The Impact of Natural Phenomena on Earth's Climate

Instructor: Lori Jones

Lori has a degree from Stanford, was Principal of a K-12 private school that she started, has a Master's degree, and taught at the high school level.

Natural phenomena can have a great impact on the earth's weather and climate. In this lesson, we will explore the different types of phenomena that affect our climate and their effects.

Natural Phenomena and Earth's Climate

Imagine watching a beautiful sunset, seeing the tide come in, or feeling the breeze on a warm summer day. These gifts from nature tend to make our days, weeks, and vacations even better. There are also some not-so-friendly natural phenomena that can occur, such as thunderstorms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. These are less desirable, as they can not only ruin a planned activity but may also cause damage or physical harm.

While natural phenomena can have direct effects on our lives, there is one effect most of us don't often consider, and that's the effect on our weather and climate. Let's take a look at the different types of natural phenomena that impact our climate.

Types of Natural Phenomena

To determine the effect natural phenomena has on climate, we first need to define what this term means. Natural phenomena refers to physical events that are not artificial or man-made. They are events that occur in our atmosphere, on or underneath the ground, or in our seas and oceans. Natural phenomena can include things such as a sunrise, a rainfall, or just the tide coming in.

Natural disasters are slightly different but are types of natural phenomena. Natural disasters are events (such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and volcanic eruptions) that have a major impact on human life.

While natural phenomena can impact our day, our week, and even our lives, not all of them have an effect on earth's climate. There are two primary ones that do:

1) Volcanic eruptions

2) Ocean currents

Let's take a look at these in detail and find out how they affect our climate.

Volcanic Eruptions

When we think of a volcano erupting, we often think about the intense heat of the molten rock and smoke it emits. Did you know that despite this heat, a volcanic eruption can have a cooling effect on our planet? How can this be?

When a volcano erupts, a large cloud of ash and dust particles is released into the atmosphere. These large plumes of ash and dust often cover the sky, blocking the sun's radiation and cooling the air directly below. If the eruption is large enough, these dust particles can travel, bringing the volcano's cooling effect to the rest of the world.

An example of this can be found in the 1991 Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption in the Philippines. The amount of ash and smoke released was so great, that during the two years following the eruption, a 1/2-degree Celsius drop in temperature was noticed around the globe, and the ozone hole over Antarctica became larger than it had ever been.

Eruption of the Mt. Pinatubo volcano
Pinatubo eruption

In addition to the ash and dust, sulfur dioxide is also emitted into the atmosphere and mixes with water to form sulfuric acid. This acid forms a long-lasting haze in the stratosphere that reflects solar radiation back into space and can cool the earth's surface for up to three years.

On the flip side of this, however, volcanos also can warm the earth. Greenhouse gases, such as water vapor and carbon dioxide, are also released by volcanoes during an eruption. When the number or duration of volcanic eruptions is high, these greenhouse gases absorb solar radiation, causing global warming.

Now we know volcanoes--which produce a great amount of heat in the form of lava--affect the earth's climate. There is something on the opposite end of all this smoke and heat that also affects climate. That something is water, or more specifically, ocean currents.

Ocean Currents

As you look at a map or model of the earth, you can see that nearly three quarters of the earth's surface is covered by water. As a result, most of the sun's energy that hits the earth is absorbed by our oceans, and this energy is carried around our planet by ocean currents.

Ocean currents of the earth
Ocean currents

Ocean currents are continuous movements of the ocean's water in a specific direction.

There are two types of ocean currents:

1) Cold currents transfer cold water from the poles towards the equator. Cold currents flowing towards the equator cool the land and air as they approach the equator, which helps to balance the climate in tropical regions.

2) Warm currents transfer warm water from the equator towards the poles. Warm currents traveling towards the poles warm the air and land, ensuring regions near the poles don't become too cold.

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