Blog Climate Climate Change Science

Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere – Balancing the Flow

It is the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, rather than the emissions at a particular moment in time, which determines the temperature of the Earth.

How the concentration of Carbon Dioxide changes is determined by the balance between the amount of carbon dioxide going in to the atmosphere, and the amount being taken out. Change the flow rate using the + and – buttons on the animation below, where the water level in the bath represents the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 

In the furthest left position, there is less (no) carbon dioxide being added to the atmosphere than is being taken out by natural and human processes. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere falls.

In the second position, the same amount of carbon dioxide is being added to the atmosphere than is being taken out by natural and human processes. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stays the same.

In the third position, there is slightly more carbon dioxide being added to the atmosphere than is being taken out by natural and human processes. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises.

In the fourth position, there is much more carbon dioxide being added to the atmosphere than is being taken out by natural and human processes. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises rapidly.

Even if emissions fall (position 3), as was the case briefly in 2020 when COVID19 related restrictions reduced global emissions, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to rise.

The relationship between emissions, concentrations, global temperature and sea level

Reducing emissions

Even before humans were around, there was a constantly evolving balance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Natural sources, such as respiring animals, the decomposition of organic matter, volcanoes, rock weathering, freshwater outgassing and ocean-atmosphere exchange of gases are balanced by photosynthesis and ocean-atmosphere exchange of gases.

Humans have added additional sources and sinks, as are summarised by this diagram from the IPCC:

WG1 Chapter 6, figure 1. The numbers represent carbon reservoirs in Petagrams of Carbon (PgC; 1015gC) and the annual exchanges in PgC/year. The black numbers and arrows show the pre-Industrial reservoirs and fluxes. The red numbers and arrows show the additional fluxes caused by human activities averaged over 2000-2009, which include emissions due to the burning of fossil fuels, cement production and land use change (in total about 9 PgC/year). Some of this additional anthropogenic carbon is taken up by the land and the ocean (about 5 PgC/year) while the remainder is left in the atmosphere (4 PgC/year), explaining the rising atmospheric concentrations of CO2. The red numbers in the reservoirs show the cumulative changes in anthropogenic carbon from 1750-2011; a positive change indicates that the reservoir has gained carbon.

IPCC, 2013: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

More processes could be added to this picture in the future, such as carbon capture and storage.

This animation was adapted from an infographic produced by the IPCC

Other related links

Blog Climate Climate Change Extreme weather Weather

Weather, Climate, Extreme Weather and Chaos Theory

How does climate relate to the weather?

We like to talk about the weather, to complain about its variability and to blame the weather forecasters for getting it wrong. But what is ‘climate’, and how does the weather we experience on a day-to-day basis relate to climate change, a subject which is increasingly dominating our newspapers and television screens? Why is it that we can’t make a perfect weather forecast? How can we hope to predict the climate of the 21st century, when we can’t say what the weather will be doing in a week’s time? If the climate changes, how does the weather change?

Firstly, how does the climate relate to the weather we experience on a day-to-day basis? We know from experience that the weather can be very different from one day to the next, let alone from one year to the next, without any change in the climate.

Surprisingly, dice are a good way to think about the difference between weather and climate…

The animation below allows you to choose how many times to roll a dice and then see how often you get each of the six sides. Try a low number of rolls, then try some larger number of rolls and see what happens:


Throw the dice a few hundred times. What is the average (mean) of the scores? The more throws, the closer the average gets to 3.5. If you were to throw the dice one more time, you would not be able to predict the number that the dice would land on, as the probability of throwing each number is the same. However, you could be very confident that the mean would still be 3.5.

But what has this got to do with weather and climate?

What if we associate weather types (for example, cloud cover) with each number on the dice?

Try rolling the dice in the animation, again explore what happens as the number of rolls increases.

As when there were numbers on the sides of the die, you can’t predict what the weather will be on the next throw. Climate is defined as being the average of the weather over a long (typically 30 years) period of time. The ‘climate’ of this die is 50% cloud cover. A single throw of 0% or 100% cloud cover won’t affect the climate very much if you are taking the average of 100s of throws. In the same way we can have a very hot summer one year, and a very wet one the next, without the climate, the weather we expect to happen, necessarily changing.

Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get

So why do the weather forecasters never get it totally right? Mostly because the weather is a ‘chaotic’ system.

Very small changes to the starting conditions can lead to completely different weather patterns developing. This observation led Ed Lorenz to suggest that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon rainforest could lead to a tornado in Texas. It is very unlikely, but it could.

This means that, to make a perfect weather forecast, we need to know what the atmosphere is doing currently, down to the scale of individual butterflies flapping their wings, which is obviously impossible!

So, since tiny changes in the starting conditions of a weather system can make significant differences to the outcome, when making a forecast we have to try to take into account what might be happening now, as well as what might happen in the future to affect the atmosphere. The best we can do is to produce a range of forecasts, with some indication of what is most likely, or least likely, to happen.

To help illustrate this, consider throwing two dice instead of one:


With two dice, the probability of throwing a combined score of a number between 2 and 12 is not the same. There is only one combination of number that would give you a 2 or a 12 (two 1s or two 6s respectively) but, for example, for a combined score of 4 you could throw a 3 and a 1, two 2s or a 1 and a 3 – so you are 3 times as likely to throw 4 as 2 or 12. There are most possible ways of throwing a combined score of 7, and no way at all of throwing a 1 or 13 or more.

Move the slider to pick a number and throw the dice a large number of times. Notice the shape of the graph that is produced – the middle numbers are rolled more often than the smallest or largest numbers.

This sort of shape of ‘bell shaped’ graph is very common. For example, temperature measurements will often show a similar distribution, although temperature can of course take any value, not just the numbers one to twelve.

In this way, the results of many weather and climate forecasts can be combined to show what is most likely to happen, what is unlikely to happen and what almost definitely won’t happen.

But what about extreme events? How will the likelihood of an extreme event change as the climate warms? It is never possible to attribute one particular event to a particular cause. To go back to the dice example, you could load a die so that sixes occur twice as often as normal. But if you were to throw a six using this die, you could not blame it specifically on the fact that the dice had been loaded. Half of the sixes would have occurred anyway, even with a normal die. Loading the die just doubles the odds of throwing a 6.

In general, if the climate warms, the whole bell-shaped curve of temperature for a particular place shifts to warmer temperatures:

Graph 1

Taken from the Synthesis report on Climate Change, 2001,

Record hot events are more likely in a warmer world, and record cold events are less likely.

So, for example, we can say that the hot summer of 2003, which killed 22,000 – 35,000 people in central Europe, is twice as likely because of the global warming that has resulted from the man-made emissions of greenhouse gases. By 2050, we can expect summers as hot as that every other year.

Similarly, in the U.K., we can expect the number of extremely rainy days, with associated flooding, to increase. Already, the kind of rainfall that you could have expected once every 30 years in the 19th century is happening once every 12 years now. By the end of the century, it could be expected every 4 years.

So, we can adapt the earlier phrase about weather and climate to 

Climate is what you affect, weather is what gets you

So, to summarise:

  • Even with perfect forecasting techniques, we could never say exactly what the climate will do over the next century. This is because:
    • weather is chaotic
    • we don’t know how the world will develop and how much greenhouse gas will be emitted
    • We don’t know what other, natural, factors may affect the climate in the future – volcanic eruptions, changes in solar activity etc.
  • We can, at best, say what the climate is most likely to do, and what it probably won’t do.
  • The longer into the future a forecast is made, the less certain you can be about what will happen.
  • We can expect extreme events – such as abnormally hot seasons and storms, to become more frequent in a warmer world.

The animations were originally developed by  and The University of Oxford Department for Continuing Education (Technology Assisted Life-long Learning Unit).

Blog Climate Climate Change

The Earth’s Energy Balance – the Basics

What affects the climate of the Earth? Why has the temperature of the Earth stayed approximately the same over very long periods of time, without varying by hundreds of degrees?

The temperature of the Earth can be represented by the level of water in a bucket which has a hole in the bottom and water flowing in from a tap at the top…

Click on the arrow to find out how it works.


The amount of water flowing out of the hole in the bucket is determined by the depth of water in the bucket – the higher the water level, the greater the pressure in the water and the more water is forced out of the hole. So, if you open the tap, the water level rises until the rate water leaves the bucket is again equal to the rate water is flowing in from the tap.

