Global Warming and Its Impact
Global warming is the slow increase in the average temperature of the earth’s atmosphere because an increased amount of the energy (heat) striking the earth from the sun is being trapped in the atmosphere and not radiated out into space.
The earth’s atmosphere has always acted like a greenhouse to capture the sun’s heat, ensuring that the earth has enjoyed temperatures that permitted the emergence of life forms as we know them, including humans.
Without our atmospheric greenhouse the earth would be very cold. Global warming, however, is the equivalent of a greenhouse with high efficiency reflective glass installed the wrong way around.
Ironically, the best evidence of this may come from a terrible cooling event that took place some 1,500 years ago. Two massive volcanic eruptions, one year after another placed so much black dust into the upper atmosphere that little sunlight could penetrate. Temperatures plummeted. Crops failed. People died of starvation and the Black Death started its march. As the dust slowly fell to earth, the sun was again able to warn the world and life returned to normal.
Causes of global warming
The average surface temperature of Earth is maintained by a balance of various forms of solar and terrestrial radiation. Solar radiation is often called “shortwave” radiation because the frequencies of the radiation are relatively high and the wavelengths relatively short—close to the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Terrestrial radiation, on the other hand, is often called “longwave” radiation because the frequencies are relatively low and the wavelengths relatively long—somewhere in the infrared part of the spectrum. Downward-moving solar energy is typically measured in watts per square metre. The energy of the total incoming solar radiation at the top of Earth’s atmosphere (the so-called “solar constant”) amounts roughly to 1,366 watts per square metre annually. Adjusting for the fact that only one-half of the planet’s surface receives solar radiation at any given time, the average surface insolation is 342 watts per square metre annually.
The amount of solar radiation absorbed by Earth’s surface is only a small fraction of the total solar radiation entering the atmosphere. For every 100 units of incoming solar radiation, roughly 30 units are reflected back to space by either clouds, the atmosphere, or reflective regions of Earth’s surface. This reflective capacity is referred to as Earth’s planetary albedo, and it need not remain fixed over time, since the spatial extent and distribution of reflective formations, such as clouds and ice cover, can change. The 70 units of solar radiation that are not reflected may be absorbed by the atmosphere, clouds, or the surface. In the absence of further complications, in order to maintain thermodynamic equilibrium, Earth’s surface and atmosphere must radiate these same 70 units back to space. Earth’s surface temperature (and that of the lower layer of the atmosphere essentially in contact with the surface) is tied to the magnitude of this emission of outgoing radiation according to the Stefan-Boltzmann law.
Earth’s energy budget is further complicated by the greenhouse effect. Trace gases with certain chemical properties—the so-called greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O)—absorb some of the infrared radiation produced by Earth’s surface. Because of this absorption, some fraction of the original 70 units does not directly escape to space. Because greenhouse gases emit the same amount of radiation they absorb and because this radiation is emitted equally in all directions (that is, as much downward as upward), the net effect of absorption by greenhouse gases is to increase the total amount of radiation emitted downward toward Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere. To maintain equilibrium, Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere must emit more radiation than the original 70 units. Consequently, the surface temperature must be higher. This process is not quite the same as that which governs a true greenhouse, but the end effect is similar. The presence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere leads to a warming of the surface and lower part of the atmosphere (and a cooling higher up in the atmosphere) relative to what would be expected in the absence of greenhouse gases.
The most commonly discussed GHGs are:
CO2 or carbon dioxide is produced any time something is burned. It is the most common GHG, constituting by some measures almost 55% of total long-term GHGs. It is used as a marker by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, for example, because of its ubiquity. Carbon dioxide is assigned a GWP or Global Warming Potential of 1.
Methane or CH4 is produced in many combustion processes and also by anaerobic decomposition, for example, in flooded rice paddies, pig and cow stomachs, and pig manure ponds. Methane breaks down in approximately 10 years, but is a precursor of ozone, itself an important GHG. CH4 has a GWP of 28-36.
Nitrous oxide in parean (laughing gas), NO/N2O or simply NOx is a byproduct of fertilizer production and use, other industrial processes and the combustion of certain materials. Nitrous oxide lasts a very long time in the atmosphere, but at the 100 year point of comparison to CO2, its GWP is 265-298.
Fluorinated gases were created as replacements for ozone depleting refrigerants, but have proved to be both extremely long lasting and extremely warming GHGs. They have no natural sources, but are entirely man-made. At the 100 year point of comparison, their GWPs range from 1,800 to 8,000 and some variants top 10,000.
Sulphur hexafluoride or SF6 is used for specialized medical procedures, but primarily in what are called dielectric materials, especially dielectric liquids. These are used as insulators in high voltage applications such as transformers and grid switching gear. SF6 will last thousands of years in the upper atmosphere and has a GWP of 22,800.
Impacts of global warming
2015 was the hottest year on record, the previous record was broken in 2014, and 2016 is expected to set a new record for the third year in a row. In the past few years records have being broken for longest heatwaves and the Bureau of Meteorology has added purple and magenta to the forecast map for temperatures up to 54°C.
Rising sea levels
Increased ocean temperatures are melting glaciers and ice caps all over the world. Melted ice increases the volume of water in our oceans. Warmer temperatures also result in the expansion of the water’s mass, which causes sea levels to rise, threatening low-lying islands and coastal cities.
More frequent and intense extreme weather events
Extreme weather events like bushfires, cyclones, droughts and floods are becoming more frequent and more intense as a result of global warming.
Oceans are warming and acidifying
The oceans have absorbed most of extra heat and carbon dioxide (CO2) so far – more than the air – making the seas both warmer and more acidic. Warming waters are bleaching coral reefs and driving stronger storms. Rising ocean acidity threatens shellfish, including the tiny crustaceans without which marine food chains would collapse.
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