Earth's climate puzzle

Earth's climate and weather can be a real puzzle!

Welcome to Climate4Kids, a blog where you can learn about how climate works, how weather works and many more wonders of planet earth.  

Update on "When Extinction Isn't"

Seven years ago, the Aldara banded snail was declared extinct.  It was said to have gone extinct due to climate change.   Reports said it was one of the first species to have been lost to climate change.  The theory was that declining rainfall on their atoll had caused the snails all to die out.

Once again, nature proved to be much more capable of handling change than some scientists believe it can.  The small snail was found by a team of researchers.

Many news articles say climate change is still a threat to these snails.  It's so sad that humans can't celebrate the tough little snail instead of worrying about its future.  Nature is so remarkable and fascinating.   Enjoy it.

When Extinction Isn't

There is much talk of climate change leading to animal extinctions. The belief is more and more animals will go extinct because they cannot adapt. Humans are really very poor at knowing if animals are gone from the planet, however. Here are examples of animals science declared extinct, only to find the very resilient animals still out there.

A very large fish believed to go extinct 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. The fish was discovered in 1938 off the shore of Southern Africa.
Bermuda petrel
A small sea bird thought to be extinct 330 years ago. Eighteen nesting pairs were found in 1951in Castle Harbor (Bermuda).

Chacoan peccary
This critter was first described in 1930 based on fossils. It was believed to be extinct. In 1971, living peccaries were discovered in Argentina.

Lord Howe Island Stick Insect
The original Lord Howe Island Stick insects disappeared after rats escaped from a ship that ran aground. The rats had a taste for the insects. By 1960, the insects were declared extinct. In 2001, they were rediscovered on Ball's Pyramid, a volcanic stack 23 km (14 miles) from Lord Howe Island, living under the one bush growing on the very barren island. Two were brought back and breeding was tried. That attempt failed, but later, another pair did reproduce in captivity. If the rats can be removed by 2015, the scientists hope to reintroduce the insect to Lord Howe Island.

A fairly large flightless bird thought to be extinct after the last four specimens were taken in 1894. Then in 1948, after searching for the birds, a few pairs were found on the South Island, New Zealand.

Cuban solenodon
A rat-like animal found in 1861 and then thought to be extinct since no others were found. In 1974/1975 three were rediscovered in Cuba. Only 37 specimens have ever been caught.

New Caledonian Crested Gecko
Specimens were described in 1866 then none found until 1994. This gecko is popular in the pet trade, which greatly increased the species numbers and chances of remaining "not extinct".

New Holland mouse
First described in 1843 but not seen thereafter, the mouse was believed to be extinct until 1967 when it was rediscovered in Australia.

Giant Palouse earthworm
This very large worm was first seen in 1897, but disappeared thereafter. In 2010, scientists located the worm in Washington and Idaho.

Black-footed ferret
Identified in 1851, the ferret was declared extinct in 1979. In 1981, a rancher in Wyoming had a dog bring home a dead ferret. A colony was located and trapped, then a captive breeding program started. These have been reintroduced to the wild in several states.

Javan Elephant
In the 1800's the Java elephant was declared extinct. In 2006, a group of these elephants were discovered on Java Island, where they had been transplanted by a Sultan. The animal's survival was enabled by the transplant.

(no photo)

Mountain Pygmy possum
These critters were discovered in the fossil record and believed to be extinct. In 1996, some possums were discovered at a sky resort in New South Wales.

(no photo)

Pygmy tarsier
This animal looks very much like a Furby ( a child's toy, if you are not familiar with the Furby). They were believed to be extinct in the early 20th century. In 2000, they were discovered in Indonesia.

Caspian Horse
Last sighting of this horse was in 637 AD. In 1965, s person looking for a small horse for her children to ride found a small horse in northern Iran that resembled more a horse than pony. Additional research showed it to be the Caspian Horse.

Gilbert's potoroo
Discovered in 1840, the Gilbert's potoroo was considered extinct for 120 years before being found in 1994 in Australia.

Monito del Monte

A marsupial considered to be extinct for 11 million years, found only in fossil records. Then a population of these critters was found in Chile and Argentina.

