It’s February, and the sun is about to rise on the Arctic for the first time in four months. The return of the sun casts a light on the effects of global climate change on this frozen environment. Our polar regions reflect the changes we see across the world as temperatures rise.

Scientists are studying the Arctic and Antarctic closely to understand how the warming of the planet affects life now, and what that means for our future.

Data from the past can give us clues about climate patterns. Scientists analyse ice cores drilled from up to 3km below the ice of the Arctic and Antarctic regions and use them to chart how Earth’s climate has changed.

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A single ice core can contain data going back up to 800,000 years. As snow fell and compacted, it trapped tiny bubbles of gas like a time capsule of the atmosphere. Researchers can extract our two main greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, to determine how their concentration in the atmosphere has changed over time. Perhaps it’s no surprise that levels of both have shown a massive rise: there is 40% more carbon dioxide (CO2) and double the concentration of methane in the atmosphere than before the industrial revolution.

The increase in CO2 in the atmosphere, over and above that from natural sources, is mainly the result of burning fossil fuels for heat, energy and transportation. Its presence in the atmosphere is exacerbated by deforestation, which decimates the forests that would otherwise act as a huge sponge, absorbing CO2 from the air and replacing it with oxygen.

Natural sources of methane have always existed, as methane is the result of the decomposition of vegetation. Oceans and wetlands emit methane, for example. However when we add the methane from animal agriculture, crops like rice and landfill emissions, we start to see a problematic rise.

Greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere cause warming, as the heat of the sun is trapped. As the planet warms, glaciers that have existed for tens of thousands of years start to melt and crumble into the sea. Sea levels around the world are rising, increasing the risk of flooding and coastal erosion.

Warming also changes weather patterns. Hot areas are becoming hotter and dryer; wet regions are becoming wetter.

Research in the polar regions is vital. Like the butterfly effect, a seemingly small change there could have a larger impact elsewhere. Understanding the changes helps us to mitigate the potential effects.

We do have it in our power to turn these trends around if we act quickly and collectively. As individuals we can’t introduce legislation and push for global cooperation to fix this problem, but we can demand action from our own governments. And as individuals we can make choices in our own lives that reduce environmental harm.

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If you’d like to know more, join us for Curious About: Our Planet. It’s a three-day digital science festival from Glasgow Science Centre which takes place on the 18 to 20 February. Packed full of interesting content, you can get to grips with climate change and its effects and ask your questions to scientists in our Live sessions. We will delve into the beauty and vulnerability of Earth and learn about the inspiring work of scientists, researchers, educators, policy makers and campaigners.

All of this will help us have a deeper understanding of our planet’s processes and ensure we make positive changes for our future.