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.  

Snow is not a thing of the past

David Viner (a climate scientist), in 2009, said children aren't going to know what snow is. Fortunately, this has not proven to be true. There is plenty of snow all over the planet. Buffalo, New York (USA) got 8 feet (2.4 meters) of snow. The East Coast of the US has been buried by snow this year, plus very cold temperatures.

Many places have seen snow that have not seen snow in many, many years:
In August 2014, Scotland was expecting snow. The temperature was dipping near freezing. The last time it what this cold was 1919.
In August of the same year, Peru was buried under snow. The Atacama Desert in Chile saw the most snowfall the area had seen in three decades.
In December 2013, there was snow in Cairo, where they had not had snow in over 100 years.

Shovel ready!

No picnicing for a bit

Shovel ready too!

Fun in the snow!

What does this mean? It tells us that gloom and doom predictions can certainly be wrong. Our planet has a very complex climate and it's unlikely we humans have discovered the way climate works or how to control it. We may believe we have, some may say they understand, but then their predictions don't come true. Weather and climate are still wonderfully unpredictable parts of nature. If you're lucky enough to live where there is snow right now, make a snowman, go sledding--just enjoy!

The fun side of CO2

CO2 has a rather unique quality that I find fascinating. It's called "sublimation". At room temperature and far below, CO2 goes from a solid to a gas without a liquid stage. This is very different from water, which is ice, water and steam. CO2 is invisible, so you don't get steam when it sublimates.

There is a liquid state for CO2. This exists between -78C (-108F) and -57C (-71F). At higher pressures, the liquid state can exist at higher temperatures. At 0F (-18C) and 300 psi, CO2 can be kept as a liquid. This is far more pressure than our atmosphere has (that is between 14 and 15 psi).

The solid state of CO2 is called "dry ice". It's used for keeping things cold when regular refrigeration is not available, such as coolers you take when camping or mailing frozen items. You should not touch dry ice with your bare hand--it can cause frostbite in a few seconds. If you hold it too long, you can get severe frostbite with blisters. However, if you handle it with thick gloves and not for very long, it's safe.

Now for what sublimation looks like:

The mist coming off the dry ice is not CO2 (remember, no steam like water). It's the very cold sublimating CO2 gas cooling the air around the remaining dry ice and forming water vapor. This effect is used to make mist for concerts and other presentations.

Watching a frozen piece of dry ice just "disappear" without any liquid is quite fun thing to watch. It shows us one of the more unique physical reactions we have on earth.

What was that about "hottest year"?

When scientists behave badly

Just last week, many news outlets announced 2014 was the hottest year on record. This was used to convince people global warming is real. However, not even a week later, the NASA scientist who made the statement then admitted that NASA is only 38% sure that this is true (note that this means they are 62% sure that it may not be the warmest year).  Wait. Aren't scientists supposed to be honest and give out accurate information? Yes, they are. Sadly, sometimes scientists do not follow that rule. This is one case. The 2014 was basically tied with 2010 and 2005 for hottest.

There is what is called a margin of error in these calculations. Figuring the global average temperature is not like measuring the temperature in your backyard. Thousands of numbers go into the equation and not all weather stations are located where hot buildings, etc. don't affect them. So the scientists "make adjustments" for these things, meaning they change the value based on what they believe the temperature would be without the buildings, etc. These adjustments and the sheer volume of data makes for a possibility of error in the final temperature reported. Even more complicated, climate science does not deal with actual temperatures, but the difference in the temperature calculated from a baseline. If by now you have realized just how complicated this is, you're on the right track.
Properly sited weather station
Reading will be too hot

Readings will be too hot

The pictures show the difference in placement of thermometers. Next to buildings, etc, will read hotter than the actual air temperature because of the heat coming off the pavement. This makes things look much hotter than they actually are. It also makes nighttime temperatures read higher because the pavement gives off

heat all night.

Then there's the leveling off of temperatures:

In spite of all the talk of "hottest" year ever, part of the problem is the last ten to 15 years have not really gotten much hotter. The difference is sometimes as small as .02 degrees. Considering how difficult it is to get accurate temperatures, the difference could just be due to the way we measure.

There are measurements made by satellites that cover the globe much better. These measurements show the average temperature of the earth is actually staying quite level.  

To get an idea of how this "hottest year", but not really, works, consider this example:

Your parents give you an allowance of $10 per week.

Four weeks ago, on your way home from school, you found a penny on the sidewalk, so that week you had $10.01.

Three weeks ago, you found two pennies on the sidewalk, so you had $10.02

Two weeks ago, you found no pennies, so you had $10.