As you can see from this list, which is not a complete list, we humans are not very accurate when saying things are "extinct". Just because we cannot find an animal does not mean they are gone.  Of course, some are, no doubt extinct (dinosaurs are, as are dodo birds and passenger pidgeons as far as we know) .  That's part of survival of the adequately fit that is seen in evolution.  Some species survive and others do not.  However, when people start predicting species extinctions and saying how bad this would be, remember these animals that fooled science and survived sometimes for millions of years as a species.  

(Photos are all from Wikipedia) 

Ocean Acidification, part 2 Should we be worried? (Part one is below this post)

Now that we have a basic understanding of pH, let's look at the small drop in alkalinity in the ocean.

First, the ocean is one of the major "holders" for carbon--only rocks hold more (the rocks have dead plant and animal parts in them which is how they hold carbon). Note: Carbon and carbon dioxide are not the same thing, but unfortunately, people use them interchangeably. The "carbon" in the ocean is both carbon and carbon dioxide. (Carbon is an element meaning it is one atom, carbon dioxide is a compound meaning it has more than one atom and these are joined together). The ocean is the largest CO2 reservoir when compared to air, land, and plants.  CO2 is naturally dissolved in the ocean.

CO2 in ocean water becomes carbonic acid (H2CO3):

However, only about .4% (4 molecules out of 1000 molecules of dissolved CO2) becomes carbonic acid. Most CO2 stays as dissolved CO2, kind of like soda, without the fizz.

Several things affect how much CO2 is dissolved--cold water holds more CO2, saltier water holds more CO2 and deep water with high pressure holds more. Plus the amount of CO2 in the air above the water effects how much CO2 goes into the water. Deep oceans are colder and have higher pressure so they can hold the most CO2.

After carbonic acid forms, there is a second and third splitting of molecules like this:



Then another transformation, losing 1 hydrogen atom but keeping the electron.


This breakdown of carbonic acid occurs very soon after the acid has formed, meaning most of the carbonic acid quickly becomes carbonate and bicarbonate.

Carbonate ions are used by some sea life to combine with the calcium (Ca2+) ions in the ocean--which come from dissolved limestone in part--to build shells. Limestone is dissolved by the carbonic acid and releases the Ca2+.

What happens if more CO2 is added to the ocean?  More hydrogen ions are formed (H+) and combine with the carbonate, forming bicarbonate and taking away the carbonate ions.  

Ocean chemistry is very complex and cannot be fully discussed here.  While the amount of carbonic acid formed is small, remember that each molecule adds two hydrogen ions when the acid breaks down, which increases the pH of the ocean.  The carbonate ions are used by shelled critters, which takes some of the carbonate out of the ocean.  The different parts of the system are very intertwined.  

Why are some scientists worried about carbonic acid increasing in the ocean? Perhaps you have read scary headlines like "ocean dissolving shellfish due to acidity". Then maybe a teacher has you soak a shell in vinegar and see how it dissolves. Problem: the ocean is not filled with vinegar. One acid does not substitute for another except in special cases. Vinegar has a pH of 2, carbonic acid is pH 5.7. The two acids are not close in pH nor in chemical structure. The "experiment" leads to a false conclusion. Put a shell in ocean water and you'll get a more realistic conclusion. (You may be much older before you see changes. It's a very slow process.) Still, without a living organism and the surroundings of the ocean, any conclusion reached may be wrong. We must study the creatures in their own environments, not a lab. Certainly never with a substance that is "sort of like" the one we are actually researching.

The pH of the ocean changes very slowly and allow time for the residents to adapt to the pH changes.  Any experiment that does not take this into account is not going to tell us anything about ocean life adapting.  Research on pH changes in the ocean takes time, much time.

The changing of the pH of the ocean may affect some sea life, but there's not enough evidence to actually say this is a threat to the planet.