If you close the tap, the water level falls until the rate water leaves the bucket is again equal to the rate water is flowing in.

But how does this relate to the climate?

Our tap pouring water into a bucket with a hole is a simple way of looking at the temperature of the Earth.

The water flowing from the tap represents the energy from the Sun, the water escaping from the hole in the bucket represents the energy the Earth loses to space, and the water level in the bucket represents the temperature of the Earth.

The amount of energy the Earth loses to space is simply determined by the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere. If the Earth were to get more energy from the Sun the temperature of the atmosphere would rise, just like the water level in the bucket, until the amount of energy it’s losing to space is again equal to the amount of energy it’s getting.

At its simplest level, whether or not the Earth is heating up or cooling down is determined by the difference between the amount of energy the Earth is getting from the Sun and the amount of energy it is losing to space.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the increasing amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere has been restricting the amount of energy the Earth is losing to space – as if the hole in the bucket were partially blocked. As a result, the Earth is heating up. If we were to stop increasing the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, the Earth would eventually (in a few decades) reach a new, constant, warmer, temperature.

It’s worth noting that if you were to leave the tap alone, but suddenly poured another load of water into the bucket in one go, the water level would rise abruptly. The water pressure would also increase abruptly, and so would the flow of water through the hole. As the water level fell back down to its original level, the flow of water through the hole would also slow until the water level stabilised at its original level.

In the same way, if something suddenly adds a lot of heat to the atmosphere (imagine a massive wildfire, maybe) then that heats the atmosphere locally, making it lose more energy to space. As the atmosphere slowly cools down, the energy lost to space also reduces, until the atmosphere returns to the temperature it had before the fire.

Adding heat to the atmosphere does not change the climate. Changing the composition of the atmosphere (for example by adding greenhouse gases), does.

The animations were originally developed by  and The University of Oxford Department for Continuing Education (Technology Assisted Life-long Learning Unit).

Blog Books

Weather Books for Young People

Below are some of our favourite weather and climate books aimed at children, young people and their teachers.

Weather in 30 seconds book

Weather in 30s
Author: Dr. Jen Green consultant Prof Adam Scaife
Year: 2015
Publisher: Ivy Kids
Suggested age range: KS2/3 (7-14)
Price: £9.99

A lovely short book, with short, accurate explanations eg, ideas for simple experiments eg and calculations to demonstrate atmospheric processes and helpful illustrations. It was a great idea to put a glossary at the start of each section.

The book is divided into 6 sections: Earth’s weather, climate and seasons, all kinds of weather, extreme weather, predicting the weather and climate change. I have slight reservations about some of the statements in the climate change section, but would otherwise definitely recommend this book.

This book could easily be used by KS3 geography teachers in the classroom.

Some comments from students at the lower end of the recommended age range:

Annabel and Grace: “I really like this book because it is really colourful and creative. The illustrations are very good and quite funny. The best book ever!”

Sophie and Pippa: “In this book you will learn everything from earth’s weather and predicting the weather to climate change. The book looks very interesting because every page is a different colour. There are lots of interesting facts in this book and I don’t know which of them is my favourite so I am going to choose all of them.”

A review by Hannah, at the upper end of the recommended range:

‘Weather in 30s’ is exactly what its title suggests – a concise collection of weather related topics explained fully and clearly in this interesting, educational volume. The summaries at the end of each page help the reader quickly understand the topic on the page, and the 3 minute missions at the ends of some of the pages help you to understand further the science of it, in a fun way. There is a glossary at the start of each chapter which gives a simple, clear explanation of some of the harder words. Also, the fantastic illustrations contribute to the text, helping to give a clear picture. The actual worded content is also great- it is easy to understand and concise. The book successfully taught me about the covered topics; I understood them well. I’d definitely recommend it!

