Earth's climate has been changing constantly over its 5-billion-year history. Sometimes, the climate has warmed so that the oceans have risen and covered much of the Earth. Each of the changes may seem extreme, but they usually occurred slowly over many thousands of years.
Ancient Climate History
The first people arrived in America between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago. During that time, much of North America was covered by great ice sheets. Some 14,000 years ago, the last ice sheet began to melt very quickly. By 7,000 years ago, the ice was gone.
This end to the ice ages caused big changes on the Earth. The changes caused many kinds of plants and animals to die. For example, mastodons - elephant-like animals - and other large mammals that preferred cold climates may not have been able to live in the warmer, drier conditions.
The Little Ice Age
Starting in the 14th century, Europeans lived through what is known as the "Little Ice Age." The Little Ice Age lasted for several hundred years. During the Little Ice Age, the advance of glaciers along with hard winters and famines caused some people to starve and others to leave their homes.
Recent Climate History
The Earth has warmed about 1°F in the last 100 years. And the four warmest years of the 20th century all happened in the 1990s. Periods of increased heat from the sun may have helped make the Earth warmer. But many of the world's leading climatologists think that the greenhouse gases people produce are making the Earth warmer, too.
Melting Glaciers: a glacier is a large sheet of ice that moves very, very slowly. Many glaciers in the world are now melting. For example, glaciers are melting in Montana's Glacier National Park. Some scientists think the glaciers are melting partly because the Earth is getting warmer.
Rising Sea Level: have you ever built a sandcastle on the beach, close to the ocean on wet sand? If you have, you probably know that the sandcastle won't last very long. Chances are the waves will wash away the sandcastle as soon as the tide comes in. The water goes higher up the beach when the tide comes in. At most shores throughout the world, two high tides and two low tides occur every day. But now the level of the sea is rising, so high tides are higher than they were before. Over the last 100 years, the level of the sea has risen about 6-8 inches worldwide. When the sea level rises, the tide goes farther up the beach.
Scientists think the sea has risen partly because of melting glaciers and sea ice. When some glaciers melt, they release water into the sea and make it higher than it was before. Scientists also think that warmer temperatures in the sea make it rise even more. Heat makes water expand. When the ocean expands, it takes up more space.
What Might Happen?
Scientists are not fortune-tellers. They don't know exactly what will happen in the future. But they can use special computer programs to find out how the climate may change in the years ahead. And the computer programs tell us that the Earth may continue to get warmer.
Together, the melting glaciers, rising seas, and computer models provide some good clues. They tell us that the Earth's temperature will probably continue to rise as long as we continue increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Much of the information in this section (including text and images) has been sourced from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Visit the EPA website to learn more.