Before global warming became a big deal, ocean life dying due to pH changes would have been considered natural selection, part of evolution. For reasons unknown, science seems to have decided if humans might have caused something, it's not evolution, it's a disaster. There is no good reason for this. Species have gone extinct in the time before humans and will continue to do so even if humans try very hard not to affect the earth. Plus, humans are part of the world, so no matter what we do, people are going to have some impact and that is not a bad thing. We shouldn't just wipe out species because we can, but we can't stop the world every time we think a species will become extinct. Nor should we.

Remember the statement about CO2 being temperature dependent? Anywhere the ocean warms, it releases CO2 and where it's cooler, it absorbs it. Currents move the CO2 deep into the ocean, where the pressure is high. Rather than being afraid, we should be marveling at how very efficient the earth is at maintaining itself.

The oceans will survive and thrive no matter what humans do. Yes, different species may thrive while others dies out, but that is the way the world works. Change is something to learn from and look forward to. Few things in the world stay the same for millions of years or several hundred years. 


Ocean Acidification, part one (Acids and Bases)

First, let's take a look at acids and bases. It's important to understand the ocean is not becoming acidic, even thought its pH is changing. "Acidic" sounds scary and it's not an accurate word.

A bit of molecular and atomic structure and chemistry are necessary to understand acids and bases. We'll start with water. Water is one atom of oxygen and two of hydrogen. Atoms consist of protons (with a positive charge +) and electrons (with a negative - ). This is how water's molecular structure can be drawn: 

If an atom (one element) or molecule (atoms combined) loses an electron, it becomes positive  (+).  Hydrogen missing one electron is called a hydrogen ion. These ions in water are what determine the pH. When water splits, you get:

The hydroxide ion has the hydrogen ion's

Now, these ions have unequal amounts of electrons and protons (The hydrogen ion has 1 proton, no electrons and the hydroxide ion has 7 protons and 8 electrons). 

How does this relate to acids and bases? A solution with extra H+ ions is called "acidic". One with OH- is called basic. Water--with no ions (the molecule remains H2O) is considered

The amount of H+ determines the pH. What is pH? In scientific jargon, pH=-log [H+], or the pH is equal to minus the log of the H+ ion concentration. (Wow! That made no sense at all!) If we look at a more simple explanation, the concentration of H+ determines the pH for acids. (Thank you, that's easier to understand.) pH goes from 0 (extremely acidic) to 14 (extremely basic/alkaline).

Let's look at some examples of pH.
pH 0 battery acid
pH 1 stomach acid
pH 2 coke, lemon juice, vinegar
pH 3 orange juice, grapefruit juice
pH 4 tomatoes, acid rain
pH 5 black coffee, pure rain
pH 6 egg yolks, cow's milk
pH 7 pure water
pH 8 sea water
pH 9 baking soda
pH 10 some hand soaps, some toothpaste
pH 11 ammonia
pH 12 household bleach, soapy water
pH 13 oven cleaner, lye
pH 14 liquid drain cleaner

As you can see, many common liquids have a pH much lower than sea water. Only when you get to stomach acid and battery acid do you see the "scary" side of acids, the ability to damage skin and inorganic materials. (Of course you can't really see stomach acid.) There are chemical acids that can harm you--ocean water is not and will not be one of them.

Also, it is very clear the ocean is not acidic. The pH is 8.3, which is higher than water. (pH can be kind of hard to picture--the lower the pH, the more acidic a solution is, the higher the pH, the more basic a solution is.)

If you mix an acid with a base in equal amounts, you get water and salt.

Concentration and strength of acids and bases are not the same thing. Strength refers to how much of the substance (CO2, etc) are present in ionic form CO2- versus the same substance in molecular form. Concentration is the amount of the dissolved substance in a specified amount of solvent. For example, hydrochloric acid (HCl) is a strong acid:
nearly all the Hydrogen separates from the Chlorine in water. There are various concentrations of HCl which can range from low to very high. A very high concentration would be quite corrosive. The concentration of carbonic acid in the ocean is around .3 to .4 %.

Carbonic acid is a weak acid. Most CO2 just dissolves in water, remaining as CO2 rather than becoming carbonic acid.

Acids and bases can be harmful due to strength, concentration and what they are made from. As we just learned, hydrochloric acid (HCl) is very strong—virtually all of the hydrogen and clorine separate in water.  

