and in cloud cover affect the amount of solar radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface. One could argue that higher in the atmosphere the amount of solar radiation is unaffected, but then we also start to leave the Earth’s system.

By the way, not all things in outer space remain unaffected by the changes in Earth’s climate. The albedo (reflectivity) of Earth changes and that shows for example in the Moon. The amount of radiation from Earth to Moon (this is known as earthshine) changes a little, so the temperature of the Moon changes a little (but probably not enough to be observable). The climate change makes Earth look a little different from outer space – at least the brightness of the Earth changes. Also, and here we venture deeper into the hair splitting department, before climate equilibrium is reached, the outgoing radiation from Earth would be reduced, cooling all of the bodies in the solar system a very tiny bit, even the Sun.

The amount of some substances in the atmosphere might remain quite unaffected, but as there are major changes in the atmosphere (for example the concentrations of water vapor and carbon dioxide are changing a lot), it is expected that the amount of all substances in the atmosphere changes too at least a little.

The spatial and temporal distribution of elementary particles within the Earth's system changes with climate, but particles themselves are probably unaffected, although we cannot be sure about that. Atoms are slightly more complex particles, but also they might remain largely unaffected. Moving on to even more complex particles, in the molecular level we already see some changes with climate. For example, the amount of different molecules in the atmosphere changes, which changes the amount of collision between the molecules, which then affects the vibration of the molecules. The changes in the vibration affect how the molecules absorb radiation, so the change in molecules with climate is even measurable in the spectrum of the molecules.

So it seems that there aren't many things in the Earth’s system that remain unaffected by climate change. Climate change affects almost everything, even if the changes in some cases mentioned above are just tiny. Only elementary particles seem to remain unaffected, though we cannot really be sure even of that.


Christiaan Both, Sandra Bouwhuis, C. M. Lessells & Marcel E. Visser, Climate change and population declines in a long-distance migratory bird, Nature 441, 81-83 (4 May 2006) | doi:10.1038/nature04539. [abstract, full text]

P. R. Goode, J. Qiu, V. Yurchyshyn, J. Hickey, M.-C. Chu, E. Kolbe, C. T. Brown, S. E. Koonin, Geophysical Research Letters, Volume 28, Issue 9, pages 1671–1674, May 2001, DOI: 10.1029/2000GL012580. [abstract, full text]

Anne E. Kelly, Michael L. Goulden, Rapid shifts in plant distribution with recent climate change, PNAS August 19, 2008 vol. 105 no. 33 11823-11826, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0802891105. [abstract, full text]

Keven Roy, W. R. Peltier, GRACE era secular trends in Earth rotation parameters: A global scale impact of the global warming process?, Geophysical Research Letters, Volume 38, Issue 10, May 2011, DOI: 10.1029/2011GL047282. [abstract]

Olav Slaymaker, Drivers of mountain landscape change during the twenty-first century, Journal of Soils and Sediments, May 2010, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp 597-610, DOI: 10.1007/s11368-010-0194-6. [abstract]

Chris D. Thomas, Alison Cameron, Rhys E. Green, Michel Bakkenes, Linda J. Beaumont, Yvonne C. Collingham, Barend F. N. Erasmus, Marinez Ferreira de Siqueira, Alan Grainger, Lee Hannah, Lesley Hughes, Brian Huntley, Albert S. van Jaarsveld, Guy F. Midgley, Lera Miles, Miguel A. Ortega-Huerta, A. Townsend Peterson, Oliver L. Phillips & Stephen E. Williams, Extinction risk from climate change, Nature 427, 145-148 (8 January 2004) | doi:10.1038/nature02121. [abstract, full text]

Josh Van Buskirk, Robert S. Mulvihill, Robert C. Leberman, Declining body sizes in North American birds associated with climate change, Oikos, Volume 119, Issue 6, pages 1047–1055, June 2010, DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0706.2009.18349.x. [abstract]

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Comments 1 to 17:

  1. This is the worst essay I've seen on this venue so far. It's upside down from start to finish.

    How can you say "This means that the Sun doesn’t change,"?

    We know very well that solar activity is variable, that the relationship between the Earth and the sun is variable, that variability in the sun's magnetic field influences the amount of cosmic rays that reach the Earth, which influences cloud cover.

    The is a terrible post-hoc argument for human causation of climate variability.

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  2. "How can you say "This means that the Sun doesn’t change,"?

    We know very well that solar activity is variable"

    The article says the sun's output doesn't change as a result of climate change on earth, not that the sun's output doesn't ever change.

    I suggest you re-read the article, perhaps more than once.

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  3. And after re-reading, read this:

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  4. This statement doesn't quite accord with my layman's understanding:

    "...before climate equilibrium is reached, the outgoing radiation from Earth would be reduced..."

