Climate Variability and Climate Change- What is the Difference?

Climate Variability and Climate Change

Climate Variability and Climate Change: Climate change, it’s a word you hear a lot. We live in a time where it’s a major concern for ourselves, future generations, and the world at large. Yet, you may not hear much about climate variability. It’s a less common term and, as such, you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that the two terms are the same. After all, change and variability are basically synonymous. Yet, the two aren’t the same. While they may be related, they’re actually quite distinct and that distinction is important to know if you want to understand experts when they use them. Or, even more importantly, so you can understand when those who aren’t experts are misusing them.

This article will help you to learn what the difference between these two terms are and everything you may need to know about the two of them.

Climate Change:  What Is It?

Climate change is probably something you feel like you know the definition of.  It’s been used so much it’s one of those terms that’s found its way into the public wealth of knowledge. Yet, if you needed to explain it to someone who didn’t know what it meant, you might find yourself having some difficulty in explaining what exactly climate change is. So, according to the United Nations, climate change is defined as the long-term (like decades and centuries sort of long-term) change in temperatures and weather across the globe.

While these changes would often occur naturally to some extent (for example, the ice age was a climate change event that was due to naturally occurring phenomena), when we talk about climate change today, we typically refer to the changes that happen because of human activity and fault. For example, an increase in industrialism and factory farming over the past 200 years has resulted in an increase in changes to the earth’s climate.

Climate Variability:  What Is It?

Now time to explain the trickier term in our little match-up. Climate variability. It’s not that difficult, but it’s also easy to get a little overwhelmed by all these scientific terms being thrown around. Especially when they’re all so similar. Climate variability falls under the umbrella of climate change, but it’s not exactly the same thing. Climate variability is usually used to describe shorter-term climate related events. It’s the middle zone between describing a one single weather or temperature related occurrence and the long-term changes that climate change usually refers to. 

A harsh winter, a one-year drought, a summer full of heat-waves, these are all examples of events that would be used to describe climate variability. While a few years may seem long-term to most of us, when we talk about long-term goals in any other part of our life, we can be a little subjective about what we mean. Some people may consider six months something long-term, others may think a year or two. In this case, however, long-term is typically anything that lasts longer than a decade. So, any weather changes and patterns that are witnessed in a period of less than ten years is considered part of climate variability. Ten years is the mark that can commute a variation in climate to a change in climate.

Natural Parts of the World-Climate Variability and Climate Change

Both climate change and climate variability are natural parts of the world we inhabit. In fact, studies of fossils and geology can see evidence of different climate events and periods of drastic climate variability and change throughout the earth’s history, dating back thousands, millions, even billions of years. However, that’s not the sort of change and variability we are talking about in the world we live in now. Sure, changes would still happen, but the reason climate change is such a widely known term is because the sort of climate change we witness every day is, most likely, much different than the change we would witness if humans had no effect on the matter. Natural climate change and variability takes years, lifetimes to really witness. Yet, even in the past 50 years, we’ve been able to witness vast changes in temperatures and weather patterns all across the globe.

While ten years is typically the threshold used to begin determining if a climate variability pattern can be reclassified as a climate change event, we are starting to notice more and more climate variability events happen every year. An increase in strong and severe storms, recurring droughts, heavy rains, hotter summers, colder winters, shorter mild temperature seasons, any one of these events would be a cause for concern. It seems, however, like we’re starting to witness many of them every year. It will take some time before they’re fully and officially classified as side effects of climate change, but that doesn’t mean scientists aren’t looking at them that way already.

Take Time to Learn Difference-Climate Variability and Climate Change

For that reason, these two terms can and often are confused for one another when they’re both used.

If it takes you a little time, and a few re-reads of this article, to get the difference between the two terms down, don’t worry.  No one is going to be upset if you mix up your words or if you use climate change as a catch-all term. You’re not a scientist. It is important, however, that you know the important facts about the matter so you, and the rest of us, can be prepared. Who knows, maybe, just maybe, if we’re all knowledgeable enough and if we’re all determined enough, we might be able to change things so climate change and climate variability can stop being such pressing issues. That way, maybe we’ll get to a point where knowing the difference between the two is just something you have to worry about having to show up on your science final.

What You, Yes, You, Need to Know.

