The Effect of Atmospheric Moisture on Climate Variability

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  • 0:01 Climate vs. Temperature
  • 1:22 The Greenhouse Effect
  • 2:27 Climate Change
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

You might not think water vapor in the air can impact the climate, but it can. This lesson will explore how water vapor and climate are related and will also explain how climate change is impacting the amount of water vapor in the air.

Climate vs. Temperature

There's a reason why Earth is called the blue planet. About 71% of the Earth's surface is covered by water. There are 3,094 cubic miles of water in the atmosphere. Each day, 280 cubic miles worth of water evaporates and transpires into the atmosphere. And about 7,000,000 cubic miles of water can be found as ice in glaciers and ice caps around the world.

But how does water, mainly water vapor, impact climate variability on the blue planet? Before we get into that, we need to understand the words climate, temperature and climate variability.

Temperature refers to conditions at a specific time and place. For example, today, in Fairbanks, Alaska, it's currently 40 degrees F and sunny. Whereas climate refers to the pattern of weather over a long period of time. For example, for this date, Fairbanks has an average temperature of 27 degrees F. Climate variability refers to the yearly variation in climate compared to the long-term average. For example, some winters are colder than normal, some have more precipitation, whereas others are warmer and drier.

This lesson will focus on climate, and more specifically, how water vapor affects the climate.

The Greenhouse Effect

Water cycles through the Earth in the water cycle: evaporating and transpiring into the atmosphere and then returning to the ground through precipitation, ending up in plants, in the oceans, in freshwater ponds, and then evaporating; well you get the general idea. So, if you had to guess, do you think more water vapor in the atmosphere would make the temperature rise or decline? Well, let's take a look!

It's a hot, sunny day, and the ground and water are warmed from the heat of the sun. At night, when the sun sets, it starts to cool off. Now, without water vapor and other greenhouse gases, the heat from the ground and the lake would radiate back into space, and the Earth would get really cold at night.

But greenhouse gases, like water vapor, capture that heat energy and then radiate it back. So, you can see how greenhouse gases get their name. They act like a greenhouse, trapping the heat. So, the more water vapor that's in the atmosphere, the more heat energy gets radiated back to the Earth. So, to answer our question from before, more water vapor makes the Earth warmer.

Climate Change

You've probably already heard about climate change, or the change in climate patterns, and you've probably heard of global warming, or an increase in the world's average temperature. But you may not be familiar with water's role in climate change and global warming. Water is affected by global warming, and in turn leads to increased warming of the Earth. In fact, water vapor is responsible for about 60% of the warming, but why?

As the overall temperature on Earth increases, more liquid water evaporates. When the temperature increases, water molecules get more energy and are more likely to evaporate. With more evaporation, there is more water vapor in the atmosphere, which causes more heat to be radiated back to Earth.

When more water evaporates into the atmosphere, several things can happen. First, warmer air can hold a greater amount of water vapor. In fact, for every 1.8 degree F (1 degree C) rise in temperature, the air can hold about 7% more water vapor before it becomes saturated, or full of water vapor.

A greater amount of water vapor in the atmosphere not only leads to more heat being trapped and radiated back to Earth through the greenhouse effect, but also more precipitation. So, there are areas in the world that are experiencing more rain and snow than they had in previous years.

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