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  • Climate change is defined as a long-term change to the Earth’s climate. But what does this mean? To understand climate change, we need to understand what makes up our climate.

    Climate change – a warming world

    Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere warm the Earth, much like a blanket on the bed.

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    Climate versus weather

    There is a saying that climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.

    Weather is what is happening right now. It is the current atmospheric conditions – temperature, rainfall and wind happening in a specific location or region. The weather can change daily or even hourly.

    Climate is a combination of weather conditions that occur throughout the year and is averaged over decades – 30 years or longer.

    There are many factors that influence climate – nearness to the ocean, elevation, prevailing wind patterns and topography – so climate patterns of rain and sunshine differ from place to place. Topography is one of the key factors in Aotearoa – the mountain ranges that run the length of the country divide the land into climate regions. Areas like the Bay of Plenty, Marlborough and Nelson are sheltered from prevailing westerly winds and tend to have drier more-settled climates than those on the west coasts. Western regions often have stronger winds and higher rainfall, especially along the coastline.

    Climate oscillations

    The climate is not static – it does vary from time to time. These natural variations are called climate oscillations.

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    Climate can be variable

    We know the weather can change daily and even several times during the day. Our climate can also vary in response to natural influences. Aotearoa experiences climate oscillations that influence both our weather and climate. A climate oscillation is a natural recurring pattern of changes in air pressure, sea temperature and wind direction. Aotearoa is subject to a few of these. One example is the El Niño Southern Oscillation. This is a change in the movement of wind and warm water across the Pacific Ocean, and we feel its effects every few years with changes in rainfall patterns.

    Other natural climate variabilities include ‘wobbles’ in the Earth’s orbit that create ice ages every 100,000 years, sunspots that occur every 10 years or so and large volcanic eruptions that can cool the planet for a couple of years.

    Nature of science

    Scientists from around the globe are collaborating to gather data and add evidence-based observations to the wider climate change knowledge base. Each contribution adds another piece to a very complex puzzle.

    Human influence

    Our climate is also changing due to human influences. The greenhouse gases in our atmosphere hold in heat, protect us from harmful radiation and sustain plant and animal life. Without these gases, Earth would be a barren, rocky planet.

    A balance of atmospheric gases has kept the annual average temperature in Aotearoa within a range of 10–14°C for the last 14,000 years – the time of the last ice age. For the past 3,000 years the average temperature in Aotearoa has been relatively steady, rising and falling by less than a degree over this time.

    Our burning of fossil fuels and other activities have increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gas emissions started to increase 200–300 years ago when we began to burn fossil fuels at the start of the industrial revolution. In recent decades, emissions have risen even more rapidly. It takes a lot of energy to power our modern lifestyles!

    We are already seeing changes in patterns of rainfall and temperature across Aotearoa, with increasing extreme rainfall as well as frequency and intensity of droughts in some places. The annual average land-surface temperature in Aotearoa has risen by 1.1°C since records began in 1909. That doesn’t sound like much of an increase, but small changes can have large consequences.

    It has been 10,000 years since the average annual temperature in New Zealand was this warm, which is likely to be near the edge of the range that current ecosystems have experienced here.

    Our atmosphere and climate 2020

    Human contributions to climate change

    Climate expert James Renwick explains how detective chemistry provides the evidence that humans are responsible for climate change.

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    Evidence of human influence

    How do we know that humans are responsible for the marked increase in greenhouse gases? One line of evidence comes from scientists who are able to ‘fingerprint’ and separate natural emissions from those caused by humans. The carbon in two of the greenhouse gases that come from fossil fuels – carbon dioxide and methane – is chemically different from atmospheric carbon that enters from the natural carbon cycle.

    Scientists also use other methods to gather data as evidence that changes are due to human actions. Learn about these methods in the articles Carbon dioxide and climate and Clues to the past.

    Related content

    Explore this interactive about the carbon cycle and this article about measuring greenhouse gases.

    Read Carbon – life’s framework element and then discover more about the exchange of carbon dioxide between the ocean and the atmosphere in the articles Carbon dioxide in the ocean and Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

    Activity ideas

    Content curation

    We have curated a range of supporting resources in this Climate change Pinterest board.

    Useful links

    NIWA has a range of climate-related data and related activities. NIWA has also produced Rangi – weather and climate lessons.

    The Ministry for the Environment reports on the state of different aspects of New Zealand’s environment every 6 months and the environment as a whole every 3 years. Visit their website for up-to-date reports and datasets.

    NZCER's Opportunities for education in a changing climate: Themes from key informant interviews includes recommendations for schools and kura. There are useful ideas for student engagement and action.

    In 2024 the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand released a special issue New Zealand and Antarctica in a changing climate with guest editors James Renwick CRSNZ, Rebecca Priestley CRSNZ, Bruce Glavovic and Darren King.


    This resource has been produced with the support of the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ. (c) Crown Copyright.

    Rights: Crown copyright

    Our atmosphere and climate 2020

    The Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ produce New Zealand’s Environmental Reporting Series. Our atmosphere and climate 2020 focuses on climate change, with an overview of what is happening to our climate and how this affects many of the things we care about.

      Published 15 October 2020 Referencing Hub articles
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