Last week, you found three pennies on the sidewalk, so you had $10.03.

Now, we can truthfully say last week you had the most money so far. We can also say weeks four and three were above "average", if we consider the $10 the average. Do you really see the weeks you found the pennies on the sidewalk as being above average or that you were richer that week? The difference is very, very small indeed.

Here's another way to look at the "increase in temperatures" over the past century:  

This is what the average global temperature looks like, in degrees fahrenheit, when you graph the actual temperatures and not the difference from the average.  Also, the differences from the average (the anomalies) are graphed in tenths of a degree, making the differences look very large to anyone looking at the graph.

That's how the "hottest" years have been working. The difference is very tiny--tiny enough to mean we don't know which is the hottest year and it really doesn't matter because there is such a small difference.
The temperatures have leveled off for now. 

This is very good news.  Things are not getting hotter and hotter after all.

(Photos from NASA and Creative Commons, graph from

Greet the New Year with optimism!

We are reaching the end of 2014. It's time to take a look at how our planet is doing. News reports say 2014 may be the hottest year on record. What the news does not tell you is that this is by a mere tenth of a degree, possibly less. Some report it as little as a thousandth of a degree. Actually, the global mean temperature has been fairly steady for several years. The number of tornadoes is down, the number of hurricanes is down. North America has seen an increase in snow and much colder temperatures. There are places that are warmer and places that are colder, just as there have always been.

It's important to remember weather and climate have always changed, always had extremes. The biggest change now is there are more people on the planet. More people means more individuals will be affected by any weather. Also, people in poorer countries are more affected since they lack the resources to rebuild. Instead of trying to push everyone to stop using fossil fuels, we need to be helping these people with housing and energy so they aren't so affected by the weather/climate. The really good news is people in many places are learning to handle the weather better. There were many fewer deaths in the Philippines from the last hurricane because people evacuated right away.

While TV sometimes emphasizes disasters, the weather and climate really have not become more extreme. The climate is not changing dramatically. The Arctic ice is increasing at this point. If it continues to do so, it will rebound to levels of the past. Antarctic ice is increasing. The polar bears are fine. There may be more snow in America and more cold, but it is not different from what the weather was like in the past, say 30 to 40 years ago. There will always be floods (humans are a big part of why things flood because of the way we engineer waterways, whether we drag the channels, etc), there will always be drought (water storage helps with this--store what you get in times of plenty and conserve when possible), there will always be tornados, blizzards, thunderstorms. This is what life is like on our planet. Ever changing and we adapt to those changes.

The earth is just fine going into 2015.

Global Warming

What is "global warming"?

We hear a lot about "global warming" or climate change. Right now, the United States is setting hundreds of new "coldest temperature" records. Doesn't that mean global warming is wrong? It's really hot in Australia right now. New high temperature records, they say. So does that mean global warming is right?

(I use global warming and not climate change because the theory is heat is building up on earth. This is believed to be causing changes in climate that are not "natural".)

Colder temperatures do not disprove global warming. Hot temperatures do not prove it is true. Nor do wildfires, drought, or any other weather variation. Global warming is based on changes in the average temperature of the planet. What does that mean?

Average is what you get when you add a group of numbers together and divide by the number of numbers. Here are two examples:
1 3 5 2 9 summed(add all) equals 20 then divide by 5: 4
2 2 12 1 3 summed equals 20 then divide by 5: 4
5 0 5 5 5 summed equals 20 then divide by 5: 4

25 75 100 -10 30 summed equals 220 divide by 5: 44
15 85 50 0 70 summed equals 220 divide by 5: 44
5 95 20 50 50 summed equals 220 divide by 5: 44

If you look at the numbers closely, you will see the numbers are very different in each set, even though the averages are the same. Which means you can have really, really different numbers and all give the same average. Colder in the United States can be cancelled by hotter in Australia. There are thousands of temperatures involved. This means scientists really don't know how temperature changes will happen in a particular place. To make this more complicated, scientists look at the changes from the average, not the average itself. All of this is quite complicated and based on math and models. In reality, things are far from certain, no one really can predict years and years into the future.

What does this all mean in real life? The warming predicted has leveled off. Over time, the warming could become cooling, but we don't know this yet. We just do not know.

Are we having more hurricanes and storms? No, those things are predicted by the theory. They are not currently happening. In some places, these weather events have actually decreased.

Right now, all the global warming is in models and so forth. In reality, the temperatures have leveled off. Are the dire predictions that keep being made possible? Of course. It's also possible that cooling could begin. No one, repeat no one, knows. To be afraid or start doing drastic things like trying to stop the use of fossil fuels is to not understand what science tells us.

How do I know?

