Getting Hotter

Categories: Environment, InTheNews, Science
Comments: No Comments
Published on: 2006.04.02

Global warming is going to kill us all. Well, not quite; that was just to get your attention. But I’ve noticed in recent weeks that news organizations around the world are focusing more and more heavily on scientific research about global warming, and what it really means.

The big consensus now, according to many stories (CNN, AP, USA Today, etc.) is that “the damage has already been done.” According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, even if the world suddenly stopped producing “greenhouse gases” today, those gases will stay in the atmosphere and increase the average planetary temperature by one degree Celsius.

What’s a degree? I think this is why so many people don’t seem to be too worried about global warming in general. “It’s just a freaking degree,” they say. Here in Oklahoma, we’re used to 110-degree (Fahrenhiet) days in the summer. What difference is it going to make if it’s 112 degrees?

Well, it might not make that much of an immediate, direct difference here in Oklahoma (central United States). We’re not close to sea level, and we don’t have glaciers that will possibly melt. But, speaking on global terms, a single degree can make a huge difference. And, let’s be honest, the world ISN’T going to stop producing greenhouse gases, at least not right now. So that one degree will actually be four degrees, or six, or 10, in the next century.

Those degrees will mean the difference between a cold, frozen Greenland glacier safely tucked away near the Arctic Circle, or a warm, slippery, melting glacier that slides into the ocean. When that glacier — and all its friends — slide into the ocean, the water levels will rise. An inch at a time, this rise won’t be noticeable to the average coastal city dweller, until one day the high tide is lapping over his sidewalk.

Still, we say, this isn’t “catastrophic,” right? So we lose a few hundred beaches, and some inhabitants of the coasts have to move inland a little bit to find higher ground. Will this really destroy the world?

Well, for one thing, we have to realize that many of the world’s largest cities are in low-lying coastal areas that will be directly affected — probably in my lifetime — by the rising waters.

I’m talking about Shanghai, one of the world’s busiest ports, and — by some accounts — the world’s most populous city. It sits at the mouth of the Yangtze River, right at sea level.

I’m talking about Mumbai (Bombay), India, also sitting right at sea level. Twenty million people live the metro area surrounding this island city which is the center of India’s economy, modern culture, and government.

I’m also talking about the 12-million person city of Karachi, Pakistan — also right at sea level, with a mostly flat geography.

Another 12 million are in Buenos Aires and the surrounding area, also right on sea level. And Manila, Philippines. And Lagos, Nigeria. Then there’s Jakarta, Indonesia. And let’s not forget Tokyo, Japan.

And if you’re now thinking, well, these are all far away places, in foreign countries that I don’t like much anyway… The next one on the list is New York City. More than 8 million people live in this powerful city that serves 22 million and is the commercial center of the United States by most accounts. This photo shows how close NYC is to the water that surrounds it. And there’s Miami, Houston, Boston, New Orleans, and so many others.

Hundreds of millions of people, in just our nation, living in these coastal cities. When the water levels rise, they’re going to have to go somewhere. Maybe they’ll go to Oklahoma, just like the Okies fled to California during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

But the waters rising aren’t the only effects that scientists predict — it’s just the most obvious, as polar caps and Greenland’s glaciers are already beginning to melt and slide toward the oceans. The added water in the world’s oceans will possibly slow the vast ocean currents, or maybe even change their paths. This could result in the deaths of many ocean creatures and drastically change climates around the world. Storms more powerful than the modern world has ever known could result. Cities with calm, tropical climates could be buried in Seattle-like rains. Normally wet cities could soon be surrounded by deserts. Millions of animal species around the world could suddenly die off, or be forced to migrate, since many of them aren’t as able to adapt as Homo sapiens.

In other words, a few degrees of change could drastically alter our world, to the point that it’s unrecognizable.

Contrary to popular belief, automobiles aren’t the worst enemies of the environment. Neither are aerosol hairspray cans. It’s burning coal, according to the latest issue of National Geographic magazine. Coal-burning plants supply electricity to much of the world already, and it’s expected to grow, as natural gas gets too expensive and no one seems interested in trying out solar power. We’re all too afraid of nuclear power plants, so we’re burning more coal. A lot more. In fact, in the U.S. and China, coal production is increasing at a rate never seen before, and China is expected to use more coal than most of the world combined, in the next 20 years, to supply its nation’s electricity needs. Many families there are now buying their first TVs and refrigerators, not to mention power-hungry computers.

The resulting coal-burning electric plants are filling the air with gases that we just can’t get back. That two-degree or four-degree prediction may suddenly be just a joke, as the world sees an average rise of 10 or 20 degrees over the next century.

And, where does this coal come from? Right now, we’re getting it by chopping off the tops of mountains in Appalachia, mainly Kentucky and West Virginia. That’s right; entire mountains are being leveled, and valleys filled with useless rock, as the mining companies find the coal bured in the hearts of the landscape. Disappearing mountain ranges are another thing that will affect weather patterns. Dirty runoff from these mines are sickening hundreds and polluting the water supplies of many more.

What will happen when they find coal in the Rockies? Will we let them take off the tops of those mountains too? Better start taking pictures, because it’s all about to change.

Can we fight it? Can we change it? Can we survive?

Of course we can survivie. Of that, I’m completely sure. We’ll find a way to live through whatever happens. Some of us.

As far as making changes, that’s another question altogether. About all the average person can directly do to make a difference is drive less and use less electricity. You can buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle the next time around. You can turn off the air conditioner when it’s not really that hot. You can read a book once in a while instead of watching TV or surfing the ‘net.

Or you could become a fanatic and start lobbying the government for drastic changes. But who’ll do that?

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