October 14, 2010

Seymour wears shirt

I am wearing my favorite shirt today - a drawing of planet Earth with a "Saving" status bar below, registering about 30%. Saving Earth is something I find myself thinking about nearly every day…..especially when I read the news and see how many of the predictions of the consequences of global warming are coming to pass.

2010 has been a year of weather extremes - huge snowfalls in places that normally don’t get much snow at all, a deadly heat wave this summer in Russia leading to fires that killed 700 people per day, and unprecedented flooding in Pakistan that has affected 21 million people (1-out-of-8 Pakistanis), leaving at least 6 million people homeless and an area the size of Italy underwater.

Scientists say that the devastating floods in Pakistan and Russia’s heatwave were both the kind of extremes caused by global warming. We don’t know enough to blame manmade pollution and the greenhouse effect for directly causing any single, specific weather disaster, but we are certainly seeing an escalating pattern of climate extremes that are most likely part of a change in Earth’s climate, caused by global warming.

How is it that we get both extreme drought and extreme precipitation, even huge amounts of snow, when temperatures are increasing? The reasons that droughts are getting worse is pretty obvious for areas that generally have little rainfall - when the temperature gets hotter, drought conditions get even worse. But extreme rain and snow? Well, there is a physical law (it’s called the Clausius-Clapeyron relation, for those of you who want to look it up!) which established that the water-holding capacity of the atmosphere increases by about 7% for every 1°C rise in temperature. Because precipitation comes mainly from weather systems that feed on the water vapor stored in the atmosphere, this has generally increased precipitation intensity and the risk of heavy rain and snow events. 

  Timor Coral Reef

2010 has also been a very bad year for our planet’s coral reefs. Mark Eakin, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch, said high ocean temperatures in 2010 are causing corals to whiten, or bleach. "Major bleaching started in the Central Pacific in the early part of this year, then there was bleaching in the Indian Ocean and especially Southeast Asia throughout May and June. And now the big concern is that we may be seeing the worst bleaching ever in the Caribbean, later this year." According to NOAA, this thermal stress to corals is the highest it has been since 1998, when 15% of the world’s coral reefs died.

I am about to begin work on a book about coral reefs, which are some of the most biologically diverse and economically valuable ecosystems on earth. Coral reefs are a source of food for millions of people, protect coastlines from storms and erosion; provide habitat for thousands of fish species, and provide many human jobs in both the fishing and tourism industries. In a nutshell, no reefs, no fish. Not good for marine biodiversity, and not good for us humans, either.

I know that it is confusing for people when they constantly hear conflicting opinions about the existence of global warming. All I can say is that you have to think about whom you are listening to, and what sources you trust. The evidence and data from respected scientists around the world all around the world tells us that the increase in greenhouse gases is causing Earth’s climate to become warmer. This year is on track to be the hottest since we started keeping reliable temperature records in the mid-1800s. The record-setting heat, beating the previous hottest year recorded in 1998, is mainly due to a build-up of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels, according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization (WMO). "We will always have climate extremes. But it looks like climate change is exacerbating the intensity of the extremes," said Omar Baddour, chief of climate data management applications at WMO headquarters in Geneva.

It’s all part of what NY Times writer Thomas Friedman has called "global weirding" - the weather gets strange and unpredictable, with the extremes getting more extreme. Great nations like ours will continue to answer the call when disaster strikes, and countries in vulnerable areas will get better at taking preventative measures and responding before potential disasters strike. But, if we look at the havoc created by extreme weather events, then we - all global citizens together - should also be able to see the consequences of our actions and decide to change by taking steps to reduce to reduce carbon emissions. It is probably too late to completely reverse global warming, but we can most definitely slow it down. The evidence is clear, and as an educator I want to teach children to be defenders of our beautiful planet and advocates for healthier, more thoughtful energy choices.

While it may be too late to reverse all the effects of years of neglect that began with the industrial revolution, it is most definitely not too late to change our ways and mitigate at least some of that damage. Whether you are a global warming believer, a global warming denier, or someone who’s not really sure what to believe, taking better care of Earth makes good sense in any event. It’s our home, and it’s the only one we have.


Chart: Courtesy NOAA

Photo: Nick Hobgood


Posted by: Seymour Simon

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