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Louis Wellings

Section name

Our changing climate: Past, present


and future

The climate system


Video transcript
I'm Richard Allan. I'm professor of climate science in the meteorology department at the University
of Reading.
Climate has always been changing. Over billions of years, the sun has gradually become brighter, and
the atmosphere of the earth has evolved in symbiosis with life. Over hundreds of millions of years,
the continents and the positions of the oceans have moved over time. And that's led to vast swings
in climate over these very long time scales. The last few million years, there's been other changes in
climate that relate to regular and predictable cycles in Earth's orbit around the sun. These initiate
glacial periods where ice sheets extend across northern hemisphere like North America and Eurasia,
and milder interglacial interludes that we're currently enjoying today.
We've progressed from last glacial period. The last glacial maximum of which was around 20,000
years ago. And since then, climate has been changing in response to changes in the brightness of the
sun to volcanic eruptions and also to very slow fluctuations in the ocean. There's a vast spectrum of
changes that affect climate. More recently, human societies and their activities have actually
contributed to a change in our climate, for example through emissions of greenhouse gases like
carbon dioxide, which are gradually heating our planet up.
Earth's climate depends on a balance between the absorbed sunlight it receives and the continuous
cooling to space through infrared radiative emission. Warmer bodies emit more of this radiation, so
in terms of the earth, it actually receives a certain amount of radiation from the sun. At a particular
temperature, it can exactly balance the amount of radiation it receives through infrared emission to
space. And this balance is actually attained at a global average temperature of around 15 degrees
Celsius.
Our planet rotates each day about a line, which passes through each pole. This line of rotation is
tilted at around 23 and 1/2 degrees, relative to the orbit of the earth around the sun. In June
currently, the northern hemisphere including North America, Europe, and most of Asia is tilted
towards the sun, so it receives more sunlight. Whereas in December, the northern hemisphere is
tilted away from the sun, and so less sunlight is received. So this gives us our seasons.
The warm tropical regions receive more sunlight than the cold polar regions. This uneven
distribution of heating across the planet combined with the position of the continents, the
mountains, and the oceans, and also combining with the rotation of the planet each day, conspires
to produce an atmospheric and oceanic circulation. All these factors combine to produce our
current climate and to produce our current climate zones, which include the warm tropical rain
forest belts, the dry desert regions, and also the more temperate climates we have in middle
latitudes.
Our climate is extremely complex. Throughout the rest of the course, we'll be learning about how
we know about past climate through observations, how we use physics and bring those together
with observations to build simulations of Earth's climate, and to make projections about how we
University of Reading 2015

Wednesday 4 November 2015

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think climate will change in the future. And crucially, we're going to look at what are the
implications for water resources, cities, and life of altering Earth's energy balance through emissions
of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.

University of Reading 2015

Wednesday, 04 November 2015

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