Global Climate Change The Exploratorium
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Changes in climate dramatically alter the planet’s snow- and ice-covered cryosphere. With variations in the earth’s temperature, thousands of square miles of snow and ice can accumulate or melt. Changes in snow and ice cover, in turn, affect air temperature, sea level, ocean currents, and storm patterns.

Snow and ice help keep the earth cool by reflecting between 60% and 90% of the solar energy that shines on them back into space. Reduction of snow cover and sea ice may lead to increased warming, as more solar energy is absorbed.

Climate models suggest that global warming will be felt most acutely in the polar regions, particularly the Arctic. Researchers have already observed many changes in the Arctic, including the warmest temperatures in the last 400 years, an earlier melting of ice on lakes and rivers, and a decline in the extent of spring and summer sea ice.

Studying the cryosphere also gives scientists valuable insights into how and why the earth’s climate has changed in the past, how it is currently changing, and what may lie ahead. Ice at the poles and in glaciers contains detailed records of past climate, including bubbles that capture samples of the earth’s ancient atmosphere. By examining ice cores—cylinders of ice taken from deep below the surface—scientists gather data dating back hundreds of thousands of years.

 glossary glossary terms  

Click for definitions of words used on this page:

energy budget
ice core
remote sensing

View the full, printable version of the glossary.

Northern Hemisphere Snowthumbnail

Northern Hemisphere Snow and Ice Chart - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Satellite Services Division Snow and Ice Program
short-term data

South Pole/Ice Concentration thumbnail

South Pole/Ice Concentration
Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center

short-term data

Vostok Ice Core Coveringthumbnail

Climate Records from the Vostok Ice Core Covering the Last 420,000 years - National Ice Core Laboratory
long-term data

Global Glacier Mass Balance thumbnail

Global Glacier Volume Change (1960–1998) - National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC)
short-term data

Case Study thumbnail

Case Study: The Collapse of the Larsen B Ice Shelf - National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado, Boulder

 questions about this section  

question How will a warmer climate affect Antarctica’s ice sheets?

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 more sites about the cryosphere

National Snow and Ice Data Center/State of the Cryosphere - Provides an overview of the status of snow and ice as indicators of climate change.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Arctic Theme Page - Includes essays by experts on scientific research in the Arctic, excellent list of links to research programs, North Pole Web cam, and more.

Exploratorium/Antarctica - Stories, features, and notes from the field about scientific life in Antarctica.

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