When you're young, you often have to depend on adults to help you understand how the world works. Grown-ups seem to know everything or sometimes nothing. What does a smart, rational person (yes, kids, that means you!) do when someone in authority, older or with more experience tells you something works a certain way or is a scientific fact?

Sometimes teachers and parents know important things--like you need to wash your hands to keep from getting sick. Then you look around and Derrick over there never washes his hands and is perfectly healthy. What's up with that? Why isn't Derrick sick? Don't parents and teachers know anything?

It will always be true that there are exceptions to general rules--like hand-washing. It's believed that over the long run, hand washing helps prevent the spread of disease. It's based on past experience and observations. Does this mean everyone who washes their hands will stay well? No, but based on the way diseases are spread, it is more likely people who wash hand will be sick less often than those who don't.

What about more complicated ideas--for example, are we changing our climate by burning fossil fuels and we are going to cause a very severe temperature rise on the planet? Your teacher may have told you "everyone agrees" this is happening. That is not true. There are many climate scientists who do not agree that our burning oil and coal and natural gas are threatening our planet. These things do have an effect, just as everything on the planet affects everything else. Climate is very complicated. Wait, though, our president said it's important. Yes, President Obama did say global warming is real. He also said "We don't have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth society" which was meant to insult those who do not agree (we know the earth is not flat so he wanted to make people who disagreed look foolish). However, it turns out some members of the Flat Earth society do believe we are changing our climate with fossil fuels. That shows clearly that there is not agreement on this and trying to insult others is not really a good way to convince people you are right.

Studying the climate and global warming also got mixed in with politics, which is a very bad thing. Science is based on evidence, politics is mostly based on emotions. So politics is what is out there trying to make people feel guilty about driving cars and living a modern life. That's not science.

How, then, can you know what is science and what is politics? Asking questions can help. Ask why the fossil fuels hurt the planet. You may get and answer such as "It's physics". Part of it is, part of it is computer models and mathematics which are not always accurate. If when you ask about why fossil fuel burning is bad the person calls you names (like denier or says you're just stupid) it's probably because this is something they believe but they don't know why. Or it could be that the person just doesn't want to be asked questions on their beliefs--which means this is politics. Science loves questions and will always take the time to explain.

Global warming is important we are told and very dangerous. There are all kinds of scary predictions. Shouldn't we DO something? Shouldn't we be worried? These are important questions. If fossil fuels really are hurting the earth, shouldn't we stop using them?

What if we did stop using fossil fuels? We would have to give up full-time electricity, cars, and go back to the old way people lived, without lights, cell phones, television, computers, etc. It would be very, very difficult and would harm a lot of people. We know this harm will happen, while we don't know for sure if CO2 and fossil fuels are actually going to cause something bad.

Wait--how about wind and solar? Can't we use those? They have free fuel. Yes, the fuel is free. The electricity is part-time and only when nature delivers it, not necessarily when we need it. Making the turbines and solar panels takes fossil fuels and mining. Then there's installation and we change the landscape. Plus, both forms of energy are very damaging to bird and bats. Neither energy source is practical today--it's why we stopped using such things and went to fossil fuels.

You're a young person who has heard all the scary stories about climate. How can you know what is true and what is fiction? Honest answer--you can't. What you can do is sensible things to keep the earth livable, like not littering, not wasting energy, reuse things and so forth. There are energy efficient lights, recycling, fuel efficient cars all of which are fine things to do if it's what you want to do. Will it save the planet? It's doubtful, both because these things are very small cuts in usage in the big picture and because we really don't know the planet is in need of saving. These are just ideas that make people feel good and do save on clutter and landfills. Keeping the planet reasonably clean is just a good idea.

Should you be worried the planet is dying--no. The science is not complete on what is involved in climate regulation on earth and whether we humans can really cause massive changes in the climate. It may not be understood before you have grandchildren. Maybe not ever. Panic and fear are the wrong responses to changes on the planet. It's also wrong to burden children with this and very wrong to try and frighten children into believing that global warming is absolutely true for political gain. Sadly, that is very often done as you can see in the news with all the name-calling and insults about those who do not agree with the global warming science.

How should you deal with this? You can be the person who finds a new efficient power source--one that truly revolutionizes things. You could be the one that does what Henry Ford did and takes us to a new way of traveling (I still want flying cars! Maybe you could be the one that creates one!) Maybe you could do like Edison and find a new way to make light (LEDs are a good start). What the planet needs is smart, curious people who try to make life better, not someone preaching fear and doom while demanding people go backward in their living conditions. Ask questions, study science and math. Learn how things work and take us to a better future. That's what you can do!