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What is this thing called Climate Change?

Did you know that the greatest threat to coral reef health is global climate change?  It’s true!

Global climate change leads to the melting of polar ice caps, sea level rise, warming ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, and more.  When corals are stressed by warmer temperatures over time and changing ocean chemistry, they release the tiny plankton from its symbiotic relationship.  This causes corals to be undernourished and more susceptible to disease which can lead to coral death.

The coral on the right is bleached--it has lost the tiny zooxanthellae that lived within individual coral polyps.  Without these organisms, the coral is likely to die.  (photo from ocean.si.edu)

The coral on the right is bleached–it has lost the tiny zooxanthellae that lived within individual coral polyps. Without these organisms, the coral is likely to die. (photo from ocean.si.edu)

But really, what is climate change?  Why is it happening?  Can you do anything to combat it?

Some climate change is natural.  Long before people and over the span of eons, the climate of the earth has changed many times.  The climate change that we hear about today is climate change happening so quickly that scientists are nervous about its effects.

This graph shows land and ocean temperatures worldwide since 1880.

This graph shows land and ocean temperatures worldwide since 1880. (image courtesy of SUNY Suffolk)

The current climate change is a result of warmer temperatures being trapped within earth’s atmosphere.  In a perfect world, the sun warms the earth.  The sun’s heat is a necessary ingredient to the water cycle, the hydrogen cycle, and the carbon cycle, but most of the heat is reflected back into space—away from the earth.  Unfortunately, our world is not perfect anymore.  By burning fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, natural gas, and propane), we create greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and others.  These gases then trap heat in the atmosphere and lead to what’s called the Greenhouse Effect.  Check out this graphic from the National Park Service:

The increased levels of greenhouse gases keep the earth warmer. (National Park Service image)

The increased levels of greenhouse gases keep the earth warmer. (National Park Service image)

When the heat from the sun is captured and reflected back to the earth, parts of the earth warm up.  Over time, this can lead to global warming and the melting of polar ice caps, sea level rise, warming ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, and more.  If the burning of fossil fuels feeds the Greenhouse Effect, why don’t we just stop?

Well, it’s not that simple.  The burning of fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal powers most of the earth’s electricity, transportation, and industry.  If the entire earth suddenly stopped burning fossil fuels, life would stop!

This graph shows how much fossil fuel each economic sector burned in 2010. (image from Penn State)

This graph shows the percentage of fossil fuels each economic sector burned in 2004. (image from Penn State)

Though the technology for using alternative energies like solar, nuclear, and wind exists, they are expensive to implement.  Scientists and engineers are constantly working to increase the effectiveness and value of alternative energy sources.

The National Energy Education Development (NEED) Project shows the use of sources of energy.  Nonrenewable sources are listed on the left; renewable sources on the right.  (image courtesy of need.org)

The National Energy Education Development (NEED) Project shows the use of sources of energy. Nonrenewable sources are listed on the left; renewable sources on the right. (image courtesy of need.org)

How much effect do you, as an individual, have on the climate?  Try the EPA’s Individual Greenhouse Gas Emissions Calculator  to find out.  It takes about ten minutes and you’ll need information from your last power bill and gas receipts.

What can you do to lower your carbon footprint?  Drive less—walk, bike, carpool, and combine errands into fewer trips.  Each of these will significantly reduce your output of greenhouse gases.

Save money!  Save the earth!  Save the coral!  Carpool!  (image from carpooling.com)

Save money! Save the earth! Save the coral! Carpool! (image from carpooling.com)

Turn your air conditioner up a few degrees or turn it off!  Air conditioners make homes more comfortable in hot weather, but they eat lots of power.  You’ll save money on your power bill and reduce your emissions of greenhouse gases!  Remember, open windows don’t use electricity!

Plant a tree.  Or a bush or a vegetable patch!  Green plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which helps to reduce the amount in the atmosphere.  You’ll gain shade from a tree which could lower your need for air conditioning.  If you plant a little vegetable garden, you’ll not only have fresher, tastier food, you’ll eliminate the petroleum used to ship food to the grocery store further reducing your greenhouse gas emissions!

A simple backyard garden provides nutritious food and helps to reduce carbon in the atmosphere!  (image from scu.edu)

A simple backyard garden provides nutritious food and helps to reduce carbon in the atmosphere! (image from scu.edu)

There are so many ways to have an impact on our world; make your impacts positive!! 

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