Climate change is a change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns when that change lasts for an extended period of time (i.e., decades to millions of years). Climate change may refer to a change in average weather conditions, or in the time variation of weather around longer-term average conditions (i.e., more or fewer extreme weather events). Climate change is caused by factors such as biotic processes, variations in solar radiation received by Earth, plate tectonics, and volcanic eruptions. Certain human activities have also been identified as significant causes of recent climate change, often referred to as global warming.
Scientists actively work to understand past and future climate by using observations and theoretical models. A climate record—extending deep into the Earth’s past—has been assembled, and continues to be built up, based on geological evidence from borehole temperature profiles, cores removed from deep accumulations of ice, floral and faunal records, glacial and periglacial processes, stable-isotope and other analyses of sediment layers, and records of past sea levels. More recent data are provided by the instrumental record. General circulation models, based on the physical sciences, are often used in theoretical approaches to match past climate data, make future projections, and link causes and effects in climate change.
On the broadest scale, the rate at which energy is received from the Sun and the rate at which it is lost to space determine the equilibrium temperature and climate of Earth. This energy is distributed around the globe by winds, ocean currents, and other mechanisms to affect the climates of different regions.
Factors that can shape climate are called climate forcings or “forcing mechanisms”. These include processes such as variations in solar radiation, variations in the Earth’s orbit, variations in the albedo or reflectivity of the continents and oceans, mountain-building and continental drift and changes in greenhouse gas concentrations. There are a variety of climate change feedbacks that can either amplify or diminish the initial forcing. Some parts of the climate system, such as the oceans and ice caps, respond more slowly in reaction to climate forcings, while others respond more quickly. There are also key threshold factors which when exceeded can produce rapid change.
Arctic sea ice loss
The decline in Arctic sea ice, both in extent and thickness, over the last several decades is further evidence for rapid climate change. Sea ice is frozen seawater that floats on the ocean surface. It covers millions of square miles in the polar regions, varying with the seasons. In the Arctic, some sea ice remains year after year, whereas almost all Southern Ocean or Antarctic sea ice melts away and reforms annually. Satellite observations show that Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 13.3 percent per decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.