Global climate change: What Earth's rising temperatures may mean for Kansas City

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The topic of global climate change can be controversial. But the fact is, the Earth is currently warming up. 

Average temperatures have climbed 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit around the world since 1880, according to Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. There are many questions from here, like: Is this warming caused by man, or is it just a natural cycle? What will happen if the warming continues? What impacts will it have on society or the environment? Is there anything we can do about it?

The past year has brought a lot of unusual weather to our region and the nation.

• Superstorm Sandy: The late season hurricane turned hard into the New Jersey shore, unlike any hurricane on record, and became part of a bigger storm that produced 4 feet of snow in West Virginia – a hurricane and a major snowstorm at the same time!

• 102 days later, another Superstorm struck the same region – this time a blizzard bringing 25 to 40 inches of snow to New England.

• Last year, the United States had four times as many record highs as record lows, and it was the warmest year by far in U.S. weather history.

• Kansas City continues to experience an exceptional drought.

• The lowest amount of snow in Kansas City's recorded history last winter came after two of the snowiest winters the previous two years.

Maybe the climate has already changed, or we are just now experiencing this change right before our eyes. 

What is causing this? 

"Humans and human activities put out about 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year and that's a lot of weight," said Bob Henson, author of Rough Guide to Climate Change

It's only reasonable that if you put that much weight up into the atmosphere, it would affect climate, and this is likely causing the current warming.  Most of the scientists who study climate agree with Henson, according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). 

But it may seem hard to believe that humanity can be the cause. The Earth just seems too big for people to be an influence. 

But is it really? 

Let's look at Earth from the sun's perspective. 

"You can see how thin the atmosphere is. It really is just a sliver," Henson said. "The Earth itself is thousands of miles thick; (the atmosphere) is really only a paper-thin layer."

Experts say carbon dioxide is steadily increasing in the atmosphere, according to the NOAA/Climate Monitoring and Diagnostics Laboratory. It's invisible and odorless, but every year fossil fuels add more than 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the air. 

By analyzing ice in Greenland and Antarctica, scientists determined atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperatures are closely related. There is evidence that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now more than 25 percent higher than at any other time in the past 800,000 years. The ice cores are used for this data source.

And global temperatures have risen more than 1.3°F in the last century.

Read the report |

Cycles of warming and cooling occur naturally, so not every year is warmer than the year before. Larger cycles of warming and cooling can be seen in the earth's climatic history.

This is mainly because of predictable wobbles in how the Earth spins around the sun.

Large eruptions of volcanoes and other natural causes of climate change will continue to occur. But for thousands of years, the Earth's atmosphere has changed relatively little with the balance of  heat-trapping greenhouse gases remaining just right for humans and other species to survive.

Could this balance be about to reach a tipping point, where our climate changes to another state?

Some climate change is now inevitable.

"There is enough heat trapped in the oceans that has been collected by greenhouse gasses, that the earth is going to continue to warm up by a degree Fahrenheit even if we did nothing," Henson said.

Reducing greenhouse emissions could possibly slow the process, but Kansas City residents may also have to adapt to a climate that's more likely to be warmer, with bigger swings between wet and dry periods. 

Will temperatures in Kansas City ever get down to –20°F again, as what happened several times a century ago? According to statistics, that's becoming less likely.

Will Kansas City ever break the area's all-time high of 113°F from 1934? That's becoming more likely.

And because the hydrologic cycle is becoming more intense, residents in Kansas City can expect both heavier periods of rain and snow and more intense droughts in between.

The Earth is warming up. Many scientists say this current warming can be and is being linked to human activity.

What happens in the future with man-made changes and what happens naturally is still unclear.

More resources

Here are some links that will address questions you may have. Try to see what is fact and what is opinion:

Steroids, Baseball, and Climate Change (UCAR AtmosNews--a cool two-minute animation) (NOAA--great visuals)

U.S. records (NOAA/NCDC -- it's *the* place to follow trends in record highs and lows)

Global warming and climate change FAQs (UCAR)

Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study (a very important independent study founded by a once-skeptical scientist, Richard Muller)

Global Warming and Climate Change Myths (at fantastic site that addresses 174 common climate change myths!

Also from that site: the global warming "escalator"


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