Learning About Climate Change

Climate change took the hot seat in recent years as a major global issue. An estimated 6 million people participated in climate marches in September 2019, with some schools and universities relaxing rules to accommodate students wanting to partake in these marches.

Children in schools are introduced to climate change via science curricula sometimes also incorporating hands-on demonstrations. Education aimed at school going kids, as well as general public understanding of the issues, seems to be limited to the high levels of greenhouse emissions, primarily CO2, steady increase in global temperatures, and rising sea levels. There are other aspects of climate change that don’t receive as much attention yet are crucial to the survival of human beings and other species.

Ocean acidification

Approximately a third of the CO2 released into the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans along with excess heat, keeping atmospheric warming somewhat in check. Absorption of CO2 into water changes salt-water chemistry and results in formation of carbonic acid; over time the oceans have become more acidic. Low pH reduces concentration of carbonate ion used by marine organisms to make skeletal material and shells, and the beautiful, vividly colored coral reefs are composed of carbonate structures. Other than depleting the raw material for reefs and shells, highly acidic water can also dissolve the existing reefs. The algae that decorates the reefs can die from high water acidity; a phenomenon called coral bleaching. For other non-calcifying marine animals, acidic waters affect their ability to detect predators. Ocean acidification has far-reaching consequences for marine ecosystems.

Tropical storms

Hurricanes occur on oceans where the surface water temperature is warmer than 26 °C, combined with fast winds (> 100 mph) and high precipitation. Greenhouse gas effect will both increase the ocean temperatures, as well as the surface area of water. Warmer seas will also increase precipitation rates and the frequency of hurricanes is expected to increase by 60% by the end of the century. Such high occurrence of hurricanes will make it risky for low lying coastal communities such as islands inhabited around the Gulf of Mexico.

Agriculture

The relationship between climate change and agriculture is extremely complex since there are too many variables at play, such as nutrient levels, soil moisture, temperature, water availability. For example, high concentration of atmospheric CO2 concentration has been associated with reduced protein, nitrogen content, and essential minerals in alfalfa, soybean, wheat, and rice plants, resulting in a loss of quality, even as it suggested that high CO2 levels increase the yield of the crops. It is surmised that climate will have a negative effect in low-latitude countries, and negative or positive in high latitude countries. For example, average crop yield in Pakistan is expected to decrease by 50% (low-latitude) while corn production in Europe can increase by 25% if water supply is managed well (high-latitude). High latitude regions are also expected to have longer growing periods thus having a positive impact on growth yield. Many weeds, pests, and fungi thrive under warmer temperatures, wetter climates, and increased CO2 levels, necessitating use of more pesticides in the future. In the long-run climate change will also affect agricultural practices in favor of crops that need high temperatures or can benefit from higher CO2 uptake.

Energy production

Our existing power generating plants whether nuclear (renewable) or coal-dependent (non-renewable) are dependent on supply of huge quantities of cool water to offset the heat released. In the US and Europe this water supply is usually from a nearby river. The rise in river water temperatures combined with less water due to frequent droughts slows down the cooling process and keeps these plants from functioning on a continuous basis, leading to shutdowns. The supply of energy – arguably the most precious commodity with an exponentially increasing demand – can be significantly compromised by changing climate patterns.

References

About the author

Amrita Yasin obtained her bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo, and a PhD in Materials Engineering from McGill University. Her PhD introduced her to the world of nanoparticles that convert solar energy to electricity. She did her postdoc at Swansea University in mystical Wales in the UK, where she worked on processes to deposit few atoms thick coatings. Her continuing research on solar cells has fuelled an interest in sustainable practices. She loves partaking in science outreach events with kids because it gives perspective to the daily, detailed lab experiments, and reminds her of what got her interested in science at a young age.

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