Title: What's Wrong With Our Weather
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/WL00000958/00001
 Material Information
Title: What's Wrong With Our Weather
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Publisher: Reader's Digest
Spatial Coverage: North America -- United States of America -- Florida
Abstract: Reader's Digest Article November, 1988
General Note: Box 7, Folder 4 ( Vail Conference 1989 - 1989 ), Item 57
Funding: Digitized by the Legal Technology Institute in the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida.
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: WL00000958
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: Levin College of Law, University of Florida
Holding Location: Levin College of Law, University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.

Full Text




UNDER 1988 summer skies, the
driest and hottest since the 193os
Dust Bowl, crops withered from
New Jersey to California. In the
water-starved Mississippi River,
dredges dug feverishly to keep
open a channel for barges. A record-
breaking heat wave closed Har-
vard University near Boston, while
Sin Detroit, auto workers walked
off the job when some work-
station temperatures exceeded
ioo degrees F. Then, in Septem-
ber, the century's fiercest hurri-
cane swept through the Caribbean.
Something strange is happening
to our weather. And it didn't just
begin last summer. During the past
decade, the United States has seen
three of the coldest winters and
four of the warmest average years
ever recorded, a string of weather
extremes that would occur by
chance less than once in iooo years.
Elsewhere, weather has also run to
extremes-with the Soviet Union
and India experiencing their high-
est temperatures. Last winter, snow
fell on the gondolas of Venice, the
usually sunny beaches of the
French Riviera, arid South Africa
and even subtropical Brazil.
Why is our weather going wild?
Are we headed for the next ice age?
Or are we feeling the first fevers of
the "greenhouse effect," a global
warming that could melt the polar
icecaps and turn our landscape into
tropical jungles and arid deserts?
Scientists have several theories, no
single one of which offers a satisfac-
tory reason for our strange weather.
However, together, they begin to
explain the climate puzzle.

Lowu. PoNTr, a Reder's Digest Roving
Editor, is the author of The Coling, a book about
the earth's changing climate.

Hothouse Gas. When we burn
fossil fuels (principally coal and oil)
we send extra quantities of carbon
dioxide into our atmosphere. Since
1958, the proportion of CO2 in our
air has risen 25 percent. Many scien-
tists think that within a century this
simple gas could devastate our world.
How? Carbon dioxide in our
atmosphere, like the glass in a
greenhouse, lets sunlight pass
through, then catches and retains
some of the sunlight's energy as
heat. This greenhouse effect helps
warm the earth's climate. If COz
and other greenhouse gases such as
methane, nitrous oxide and chloro-
fluorocarbons vanished tomorrow,
the earth would become overnight
a frozen, lifeless world like Mars. In
fact, all these gases have been in-
creasing sincthe start ofthe Indus-
trial Revolution.
Consider C02, for example. To-
day, it causes about half the total
greenhouse effect. Each year our
skies receive five billion tons of CO2
from the burning of fossil fuels, and
up to half again as much from the
clearing and burning of almost 33
million acres of tropical forest. At the
present rate of increase, the amount
of this gas alone could double during
the next century.

University of Chicago atmos-
pheric scientist V. Ramanathan
calculates that the earth's average
temperature already has risen dur-
ing this century by one degree F.,
almost certainly because of the in-
crease in greenhouse gases. Even
without further atmospheric pollu-
tion, he estimates that trapped heat
from gases we've already put in our
skies will boost global temperatures
another one to five degrees over
1980 levels in the next century. If
our emissions of these gases contin-
ue to increase as they have, he and
others predict that by the year 2030
the earth's average temperature
could climb by nine degrees E over
1900 levels.
A two- or three-degree warming
seems small until we realize that it
approximates the rise that 1oo,ooo
years ago ended the last major ice
age. If we don't slow the rate of
warming, here's what a number of
researchers fear you and your chil-
dren will face: the droughts and
heat waves that blistered much of
the United States in 1988 will be-
come routine summer weather. As
rainfall across the country's wheat
and corn belts diminishes by 40
percent, droughts will become
common and the Dust Bowl era
will return. Summer will mean
plagues of insects devouring every
moist crop leaf they can find. Prai-
rie and forest fires will become far
more frequent and harder to con-
trol. Giant hurricanes, with 50 per-
cent more destructive potential
than those today, will hit farther
north and during more months of
the year.

As the world's climate warms, i
according to this theory, polar ice- '
caps will melt and ocean levels will
rise by up to four feet during the
next century, threatening such cit-
ies as New York, London, Beijing
and Seoul. Farmland will be devas-
tated, water supplies contaminated,
and wildlife habitats decimated.
How much of this terrifying sce-
nario is science, and how much is
science fiction? Many scientists be-
lieve that a number of these green-
house problems will come to pass
unless actions are taken to slow
some of today's trends. Others
aren't so sure.
"We scientists can't even be loo-
percent certain that the world has
gotten warmer during this centu-
ry," says Tim Barnett, marine sci-
entist at the Climate Research
Group at Scripps Institution of
Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif.
Early in this century, inferior tech-
niques and instruments were used
for measuring temperatures, and
today many of our weather stations
are near urban "hot" areas that may
be under-reporting the effects of
trees and other natural modifiers
on temperatures.
The earth's climate, adds Michael
MacCracken, head of atmospheric
sciences at Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory in California,
is "like a Rube Goldberg machine."
The trouble with making any pre-
dictions about climatic change is
that thousands of factors influence
climate-including many that trig-
ger a cascade of other unexpected

