Observing Changes in Natural Phenomena Over Time

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Science is all about observing changes - even when they are difficult to observe. Learn about how scientists observe changes in natural phenomena over time. Test your knowledge after the lesson with a quiz.

Observation in Science

Science is all about observing the natural world. By looking at the world and making measurements, we can better understand how it works. Science is a methodical process by which nature is examined, primarily through the collection of data concerning natural phenomena and experimentation. Often that involves observing the effect of something we do. If you mix sugar with water, what will happen? If you throw a ball at a wall, how will it bounce?

However, some observation in science requires us to look at something over a longer period of time. Maybe we want to know how far the water reaches at the beach at different times of year. Or maybe we want to know the average temperature of an area over a ten-year period. In every discipline of science it's important to study natural phenomena over time.

Observing Changes Over Time

Perhaps one of the most relevant examples of observing changes over time is the study of climate. A region's climate is its average weather conditions over an extended time period. The earth is currently facing changes in climate that are more rapid than any known in recorded history. Scientists believe that humans are causing these changes by releasing greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere. However, the only way we can know any of this is by making observations over time. Climate scientists have observed temperature, rainfall patterns, extreme weather and many others factors over the last few hundred years. They've measured the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and discovered that it has increased over time.

Climate change data
Climate change data

Another example of observation of natural phenomena over time is the way astronomers observe stars other than our sun. By carefully measuring the light the Earth receives from the star, scientists gain great insight. For example, they might learn that there are two stars orbiting around each other because the light varies in a particular pattern. These are called binary stars. Astronomers can even detect when planets pass between the Earth and the binary stars because of changes in the brightness of the stars' light.

Light from a binary star
Light from a binary star

Techniques for Measuring Historical Changes

However, what do scientists do when they want to observe natural phenomena over hundreds, thousands or even millions of years? If geologists want to look at the erosion of rocks along the beach over a long stretch of time, these kinds of observations can't be done directly. So how do scientists know so much about long-term changes in nature?

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