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Climate System

The key to understanding global climate change is to first understand what global climate is, and how it operates. At the planetary scale, the global climate is regulated by how much energy the Earth receives from the Sun. However, the global climate is also affected by other flows of energy which take place within the climate system itself. This global climate system is made up of the atmosphere, the oceans, the ice sheets (cryosphere), living organisms (biosphere) and the soils, sediments and rocks (geosphere), which all affect, to a greater or less extent, the movement of heat around the Earth's surface.

The atmosphere plays a crucial role in the regulation of Earth's climate. The atmosphere is a mixture of different gases and aerosols (suspended liquid and solid particles) collectively known as air. Air consists mostly of nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%). However, despite their relative scarcity, the so-called greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, have a dramatic effect on the amount of energy that is stored within the atmosphere, and consequently the Earth's climate. These greenhouse gases trap heat within the lower atmosphere that is trying to escape to space, and in doing so, make the surface of the Earth hotter. This heat trapping is called the natural greenhouse effect, and keeps the Earth 33°C warmer than it would otherwise be. In the last 200 years, man-made emissions of greenhouse gases have enhanced the natural greenhouse effect, which may be causing global warming.

The atmosphere however, does not operate as an isolated system. Flows of energy take place between the atmosphere and the other parts of the climate system, most significantly the world's oceans. For example, ocean currents move heat from warm equatorial latitudes to colder polar latitudes. Heat is also transferred via moisture. Water evaporating from the surface of the oceans stores heat which is subsequently released when the vapour condenses to form clouds and rain. The significance of the oceans is that they store a much greater quantity of heat than the atmosphere. The top 200 metres of the world's oceans store 30 times as much heat as the atmosphere. Therefore, flows of energy between the oceans and the atmosphere can have dramatic effects on the global climate.

The world's ice sheets, glaciers and sea ice, collectively known as the cryosphere, have a significant impact on the Earth's climate. The cryosphere includes Antarctica, the Arctic Ocean, Greenland, Northern Canada, Northern Siberia and most of the high mountain ranges throughout the world, where sub-zero temperatures persist throughout the year. Snow and ice, being white, reflect a lot of sunlight, instead of absorbing it. Without the cryosphere, more energy would be absorbed at the Earth's surface rather than reflected, and consequently the temperature of the atmosphere would be much higher.

All land plants make food from the photosynthesis of carbon dioxide and water in the presence of sunlight. Through this utilisation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, plants have the ability to regulate the global climate. In the oceans, microscopic plankton utilise carbon dioxide dissolved in seawater for photosynthesis and the manufacture of their tiny carbonate shells. The oceans replace the utilised carbon dioxide by "sucking" down the gas from the atmosphere. When the plankton die, their carbonate shells sink to the seafloor, effectively locking away the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Such a "biological pump" reduces by at least four-fold the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, significantly weakening the Earth's natural greenhouse effect, and reducing the Earth's surface temperature.

Climate System