I have been following environmental issues since my college days in the late 60s and early 70s. So far, the biggest issue of the 21st Century has been global climate change. As I have traveled the U.S. teaching geography over the past 12 years, I have been asked repeatedly, “Is global warming real?” While some of the details are not yet clear, a great deal of good science has led us ever closer to the answer.
I recently came across an Associated Press article by Charles J. Hanley that gets to the heart of the answer to this question. He reports that the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said that this summer’s weather-related cataclysms fit patterns predicted by climate scientists. Specifically the WMO is referring to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which made specific predictions in its latest assessment in 2007. In the article, Hanley goes through a litany of climate-related woes the Earth is experiencing this summer that fit the IPCC predictions. These include:
- Russia – Prolonged drought and record heat leading to disastrous wildfires
- Pakistan – Heaviest monsoon rains on record resulting in devastating floods
- China – Worst floods in decades causing landslides that have killed thousands
- Arctic – Largest iceberg calving since 1962 and second lowest ice coverage ever recorded for July
Below I have included some NASA Earth Observatory images so you can see for yourself what is happening in theses locales. If you click on the link embedded in the title of each image, it will take you to the NASA website where you can see an explanation of the images, follow these events over time, and learn more about them.
While all reasonable climate scientists are reluctant to attribute any individual unusual weather event to global climate change, the weather events of this summer support the IPCC’s conclusions – that increases in CO2 in the atmosphere are due to fossil fuel burning, which is contributing to rising temperatures, which in turn have led to this summer’s unusual events.
According to NOAA, this past June was the hottest month on record. Arctic sea ice covered an average of 4.2 million square miles (10.9 million square kilometers) during June, the lowest June extent since record-keeping began in 1979. At the same time, Antarctic sea ice extent in June was above average, resulting in the largest June extent on record. This latter fact points out the reason that we should refer to the phenomenon as “global climate change” rather than “global warming.” The name implies that the planet will not warm uniformly but will actually cool in some places as oceanic and atmospheric systems adjust to the added greenhouse gas load. Climate change models also predict that many places will get drier while some locales will get wetter. The extreme events of this summer do not prove that models of human-induced climate change are correct, but they make it much more likely that climate scientists are on the right track in understanding the impact of our uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels.
Some skeptics of the accepted climate models point out that there are natural cycles that cause CO2 and other greenhouse gases to fluctuate widely in the atmosphere and oceans. This is absolutely true. In fact, human life on this planet was not possible until the current balance of atmospheric gases had evolved over geologic time. However, it also is certainly true that current dramatic rise in CO2 is associated with human use of fossil fuels since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Consequently I believe our continued survival depends on doing what we can to maintain that delicate balance.