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5.

12 Understand the different types of evidence for climate change and


its causes (including records of carbon dioxide levels, temperature
records, pollen in peat bogs and dendrochronology), recognising
correlations and causal relationships.
5.3 Is the climate changing?

One of the biggest challenges facing ecosystems is climate change. At present, we seem to be
in a period of global warming. This is supported by:

Temperature records
Pollen in peat bogs
Dendrochronology

Studying peat bogs


As records of temperature with thermometer only date back to around 200 years
ago, methods to measure the temperature dating back to the Ice Age (12000
years ago) is to study plant and insect remains preserved in peat. (Peat is an
accumulation of partially decayed organic matter, mainly the remain of dead
plants).

(There are still extensive peat bogs in Ireland and some areas of Britain)

When plant material dies, it normally decays. However, in the anaerobic and
often acidic conditions of a peat bog, the decay rate is slow and almost stops
altogether. This is because enzyme activity slows down significantly.
The type of pollen found in each layer of the core provides information about the
conditions when the peat was deposited
Pollen from the past
Pollen grains are usually well preserved and can be used to determine climate
conditions in the past.

Pollen from peat is useful for reconstructing past climates for the following
reasons:

Plants produce pollen in vast amounts, through spring and summer,


millions of pollen grains fall from the air to the ground including the
surface of the peat bogs.
Pollen grains have a tough outer layer that is very resistant to decay.
Each species of plant has its own distinctive type of pollen, allowing us to
identify which plant is originated from.
Peat forms in layers: the deeper the layer, the older the peat. Carbon-14
dating allows the date of a particular peat to be established.
Each species of plant has a particular set of ecological conditions in which
is flourished best. If we find pollen from a species favouring warmer
conditions, we can infer that the peat was laid down when the climate was
warmer.
Tree ring analysis dendrochronology

Every year, trees produce a new layer of xylem vessels by the division of cells
underneath the bark. The diameter of the new xylem vessels varies according to
the season when they are produced: wide vessels in the spring when the trees
grow quickly, followed by narrow vessels in summer. Little if any growth takes
place in autumn and winter. The different widths of the vessels create a pattern
of rings across the trunk, which can easily be seen when a tree is cute down,
with a ring for each year of tree growth. Instead of cutting down a tree to see the
rings, a core sample can be taken and examined.
By counting inwards of a tree, you can date the year each ring was formed. To
date trees accurately, experts find common patterns of tree-ring growth that
allow cross-dating.
For example, if the ring found in 1326 was wider than that of 1327, it means the
tree grew more in 1326 than 1327; this probably indicates that the conditions in
1326 were better for tree growth. It was probably warmer or wetter. So tree rings
can give precise dates, but also strong clues about past climates.
Putting the data together
Historical temperature records made by people provide climate information from
the present back to about 1650. Tree-ring studies extend these records to
hundreds of years; 3000 years in some cases. Pollen gives us information going
back some 20000 years. Ice cores are used to find out what happened before
this. As water freezes, bubbles of air become trapped within the ice. The ratio of
different oxygen isotopes in the trapped air is measured and this gives an
estimate of the average air temperature when the ice was formed. The carbon
dioxide concentration of the air can also be determined from these bubbles.
Combining the evidence obtained using all these techniques allows us to build up
a picture of conditions over the last 400 000 years.

This shows
the changes
in
average global temperature over a long period. Major fluctuations in temperature
have occurred regularly. Changes in the past century indicate we are in a period
of global warming.
Changing rainfall patterns
This is mainly due to a small increase in the number of wet days with a greater
increase in the amount of rainfall in these wet days. Scientists are unable to say
this is due to man-made climate change or whether it is due to natural variation.
5.4 Why is the climate changing?
The greenhouse effect sun radiates energy, largely as visible light. The earth
absorbs some of the energy. The earth warms up and radiates energy back into
space as infrared radiation. Some of the energy that is radiated from the earths
surface is absorbed by gases in the atmosphere, warming it. The gases that stop
infrared radiation escaping are called greenhouse gases. They create the
greenhouse effect which keeps the earth warm.