1) Climate Variability Isn’t all Because of Us-Climate Change vs Climate Variability

We’ve already mentioned this, but it’s worth restating. Climate variability is, at least in part, due to the changes in the climate that have occurred as a result of human activity damaging the earth and its atmosphere. However, there have been through history and there are currently plenty of occasions where variations in the climate are spontaneous and random. No matter what, variations in the weather would happen. There would be a randomly warm winter, a year with less rain, a once in a lifetime snowstorm in the desert, a crazy storm that is far stronger than anyone could have anticipated. These events aren’t good by any means, but they still happen.

The atmosphere and earth’s weather is carefully balanced. When that balance is tipped by something like a volcanic eruption or a perfect combination of different weather causing elements like temperature and bodies of water, then strange climate occurrences can happen. That isn’t the problem. The problem is the increase of such variations that can be seen if you look at both records and reports of weather events and the increase in the human activities that are widely accepted to be major contributors to changes in the world’s climate. You’ll start to notice that these variations in the climate aren’t occurring at random intervals between periods of relative stability. They’re happening more often and all around the globe.

So, while climate variability may not be all our fault, we’re certainly not helping the matter much.

2) Climate Change is Natural…to an Extent

Much like climate variability, climate change is also a phenomenon that does have some of its roots in natural causes. Science has shown that the earth has gone through different changes in its climate over the billions of years it’s been supporting life. Animals have gone extinct, new animals have evolved, all of that happened in part due to changes to climate that prompted or supported some of those changes.

However, naturally occurring climate change is supposed to be a slow process. Or, when it occurs quickly, such as was likely the case in at least one of the earth’s ice ages, it is usually due to a spontaneous natural disaster type event, like a super volcano erupting with enough force to cause volcanic ash to block out the sun and send the earth’s climate into a plummet. Those singular massive scale events, however, are incredibly rare and often don’t occur for thousands, or even millions of years.

Changes in Climate

Climate change today means something different. The effects of humans on the earth’s climate is drastic and has caused huge changes in short amounts of time. While, sure, it may not seem like the earth has gotten drastically hotter or the ocean and sea levels have risen too much, the changes that have been proved to have occurred have occurred at a rapid rate that far exceeds the rate at which they would have happened naturally.

So, much like climate variability, some changes in the climate are natural and would have happened with or without humans’ effects on the world and the atmosphere, a lot of it is still thanks to us. With a lot of heavy sarcasm on the thanks.

3) Climate Change is About More than the Weather

Climate is often used to refer to weather or temperature. A cold climate, a mild climate, a tropical climate. All of these terms are used to describe weather conditions in a particular location. However, when it comes to climate change, it’s about more than just the weather, or even the temperature.

How much gas is in the atmosphere is another important factor of climate change and climate conditions. Why? Well, the more certain gases (commonly referred to as greenhouse gases) are present in the atmosphere the more the sun’s radiation is trapped in the earth’s atmosphere, which causes temperatures to rise. The rise in temperature then affects nearly everything on earth. From our ability to grow crops to our risk of radiation when we’re out in the sun without sun protection, and, yes, also the weather.

Greenhouse Gases

There are 18 gases that are classified as greenhouse gases. They’re all naturally occurring and they all would accumulate over time. Too much of any of them is bad news for the planet. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue because it would take lifetimes for the amount of gases in the atmosphere to accumulate to the point of being a problem, but we’re not talking about normal circumstances. Due to human effects on the earth, there are more gases produced and, thus, more gases released into the atmosphere. For example, there is currently more carbon dioxide (one of the 18 greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere than ever before. Gases would dissipate over time, but if too much is produced, then this rate of dissipation can’t keep up.

You know what’s a big factor in the amount of carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere? Deforestation. Fewer trees means fewer plants to absorb carbon dioxide. While there are 17 other greenhouse gases, being able to reduce just one, like carbon dioxide, could go leaps and bounds towards getting climate change under control.

4) Climate Change Affects Everything and Everyone

You may think that climate change is just a human problem, which is bad enough. However, have you ever stopped to think about all the other creatures that call earth home? Not just our pets or the animals we see roaming city parks or perched on power lines, but wildlife as well. The wildlife in the world is also affected by climate change. Not only are wild animals affected by the ways in which changes in the weather can affect habits and behaviors, for example changes in temperature could change migration habits of birds, their ability to survive is also affected. Since climate change has  become worse of a problem, wildlife populations have reduced by drastic degrees.