How the Weather Works Book

How the Weather Works
Author: Christiane Dorion and Beverley Young
Year: 2011
Publisher: Templar
Suggested age range: KS2/3 (7-14)
Price: £12.99

If you are interested in the weather or have a question about the wind, rain or clouds then this book is for you. How the weather works is a hands-on book with flaps to open, tabs to pull, wheels to turn, and a giant pop-up of a hurricane. It is packed with illustrations along with interesting facts and is packed full of information. There some experiments to try out yourself and things to make so you can take your own weather observations. You could read this book from front to back or find out one or two facts. Younger children aged 5-7 may enjoy the pop-ups and interactive pictures but to get the most from this book I suggest the reader needs to be 9-11 years old. I really enjoyed it.
By Amber Bentley (Aged 11)

In just 16 pages, this wonderful book covers the structure of the atmosphere, solar radiation, the water cycle, clouds, fronts, convection, air pressure, air masses, the global atmospheric circulation, making weather observations, forecasting, synoptic charts, hurricanes, regional climate, palaeoclimates and anthropogenic climate change. With so much information in a very small space, it avoids being dry by using a huge variety of presentation styles, including many diagrams, pop-up models, tabs to pull and wheels to turn. The book covers concepts and uses vocabulary that would usually only be introduced in science and geography lessons at secondary school, but the style makes it accessible to much younger children.

However, my main recommendation about this book is that, unlike some other books aimed at a similar age range, I can’t find a single mistake or oversimplification in it. My one concern is about how long it would last, if small children or a lot of children were using it. The book’s companion, “How the World Works”, won the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize in 2011.

The Book of Clouds
Author: Juris Kronbergs
Year: 2018
Publisher: The Emma Press
Suggested age range: 8+
Price: £9.25 rrp (hardback)

In this delightful, whimsical and charmingly illustrated book, Juris Kronbergs explores the appearance and ephemeral nature of clouds in 26 poems. My favourites include one in which a cloud has a nightmare about evaporating, and one where real cloud names morph into descriptive ones and then into imagined ones. At the end of the book, the author gives ideas about how to write or illustrate a poem. The annotated illustrations are great fun and complement the poems, making the book one that you can look at for much longer than it takes to read the words.

This isn’t a book which will leave you knowing more about the weather – except maybe a few cloud names. However, it will encourage readers to look up at the sky and develop a deeper appreciation of our atmosphere. I was very impressed by the translation – these poems were originally written in Latvian, but the translated rhymes don’t feel contrived.

The Book of Clouds (not to be confused with John Day’s guide of the same name, or Chloe Aridjis’ novel) is officially aimed at 8+ and to some extent, the look of the book is right for an upper primary student. At the younger end of that range, children will find poems and illustrations that make them smile – and teachers will welcome the links with the water cycle. Older readers will appreciate the word play, references and ideas in some of the poems. This is a book that adults, particularly those who appreciate both clouds and poems, will also enjoy.

30 Seconds Meteorology

30 Second Meteorology: The 50 Most Significant Events and Phenomena, each explained in Half a Minute
Editor: Adam Scaife
Year: 2016
Publisher: Ivy Press
Suggested age range: 16+

This is a beautiful and tactile coffee table book, whilst being a handier size than most coffee table books. It consists of seven sections (The elements, The global atmosphere, the Sun, Weather watching and forecasting, can we change the weather, weather cycles and extreme weather), each with a glossary, a handful of topics and profiles of historical leaders in their fields such as Milankovitch, Rossby, Walker and Richardson. The text has been contributed by 9 leading meteorologists from the UK and beyond with each topic consisting of a short description/ explanation, even shorter summaries and a related illustration on the facing page. Good cross referencing and a consistent layout throughout make it a very easy book to dip in to.

Its lack of equations, charts and graphs make it an unintimidating book, although it does occasionally slip into jargon.

This brings us on to the interesting question of who this book is best suited to. I showed it to a group of geography teachers, who thought it was perfect for people like them who ‘ought to know but maybe don’t’. I think maybe this could be extended to include people who ‘would like to know’.