    I understood [or thought I understood] that a warming planet will omit more Long Wave radition into space except at those wavelengths trapped by the GHGs and that this can [perversely] mean that even as more Long Wave radiation to outer space is inhibited by GHGs the overall level of non-inhibited radiation can increase the total OLWR.

    I shall be grateful if a better Scientist than I can confirm or deny my understanding or [gently] point me in the right direction.

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  5. Changing greenhouse gas concentrations causes an energy imbalance between incoming/outgoing energy.

    1. More GHGs reduce total outgoing IR at all temperatures (reducing outgoing energy)...
    2. That difference between incoming and outgoing accumulates, warming the climate...
    3. Until, at a higher climate temperature, the Earth is once again radiating as much as it is receiving. 

    There are indeed frequencies in IR that have increased with current warming. But if you integrate energy over the entire IR spectrum, the sum of outgoing energy is presently lower than incoming. The final at-equilibrium IR spectra of the Earth, under increased GHGs, will show warmer peaks but a more jagged outline, integrating to the incoming 240 W/m^2 from the sun. 

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  6. Folks -- Where can one find a 24-h-averaged, (α,β)moon-averaged visible spectrum of sunlight reflected by the earth incident on the moon?  By now, someone will have calculated model-dependent predictions of such spectra, so your statements about temperature changes on the lunar surface -- which endures month-long 'days', of course -- might have data against which to be checked.  Would like to be able to visualize what a warmed earth would look like from space, other than cloudier.  Having spent decades in the JHKL part of the NIR spectrum, I'd like to see a 'bluer' = visible representation of future reality.

    KR (#5):  Technical question:  isn't the change in equilibrium sufficiently small (δT/T over time) more or less adiabatic, preserving the blackbody nature of the earth's climate?  Naively, it would seem tough to do the physics otherwise.


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  7. Apologies for the HTML not working in my post #6.  Hope its intent can still be read.

    If 'source' input isn't seen as source, what have I missed??

    tx --bc/hv

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    Moderator Response: [RH] Voila!
  8. hellenavargas...  Not sure why it didn't work for you.  Will put it by our resident expert.

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  9. helenavargas - There is work available on Earthshine under Goode et al 2001, Rodiguez et al 2005 (not a reviewed paper), you can check their methods and sources (ISCCP datasets, solar observatory readings, etc). I believe that uncertainties with this technique are thought to be fairly high, although I can't locate those discussions right now.

    RE: IR to space, the Earth is a 'graybody' with a highly notched spectra, emissivity of ~0.612, although the spectra is compared to an integrated blackbody spectra for a blackbody equivalent temperature. The climate is anything but adiabatic - it is not thermally isolated, it is a system with a constant inflow and constant outflow of energy, somewhere near dynamic equilibrium. The current divergence from equilibrium, leading to global warming, is indicative of a long-term 0.8 W/m^2 imbalance (from ocean heat content changes). But equilibrium will not be reached until (a) forcing changes halt, and (b) enough time has passed for the thermal inertia of the Earth to catch up. 

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  10. Genetics of a long-living individual specimens of various species, such as bristlecone pine.

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  11. That's a good one, jyyh. :)

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  12. KR - thank you for your responses @ #5 & #9.

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  13. truthisbest (#4): ... Two suggested Links that might further help: 1) The following SkS article (LINKED HERE) does a good job explaining the physics of global warming and how changing GHG concentrations impact total outgoing radiation until when thermal equilibrium is re-established at which time total outgoing energy then returns to = total incoming energy (albeit at different intensities at the various emitted wavelengths). 2) Also, the two lecture videos (LINKED HERE) from the "German Advisory Council on Climate Change" are also very good in explaining the physics of global warming (watch both episodes #1 & #2).

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  14. "What doesn’t change with climate?"


    The laws of physics...

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    Moderator Response: [RH] Fixed image width.
  15. Resent fidings indicate that climate change precedes plate tectonics. ie prior to Indian plate careening into Asia, climate changed perhaps related to large geologic upwelling East of Africa. It seems Glacial Isostatic Adjustment (GIA) could be much more powerful (and only?) outside force motivating plate tectoctonics (mantal cell rotation drag not withstanding) . Does anyone have any leads on this concept?

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  16. Pluvial - large geological events certainly affect climate (the mountain ranges on the Anericas change the salinity between Atlantic and Pacific being another), but they affect climate on geological time scales - millions of years. Slow climate change isnt a problem as there is time to adjust. Having the same climate change occur in 200 years is. Glaciation and deglaciation are hardly new and not much evidence of any effect on plate tectonics whatever the value of GIA is.

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  17. Just a note to the mods: on my system, in the second-last paragraph, there are many instances of the word 'molecule', where the initial 'mol' is underlined by a row of dots and is a hot spot (?) where hovering the mouse over the underlined part pops up a definition of mol = mole. I guess there is an automatic parser that looks for instances in a text, of terms defined in the database, but it seems to be a bit aggressive in this case.

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