We can do something about fierce weather

Climate: Droughts and killer storms are worsening as temperatures worldwide rise and energy use increases.

October 12, 2003|By Dr. Cindy Parker and Mike Tidwell | Dr. Cindy Parker and Mike Tidwell,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Here's truth No. 1: Our weather in the Baltimore-D.C. region has been amazingly odd recently, generating endless conversation - much of it over the backyard fences of powerless homes - and ceaseless media stories. Reporters use such adjectives as "freaky," "anomalous" and "unprecedented" to describe the seemingly endless storms and wacky jet stream and gray skies. Some people are even calling the weather a "hex."

And no wonder. In the past 15 months alone this area has seen intense heat, drought and record "Code Red" smog days in Washington. Then came last winter's record snowfall - 5 feet in some places in this region. May brought a record-shattering 562 tornadoes nationwide and a spring of locally endless rainy days and weeks without sunshine.

Two powerful August storms knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people.

Then Hurricane Isabel brought 3 million outages across the East and a record surge tide to the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River. Baltimore and eastern Baltimore County were flooded. Days later, a non-hurricane storm caused intense flooding - 6.5 inches in Leesburg, Va. - and knocked out power to 100,000 people. (That's four major outages in six weeks. A first, utilities say.)

Here's truth No. 2: The world's climate is rapidly changing. Mean temperatures continue to rise across the planet, driven by the phenomenon of global warming, itself driven by the worldwide combustion of fossil fuels. This is not the idle claim of wacko environmentalists. It is the firm consensus of an overwhelming majority of the world's leading climate scientists. Even the Bush administration, not given to eco-alarmism, has confirmed in two major reports that global warming is well under way and will accelerate significantly in coming decades.

The continuing impacts of global climate change are enormous and observable worldwide. Glaciers are vanishing, coral reefs are bleaching, and sea levels are rising. In Maryland, a sea-level rise of more than 1 foot caused watermen to abandon entire Chesapeake islands in the 20th century. The rise also helped destroy one-third of the marshes at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, drowning important grasses.

Question: Is the weird weather in our region of late also an expression of global warming?

According to the highly respected World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, the weather has been measurably strange in many parts of the world recently, not just here. While August storms were wrecking our power lines, a record heat wave was killing 15,000 people in France and destroying wheat crops across Europe equal to half of U.S. production. Heat and intense storms took more than 1,000 lives in India and Sri Lanka; land-based temperatures worldwide in May were the highest ever recorded.

Scientists, of course, are careful to stress that no individual weather event can be positively linked to global warming. But amid this year's rash of extremes, the WMO felt compelled in July to warn the world that scientific studies do show an increase in extreme weather events at the same time global temperatures are rising. In North America, for example, intense precipitation events (large amounts of rain falling in short time intervals) rose significantly during the 20th century, including across the mid-Atlantic region.

More significant, scientists say that future global warming - projected between 3 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 - is likely to directly trigger more intense and more frequent droughts, storms and flooding worldwide. Simply put, a warmed atmosphere holds more moisture and more energy, giving the weather more intense characteristics.

And another question: Can we do anything about the changing climate? Whether global warming is responsible for our recent weird weather is perhaps less important than the lesson learned over the past few months: that weather can be very, very painful. And with projections that rising global temperatures will bring a future full of weather havoc, it's clearly in our best interest to keep global temperatures down as much as possible.

But to slow global warming and restabilize the climate will require a rapid worldwide cut in fossil fuel use of perhaps 60 percent to 80 percent, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of thousands of scientists from around the world.

Thankfully, America is blessed with abundant potential for wind power, solar energy and biomass energy. Maryland and Virginia, for example, could get between 10 percent and 20 percent of their current electricity loads from land-based wind farms, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. More could come from offshore windmills.

And potential gains in energy efficiency - in cars, appliances, manufacturing equipment - are nearly boundless. Europeans, with comparable per capita income, use one-third less energy per capita than Americans. Clearly we can do better.

Here's another truth: The recent images of mangled power lines and undrinkable water and kayakers paddling through downtown Annapolis need not be harbingers of worse weather havoc. But we don't have much time left to protect ourselves. The sooner we turn into reality the clean-energy potential all around us, the sooner we'll guarantee - here and across the globe - a climate safe for agriculture, commerce, ecosystems and our children's future.

Cindy Parker, M.D., is a research scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. Mike Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network in Takoma Park.

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