30 second climate book

30 Second Climate: The 50 Most Topical Features, Measurements and Phenonema, each explained in Half a Minute
Editor: Joanna D. Haigh
Year: 2019
Publisher: Ivy Press
Suggested age range: 16+
Price: £14.99

This is a beautiful and tactile guide to the climate system; a companion to ‘30 –Second Meteorology’ which came out in 2016. It consists of seven sections (‘The Earth’s Climate System’, ‘Heating and Cooling’, ‘Water’, ‘Life and Biogeochemical Cycles’, ‘Observations and Modelling’, ‘Changing Climate’ and ‘The Future’) each with a glossary, a handful of topics and profiles of historical leaders in their fields such as Köppen, Tyndall, Keeling and Calendar. In her introduction, Joanna Haigh writes “understanding how the climate works is both hugely challenging and endlessly fascinating”- the book looks at what the climate is, how it works, ways in which it can be observed and how it might change in the future.

The text has been contributed by 19 leading meteorologists from the UK and beyond. Each topic consists of a short description/ explanation, accompanied by even shorter summaries and related biographies. Each topic has an illustration on the facing page – not a chart or graph, but an artist’s impression of the subject, created by combining photos with other artwork. The first six sections of 30-Second Climate focus on the historical study and underlying scientific understanding and processes of climate.

However, unsurprisingly, by the time you reach the final, ‘Future’, section the information becomes much more current and I suspect that it will therefore feel quite dated in just a few years.
Comparing it to a similar recent publication – Mark Maslin’s ‘Climate, A very short introduction’, the first thing that stands out is that 30-Second Climate is something to enjoy looking at in odd moments, rather than to put into a pocket or bag to read on the train. Whereas Maslin’s book is designed to be read from beginning to end, 30-Second climate is a very easy book to dip in to – helped by good cross referencing and a consistent layout throughout.

Its lack of equations, charts and graphs make it an unintimidating book, although it does occasionally slip into technical language. It’s not a textbook but would appeal to anyone with basic scientific literacy with an interest in finding out more about the climate system. Susan Solomon’s foreword concludes “It deserves wide readership among those fascinated by the natural environment and our role in preserving it”.

Cloud Spotter Book

The Cloudspotter’s Guide
Author: Gavin Pretor-Pinney
Year: 2007
Publisher: Sceptre
Suggested age range: 16+

Weather: a concise introduction
Author: Hakim & Patoux
Year: 2018
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Suggested age range: 16+

Blog Schools

3D Print the Central England Temperature Record

The CREATE Education Project, specialists in 3D printing, and the Royal Meteorological Society (RMetS), the leading independent expert in weather and climate, have released their 3D Printing the Weather Project.

3D model

This fully resourced project teaches students about extreme weather and climate change, through the process of creating 3D models that represent 10 years of temperature data.

This engaging project has been designed for ages 11 – 16 in geography and PSHE, with data on average monthly temperature dating back from January 1659 to December 2018.

The purpose of the project is to help students understand and explore the weather, climate, and climate change in a visual way and to empower children to be a part of the solution.

The project consists of the following stages

Introduction to the project (2 lessons)
3D modelling (2 lessons)
Slicing and 3D printing (1 lesson)
Studying the weather

RMetS and CREATE Education are now challenging students to share their series of models to represent longer time frames, in the hope of encouraging collaboration and community during a difficult time.

“The partnership project between RMetS and CREATE Education has resulted in a unique project combining geography with technology skills. The project resources help teach climate change by supporting students to produce tactile hands-on 3D models that bring UK climate data to life.” Sonya Horton, CREATE Education

Dr. Sylvia Knight, Head of Education at the Royal Meteorological Society said:

“We are delighted to have collaborated with CREATE Education to develop instructions to allow schools to 3D print sections of the Central England Temperature Record and use their models to learn about the weather, climate, extreme weather and climate change. We believe that every student should leave school with the basic climate literacy that would enable them to engage with the messages put forward by the media or politicians or to make informed decisions about their own opportunities and responsibilities. These engaging, tactile resources will allow students to get a hands-on experience of what climate is and how it can change, and how extreme weather relates to the climate. The UK has the longest instrumental weather record from anywhere in the world – that’s an incredible resource for students to engage with.”

Access the resources.

CREATE Education Project
CREATE Education specialise in 3D printing and technologies for STEAM Education. Using a range of leading 3D printers, scanners, curriculum products and CPD/training provision alongside FREE resources and a 3D printer loan scheme to inspire, promote innovation and to develop necessary skills for the future.

If you’re interested in embedding 3D Printing and STEAM Education enabled by technology or need support in any way, please contact or call on 01257 276 116.