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A farmer in Missouri walks through one of his fields, destroyed after two consecutive years of drought. (Julie Denesha / The Washington Post / AP Photo)

Climate Chaos | MATH

How do you contribute to climate change, and what can you do to help slow it?

Last year was the warmest year ever recorded in the U.S. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average temperature in the lower 48 states was 55.3°F in 2012. That’s 3.2°F above the 20th-century average, and 1.0°F above the previous warmest year on record, 1998.

Scientists say that Earth’s average temperature is rising because of increasing greenhouse gases. These gases occur naturally and are important to Earth. But the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, and oil raises greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide to dangerous levels.

When too much of these gases enter the atmosphere, they act like a blanket, trapping heat. This makes the planet’s atmosphere and oceans hotter, which then causes ice at Earth’s poles to melt. Scientists warn that some coastal cities and towns may someday be underwater because of rising seas.

Warmer oceans can also lead to more extreme storms. Last year was the second-worst year on record (after 1998) for so-called extreme weather. Extreme weather includes hurricanes and tornadoes. In 2012, there were 11 natural disasters accounting for more than $1 billion in damage, including Superstorm Sandy, which hit the East Coast, and Hurricane Isaac, which hit the northern Gulf Coast.

Scientists use the term carbon footprint to describe the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that each of us is responsible for based on our activities. Your carbon footprint is a measure of daily greenhouse gas emissions in units of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Once you know your carbon footprint, you can identify ways to make it smaller. “Personal choices you make can help reduce your carbon footprint,” says Laura Foster, a scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, “like turning off the lights, or walking places instead of getting a ride.”

WHAT TO DO

Answer these questions to see how a person’s or country’s carbon footprint can fluctuate.

This article originally appeared in the April 15, 2013 issue of Math. For more from Math, click here.

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