More animals are facing extinction, the list of endangered species is getting longer, and wildlife around the world is finding it harder and harder to survive and thrive. This is due to multiple factors, but all of them can, in some way, relate back to climate change. Animals dying due to a lack of resources that makes sustaining large populations impossible because of a loss of habitat? Well, we already talked about how deforestation, and industrialization in general, contributes to climate change. Animals being unable to survive because temperatures are rising or falling too much for them to be able to adjust to in such a short period of time? That’s, perhaps the most literal climate change cause-effect relationship with wildlife populations. No matter how you want to spin it, animals are in trouble, and it’s because of the changing climate.

5)  Extreme Heat: Where Climate Change and Climate Variability Meet

You may live in a place where you get to witness all four seasons, where maybe you’ve noticed temperatures starting to rise a little, but you still have your summer, fall, winter, spring rotation, so you don’t think much of it. Or someplace where it’s warm all year, so it getting a few degrees hotter isn’t much to complain about. Maybe you live somewhere that is usually frigidly cold, so you actually welcome the temperatures going up a few degrees. However, whether you’ve noticed it or not, whether you mind it or not, temperatures have been rising, and the way in which they’ve been going up is not a good thing for the planet. Huge, decimating wildfires seem to be a yearly tradition now when they never were before. Entire forests are going up in flames. Droughts and heat waves are hitting more often and wiping out crops.

These are considered “heat events” and they can be classified both as products of climate change and as examples of climate variability. These heat events have been occurring often enough for long enough to be considered a symptom of climate change world wide. Yet the pattern that seems to be occurring of yearly wildfires in places like California and Australia are still within the time frame to also be considered localized variations in climate. It sounds confusing, we know. It’s a complicated issue, but, just keep in mind, variability is short-term (under a decade), change is long-term (usually at least a decade).

6) Climate Change isn’t a Future Problem. It’s a Now Problem

Often when people talk about climate change, they make it seem like it’s a problem that needs to be taken care of now to prevent it from happening. Like it is a future issue to be tackled. However, that isn’t the case at all. Climate change isn’t a problem that’s coming. It’s not like a science fiction movie where scientists know a catastrophe is coming so they’re all working to prevent it. Climate change is happening now.

A lot of the changes that have already started won’t be able to be undone. It’s unknown if the glaciers that are melting will ever be able to refreeze and re-form again. It’s unclear if the animal species that are extinct due to changes in the climate will be able to repopulate enough to be stable again. We don’t know if the rise in temperatures will ever go down or if the extreme weather events that we’ve become accustomed to will ever stop. It’s possible that the way the world’s climate is now, and all the ways it’s changed, are now permanent features of the planet.

What experts mean when they talk about prevention and climate change in the same sentence isn’t about preventing the phenomenon. It’s about preventing what is currently happening from getting worse. Things are bad as they are now, but we can learn to adapt and survive. If things get much worse, that’s when our ability to thrive in the world will start to become uncertain.

7) All is not Lost

When talking about matters of climate change and climate variability, things may seem hopeless. Yes, climate variability is natural and spontaneous, yes climate change is, to some extent natural, but that doesn’t mean that we’re hopeless to stop things. Humans have done a lot to contribute to climate change, but that means that, with enough determination, we can also do a lot to help lessen its effects. Yes, there will still be climate variability.

There will still be random weather or temperature patterns that are outside of what is typically considered normal, but, perhaps, there will be fewer climate variations that then turn into evidence of climate change. It will take a lot of work, and leaders all over the world will have to really start taking the issue seriously. Like we already said, don’t think of it as a tomorrow problem. It’s a problem for today and tomorrow and forever after if we’re not careful. However, if everyone works together, there might still be hope that things can improve. Don’t let the doom and gloom get you down. If there’s a will, there’s a way. There’s always hope for a better future if we all try to work together to get there!

Climate Change vs Climate Variability: In Conclusion

Climate change and climate variability are two seemingly synonymous words that actually mean two different things. One is long-term while the other is short-term. One is typically used to talk about a phenomenon that is largely caused or influenced by humans while the other does have many cases of being random and spontaneously caused by a little upset in nature’s careful atmospheric balance.

These terms are related, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s important to know that they’re different. Hopefully this article didn’t scare you too much. We know it’s a worrisome topic and we don’t blame you if reading about it stressed you out. What’s important is that you don’t get stressed into denial. Do some research, see what you can do and find out to help you learn more about climate change and climate variability and all the ways you as an individual can help stop it from getting worse. It may seem like a drop in the bucket, but think about everyone in the world. If you put them all together, that’s a lot of drops!

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