Hotter weather in store

Climate changes: Government scenarios report raises skepticism, yet warming challenge is real.

June 24, 2000

DRAMATIC CLIMATE changes are predicted for the United States over the next hundred years as temperatures soar from 5 to 10 degrees above average. That would mean a hotter, steamier mid-Atlantic region, with accelerated shoreline erosion, higher rainfall and increased runoff of pollutants into the Chesapeake Bay.

That bleak projection is contained in the first federal assessment of global warming and its consequences, released last week by the Clinton administration.

The new study uses two conflicting computer models developed by foreign researchers to paint a picture of future regional changes in the United States. The results are jarring contradictions and widely varying scenarios that undermine the report's credibility. Significant rainfall losses or increases in the Southeast, for example, and the prospect of either swamp or desert for North Dakota.

Such discrepancies are expected when sophisticated computer simulations are applied to smaller geographical regions. But there are other concerns: Involvement of non-scientific interest groups in the modeling assumptions, use of much higher temperature rises than forecast by the United Nations panel on climate change, and release of the report before all underlying regional studies are completed.

Nonetheless, the scientific case for global warming is mounting. Major climate changes will occur and that public awareness must be raised.

The question is how to figure out what direction these changes will take, so that rational measures and policies can be developed to deal with them. On a regional basis, these implications are harder to predict. Hotter climate will bring more storms and higher sea levels. General predictions for the Chesapeake region are consistent with previous models.

The most effective response to the warming challenge is not, however, contingency plans for localized adaptation to uncertain predictions. It is to pursue major efforts to globally curb the acceleration of warming on the Earth's surface, principally through reductions of the so-called greenhouse gases that are trapping ever more heat in the atmosphere.

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