However, as often occurs in science, the research by Arrhenius and Chamberlin was largely forgotten for decades until the North American Drought of 1988 sparked significant interest in global warming. According to Wikipedia, the North American Drought was one of the worst episodes of drought ever recorded, resulting in nearly $60 billion (adjusted for inflation, $120 billion in 2014 US dollars) in damage and record-setting heat waves that killed approximately 4,800 to 17,000 people. At its height, the drought affected nearly 45% of the land in the US.
When scientist James E. Hansen testified that the drought could be “explicitly attributed” to global warming thus began a debate that would pit two groups of people against each other: the pro-science individuals who believe that the Earth is indeed warming and the climate change deniers, individuals who are still unconvinced by the data. Consequently, global warming and climate change has moved from the realm of science and into the arenas of economics and politics.
Still, scientific papers clearly demonstrate that global surface temperatures have risen primarily due to human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases. And in research published this week, scientists have found that 2014 was the hottest on Earth since record keeping was first instituted in 1880. According to the New York Times, extreme heat blanketed many parts of the world, including the ocean surfaces (except in Antarctica), which provided the energy needed for last year’s Pacific storms. As Michael H. Frielich, director of Earth sciences at NASA told the Times, “Climate change is perhaps the major challenge of our generation.” It can also have dire consequences for human health.
In contrast to the unusual heat in most areas of the world, parts of the U.S. East recorded below-average temperatures in 2014. However, some scientists believe that such temperatures are an example of extreme weather patterns that are an indirect consequence of global warming.
Still, in an interview, Professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville John R. Christy warned the Times that 2014 surpassed other years by “only a few hundredths of a degree, well within the error margin of global temperature measurements.” He continued that the Earth was on a “warmish plateau,” thus the numbers recorded for 2014 are not terribly surprising. As well, temperature measures taken from satellites did not record 2014 as a record, though the numbers were close. (Scientists have noted that the satellites likely record atmospheric temperature, which differs from ground and ocean-surface measurements.)
But some scientists are taking no chances and are sounding their alarms. As Michael E. Mann, a climate scientist at the Pennsylvania State University told the Times, “It is exceptionally unlikely that we would be witnessing a record year of warmth, during a record-warm decade, during a several decades long period of warmth that appears to be unrivaled for more than a thousand years.”
The implication? Humans are burning fossil fuels and the Earth is suffering for it. In order to ensure the health of our planet, politicians, journalist and scientists will need to extract themselves from various lobbying organizations in order to understand the scientific literature in order to make informed decision not just about today, but about tomorrow and the days afterwards.
(Photo courtesy of frankieleon)