ESS3.D: Global Climate Change
How do people model and predict the effects of human activities on Earth's climate?
- Introduction to ESS3.D
- K-12 Progression and Grade Band End Points for ESS3.D
- Performance Expectations Associated with ESS3.D
- Additional Resources for ESS3.D
Global climate change, shown to be driven by both natural phenomena and by human activities, could have large consequences for all of Earth’s surface systems, including the biosphere (see ESS3.C for a general discussion of climate). Humans are now so numerous and resource dependent that their activities affect every part of the environment, from outer space and the stratosphere to the deepest ocean.
However, by using science-based predictive models, humans can anticipate long-term change more effectively than ever before and plan accordingly.
Global changes usually happen too slowly for individuals to recognize, but accumulated human knowledge, together with further scientific research, can help people learn more about these challenges and guide their responses. For example, there are historical records of weather conditions and of the times when plants bloom, animals give birth or migrate, and lakes and rivers freeze and thaw. And scientists can deduce long-past climate conditions from such sources as fossils, pollen grains found in sediments, and isotope ratios in samples of ancient materials.
Scientists build mathematical climate models that simulate the underlying physics and chemistry of the many Earth systems and their complex interactions with each other. These computational models summarize the existing evidence, are tested for their ability to match past patterns, and are then used (together with other kinds of computer models) to forecast how the future may be affected by human activities. The impacts of climate change are uneven and may affect some regions, species, or human populations more severely than others.
Climate models are important tools for predicting, for example, when and where new water supplies will be needed, when and which natural resources will become scarce, how weather patterns may change and with what consequences, whether proposed technological concepts for controlling greenhouse gases will work, and how soon people will have to leave low-lying coastal areas if sea levels continue to rise. Meanwhile, important discoveries are being made—for example, about how the biosphere is responding to the climate changes that have already occurred, how the atmosphere is responding to changes in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and how greenhouse gases move between the ocean and the atmosphere over long periods. Such information, from models and other scientific and engineering efforts, will continue to be essential to planning for humanity’s— and the global climate’s—future.
It is important to note that although forecasting the consequences of environmental change is crucial to society, it involves so many complex phenomena and uncertainties that predictions, particularly long-term predictions, always have uncertainties. These arise not only from uncertainties in the underlying science but also from uncertainties about behavioral, economic, and political factors that affect human activity and changes in activity in response to recognition of the problem. However, it is clear not only that human activities play a major role in climate change but also that impacts of climate change—for example, increased frequency of severe storms due to ocean warming—have begun to influence human activities. The prospect of future impacts of climate change due to further increases in atmospheric carbon is prompting consideration of how to avoid or restrict such increases.
Grade Band Endpoints for
By the end of grade 2. [Intentionally left blank.]
By the end of grade 5. If Earth’s global mean temperature continues to rise, the lives of humans and other organisms will be affected in many different ways.
By the end of grade 8. Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (global warming). Reducing human vulnerability to whatever climate changes do occur depend on the understanding of climate science, engineering capabilities, and other kinds of knowledge, such as understanding of human behavior and on applying that knowledge wisely in decisions and activities.
By the end of grade 12. Global climate models are often used to understand the process of climate change because these changes are complex and can occur slowly over Earth’s history. Though the magnitudes of humans’ impacts are greater than they have ever been, so too are humans’ abilities to model, predict, and manage current and future impacts. Through computer simulations and other studies, important discoveries are still being made about how the ocean, the atmosphere, and the biosphere interact and are modified in response to human activities, as well as to changes in human activities. Thus science and engineering will be essential both to understanding the possible impacts of global climate change and to informing decisions about how to slow its rate and consequences—for humanity as well as for the rest of the planet.