Climate change occurs when changes in Earth’s climate system result in new weather patterns that remain in place for an extended period of time. This length of time can be as short as a few decades to as long as millions of years. The climate system comprises five interacting parts, the atmosphere (air), hydrosphere (water), cryosphere (ice and permafrost), biosphere (living things), and lithosphere (earth’s crust and upper mantle). The climate system receives nearly all of its energy from the sun, with a relatively tiny amount from earth’s interior. The climate system also gives off energy to outer space. The balance of incoming and outgoing energy, and the passage of the energy through the climate system, determines Earth’s energy budget. When the incoming energy is greater than the outgoing energy, earth’s energy budget is positive and the climate system is warming. If more energy goes out, the energy budget is negative and earth experiences cooling.
The energy moving through Earth’s climate system finds expression in weather, varying on geographic scales and time. Long-term averages of weather in a region constitute the region’s climate. Climate change is a long-term, sustained trend of change in climate. Such changes can be the result of “internal variability”, when natural processes inherent to the various parts of the climate system alter Earth’s energy budget. Examples include cyclical ocean patterns such as the well-known El Niño–Southern Oscillation and less familiar Pacific decadal oscillation and Atlantic multidecadal oscillation. Climate change can also result from external forcing, when events outside of the climate system’s components nonetheless produce changes within the system. Examples include changes in solar output and volcanism.
Human activities can also change climate, and are presently driving climate change through global warming. There is no general agreement in scientific, media, or policy documents as to the precise term to be used to refer to anthropogenic forced change; either “global warming” or “climate change” may be used. The first describes the average effect on a global scale, whilst the second describes how different geographical regions are affected differently.
The field of climatology incorporates many disparate fields of research. For ancient periods of climate change, researchers rely on evidence preserved in climate proxies, such as ice cores, ancient tree rings, geologic records of changes in sea level, and glacial geology. Physical evidence of current climate change covers many independent lines of evidence, a few of which are temperature records, the disappearance of ice, and extreme weather events.