Concentration is the amount of the acid in the solution.  If you put 2 measures of hydrochloric acid powder in a quart of water, that is less concentrated than if you add 10 measures of powder in a quart of water. The concentration is dependent on the person mixing the solution.

Acids that form with chemicals like cyanide are harmful because of the cyanide molecule.  Cyanide is extremely toxic.

That's all for now on acids and bases.  

Carbon Dioxide

How much carbon dioxide is in the air?
As shown here:     Move the mouse over the picture to enlarge.

The blue square represents all of the atmosphere.
The black dot in the middle is the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.
Oh, and the amount of carbon dioxide that man is adding to the air? Well, that's the white dot in the middle of the black dot.
97% of the carbon dioxide in the air is produced by nature.
Where does carbon dioxide come from?
It can come from volcanoes, animals breathing and when something is on fire.
Candles produce more carbon dioxide than an electric light bulb producing the same amount of light. The electric light bulb itself does not produce carbon dioxide, but to produce the electricity, sometimes coal is burnt. So when your friends light candles and say they are helping the planet by not using electricity, they are right. Their candles are producing more carbon dioxide which helps the plants grow.
Where does carbon dioxide go?
Most of the carbon dioxide in the air is used by plants. Plants grow because of carbon dioxide, water vapor and sunlight.
Is carbon dioxide pollution?
No. Carbon dioxide is necessary for life to exist. Without carbon dioxide, there would be no life on Earth.
No scientist would describe carbon dioxide as a pollutant. To be a pollutant, it would have to be damaging to life on Earth, carbon dioxide is necessary and vital, for life to exist. Without carbon dioxide or water vapor (sometimes called greenhouse gases) in the air, the entire Earth would be a desert - no plants and no animals.
Can carbon dioxide cause warming of the planet?
No. Like all gases in the air, they slow the rate of warming and they slow the rate of cooling of the planet.
Greenhouse gases reduce the temperature extremes. Like all gases and other particles in the air, carbon dioxide reduces the amount of light and heat from the Sun and reduces the amount of light and heat being lost to space.

Greenhouse gases

The most important greenhouse gas is water vapor, the next most important is carbon dioxide. Some people say that more greenhouse gases will cause the Earth to get hotter, or that there will be extreme temperatures.
So let's compare, places with lots of greenhouse gases, to places with hardly any greenhouse gases. 

 Let's compare - Jungles and Deserts


Which has more plants?
Jungles have many more plants and plant species, because there is much more water and water vapor available.
Deserts have very little rainfall so very few plants can grow.
Answer: Jungles

Which has more animals?
Most animals live where there is food. Many animals eat the fruit and nuts that the jungle provides.
With so few plants and almost no water, very few animals can live in deserts.
Answer: Jungles

Which has more greenhouse gases?
Jungles have lots of water and water vapor and with the animals, produce lots of carbon dioxide.
Deserts have almost no water or water vapor, and very few animals to help produce the carbon dioxide that all plants need.
Answer: Jungles
Which is hotter?
Desert temperatures can be more than 50°C (122°F) during the day.
Jungle temperatures only rise to about 35°C (95°F) during the day.
Answer: Deserts
Which is colder?
Desert temperatures can fall below freezing 0°C (32°F) at night.
Jungle temperatures only fall to about 20°C (68°F) at night.
Answer: Deserts
Which has the most extreme temperatures?
As seen above, deserts have the most extreme temperatures.
Why? because they have less greenhouse gas.
Answer: Deserts

Most plants and animals live where there are greenhouse gases. Very few plants and animals can survive with low levels of greenhouse gas.

Greenhouse gases don't increase the temperature, they reduce the temperature extremes.
So if we are interested in having a healthy planet should we have more greenhouse gas or less greenhouse gas?
Less water vapor and less carbon dioxide will lead to deserts.
More water vapor and more carbon dioxide will lead to a healthy growing planet.
If it weren't for greenhouse gases, there would be no animals, jungles or forests, only desert.

Plants need water vapor and carbon dioxide to survive and we animals need the plants.
So when you read or hear, "greenhouse gas", think life-giving gas.