Help From Sea Plankton. The
earth, scientists know from fossil
records, has over millions of years
faced times when large-scale volcan-
ic activity or sea-floor hot springs
have loaded the atmosphere with
CO2 and heated the climate. Yet
somehow a runaway greenhouse
effect was prevented. The oceans
themselves appear to have an enor-
mous capacity for absorbing CO2,
but even more amazing is the life
that came from the oceans and its
role in regulating CO2 levels in the
If you have held a piece of black-
board chalk, for example, you have
witnessed one way that nature
helped the earth balance the fevers
of past greenhouse warming.
About 6o million years ago, ocean
plankton took carbon dioxide from
the atmosphere and used the car-
bon to make their protective shells
of limestone. When the plankton
died, their shells sank to the ocean
bottom, locking the carbon away in
mineral deposits that one day
would rise from the sea as white
cliffs of chalk.
As a warming climate increases
plankton breeding, growing com-
munities of the small organisms
emit more and more dimethyl-sul-
phide (DMS) gas into the air. DMS
triggers the formation of unusually
small water droplets, which can
reflect more sunlight than ordinary
clouds do, thus helping to cool the
earth's climate.
Volcanic Fallout. Scientists
know that the smoke, ash and gai

spewed by volcanoes into the
stratosphere can cool the earth by
filtering out sunlight. Now Paul
Handler, a physics professor at the
University of Illinois, believes he
has found more subtle influences of
volcanoes on global weather. In
1984, he discovered a surprising
link: o8 percent of above-average
corn crops in the United States
came within ten months of the
eruption of a volcano somewhere in
the tropics.
Handler theorizes that such
tropical eruptions tend to cool land
more rapidly than ocean surfaces.
When years pass with few tropical
volcanic eruptions, the stratosphere
becomes a very clear window
through which intense sunlight
bakes the land below. "We had
few such eruptions during the
1920s and 1930s," he says, "and
over the United States we got
record heat, drought and the Dust
Bowl. Also, we've not had signifi-
cant tropical volcanic eruptions in
the past three years. Again, we
have a very clear, clean strato-
sphere and record heat waves and
Handler speculates that tropical
volcanoes trigger other kinds of
weather as well. Twelve of the
biggest such eruptions in this cen-
tury, he notes, were followed im-
mediately by weather disturbances
called El Nifio-Southern Oscilla-
tions. Occurring on average every
three or four years, El Nifios are
marked by a shift in Pacific equa-
torial winds associated with an

unusual warming of the eastern
tropical Pacific Ocean. Most cli-
matologists believe that the higher
ocean-surface temperature in turn
alters atmospheric pressures, tem-
peratures and wind currents, with
the most massive El Ninos caus-
ing wild distortions in weather
throughout the world.
One such distortion, says Han-
dler, came in 1982 with the erup-
tion of El Chich6n in southern
Mexico. A cloud of pollution from
the volcano blocked out some of the
sun's heat, triggering an El Nifio.
Monsoon winds that usually gener-
ate rain clouds became much weak-
er, causing drought and forest fires
in Australia and bringing killer
rains and floods to Ecuador, Peru
and the west coast of the United
States. This extreme weather came
not by chance, nor was it caused by
the greenhouse effect. According
to Handler, it is volcanic weather.
Others remain skeptical.
Seeing Spots. Scientists used to
assume that our sun shines with
unwavering brightness. But satel-
lite measurements have confirmed
that the sun turns its thermostat up
and down-based on the It-year
cycle of magnetic "sunspots." The
more spots, the brighter the sun.
The present cycle should peak
around 199t, when our sun might
burn even hotter than during the
last sunspot peak, around 198o.
But, oddly, according to recent
studies this could bring colder winJ
ters as well as hotter summers for
much of the Northern Hemi-
sphere. Sunspots are thought to influ-
ence the powerful winds that swirl
around the North Pole, and that in
turn could influence other global
wind patterns. One effect is that a
peak in sunspot activity tends to bring
more cold air southward across the
central eastern United States.

In addition to this t -year cycle,
there are longer ones-including an
o8- to ioo-year cycle that will heat
to'a peak around the year 2ozo.
This could bring an even brighter
sun. Another periodic solar change
involves few sunspots, like the
Maunder Minimum from 1645 un-
til 1715, marking the coldest ex-
tremes of the Little Ice Age in
Europe. Since 1950 we have basked
in the warmth of an unusually spot-
ty sun, according to solar scientist
John A. Eddy of the University
Corporation for Atmospheric Re-
search in Boulder, Colo. When
sunspot numbers return to nor-
mal, however, the earth's climate
could cool quickly, says Eddy, by
an amount counterbalancing the rise
predicted for the greenhouse effect.

CLEARLY, many different forces are
now shaping and bending the
earth's climate. The past decade has
seen wild weather, and the zg9os
may well bring extremes unknown
in living memory. But this need not
bring disaster.
Science and common sense offer
ways to minimize the risk of devas-
tating climate change. We.can low
down the buildup of COM in our
atmosphere by increasing energy
conservation and efficiency; by pro-
tecting tropical forests; by desgn-
ing automobiles that burn less
per mile; by turning to renewable
energy sources such as solar, hydro,
wind, and possibly nuclear power.
We can speed the phaseout of
chlorofluorocarbons, which pose a
risk both to the earth's ozone layer
and climate. Fortunately, we have
the tools for heading off disaster. It
only remains for us to use them.

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