Scientists predict chaotic weather

BY SUSAN KIM | Baltimore, MD | November 10, 2000

Is it meteorologists' imagination or is the weather getting strange? In the past 60 days alone, weather bureaus have reported record-breaking rainfall in Hawaii, freakish flooding in Australia, the first-ever November tornado in North Dakota, and unprecedented deadly flooding in Europe.

They also warned 120,000 people in southern Chile not to go outdoors because their skin would burn in seven minutes. Those residents live directly beneath the deepest-ever hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic since measurements began 15 years ago.

There may be a rational reason behind the usual weather: it's the effect of global warming, many scientists report. A draft report compiled by 2,500 of the world's top climate scientists has found that the world is getting warmer, largely because human-produced greenhouse gases are emitted burning gasoline, coal, and forests.

If disaster responders think they were busy this year, it could get worse: global warming will likely bring more chaotic weather -- storms, flooding, severe drought -- the report says.

Before the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued this comprehensive report, year-to-year climate variability made it tough to tell whether the world was getting warmer. But now the IPCC has determined that the average global temperature could be as much as 11 degrees F higher at the end of the century than it was in 1990.

The last IPCC report, issued in 1985, described a "discernible human influence" on climate. The new draft, which is several hundred pages long, strengthens this language to more definitive links between human-produced chemicals and global warming.

IPCC representatives will meet in January to finalize the report. Already, another report by the U.S. National Academy of Science's National Research Council (NRC) backs up these findings.

The NRC report estimates that, in the last 20 years, the earth's surface temperature rose by 0.5 to 0.7 F -- seemingly small numbers that refer to average global temperatures. But already, scientists have found that variations will be much more extreme locally. In fact, the report finds, climate temperature hikes have already started to cause strong hurricanes, severe floods, and devastating droughts.

The NRC has recommended better measurements of the Earth's temperatures. "The nations of the world should develop an improved climate monitoring system to resolve uncertainties in the data and provide policymakers with the best available information," said John Wallace, chair of the panel that wrote the report, titled "Reconciling Observations of Global Temperature Change."

Satellites have been collecting data from the upper atmosphere for only about 20 years.

When asked why members of the public -- even those who have lost loved ones or their homes in weather-related disasters -- aren't more concerned, at least one official said scientific findings are seldom translated effectively to the public.

"We struggle with that every day," said Peter Schultz, NRC program director.

Part of the problem is when scientific findings translate into politically charged issues, he said. For example, ice shelves in the Antarctic have started breaking off. If that trend continues, many low-lying coastal areas will be submerged. Scientists advise that low-lying Pacific Island nations could face dire environmental and economic consequences from rising sea levels and more frequent storms.

But U.S. response to such consequences are often mired in political disagreements over how much money or how many resources should be diverted overseas. Faith-based groups and nonprofit relief organizations often coordinate U.S.-based disaster relief in cases when there is little or no governmental response.

In the U.S., global warming issues are battlegrounds for big industries -- such as auto makers and the oil industry -- and environmentalists.

"It has become so political," said Schultz. "But eventually it won't be a left or a right question but a question of livelihood, life, economic welfare and well-being,"

"The scientific findings have become so irrefutable that there is no 'other side' to the story," said Schultz. "What you have is people who have no scientific credibility arguing about how to handle global warming in ways that won't negatively affect their industry."

Schultz commented that the American public is more devoted to recycling than to prevention of global warming because not as many industry giants fought recycling. "I can't think of a coherent enemy to the recycling movement," he said. "But reducing CO2 emissions calls for stepping back from our whole economic engine. The oil industry will take big hits."

He added that, on a local level, non-governmental organizations can share with people steps to increase their carbon efficiency: carpooling, buying energy-efficient light bulbs, purchasing low-energy appliances.

"People are beginning to scratch their heads about it," said Schultz.

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