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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: April 2011

1 - Identifying, monitoring and predicting change in the climate system

Summary

‘Without the willow, how to know the beauty of the wind’

Weather directly impacts our lives on a minute-to-minute basis. Radio and television channels are devoted to keeping us up to date on current and future weather conditions. These include temperature, barometric pressure, precipitation, severe storms, humidity, wind and more. When we refer to ‘climate’, we mean average patterns in weather. Thus, climate change is a deviation from the weather patterns that have prevailed over a given period. Taken together, the weather we experience and the weather patterns across the globe are the product of processes occurring in the Earth's ‘climate system’, which is composed of interactions between the atmosphere, the hydrosphere (including the oceans), the cryosphere (ice and snow), the land surface and the biosphere. Ultimately, this system is controlled by the amount of energy stored as heat at the Earth's surface and the redistribution of this heat energy. Because we humans live in the atmosphere at the surface of the Earth, we (wrongly) assume that changes in air temperature are the only and best indicator of climate change. In fact, relatively little (<5%) of the change in the amount of heat energy stored at the Earth's surface that has taken place in recent decades has occurred in the atmosphere (IPCC, 2007a).

To understand changes in the climate system, the changes in the heat energy content of compartments other than the atmosphere also need to be considered.

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