"Be sorried, be very worried" Time magazine's headline
Mar 26, 2006 10:56 AM
Be worried, be very worried
The climate is crashing, and global warming is to blame
(Time.com <http://www.time.com/time?cnn=yes> ) -- No one can say exactly
what it looks like when a planet takes ill, but it probably looks a lot like
Never mind what you've heard about global warming as a slow-motion emergency
that would take decades to play out. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the crisis
is upon us.
>From heat waves to storms to floods to fires to massive glacial melts, the
global climate seems to be crashing around us.
The problem -- as scientists suspected but few others appreciated -- is that
global climate systems are booby-trapped with tipping points and feedback
loops, thresholds past which the slow creep of environmental decay gives way
to sudden and self-perpetuating collapse. That's just what's happening now.
It's at the north and south poles -- where ice cover is crumbling to slush
-- that the crisis is being felt the most acutely.
Late last year, for example, researchers analyzed data from Canadian and
European satellites and found that the Greenland ice sheet is not only
melting, but doing so faster and faster, with 53 cubic miles draining away
into the sea last year alone, compared to 23 cubic miles in 1996.
One of the reasons the loss of the planet's ice cover is accelerating is
that as the poles' bright white surface disappears it changes the
relationship of the Earth and the sun. Polar ice is so reflective that 90
percent of the sunlight that strikes it simply bounces back into space,
taking its energy with it. Ocean water does just the opposite, absorbing 90
percent of the light and heat it receives, meaning that each mile of ice
that melts vanishes faster than the mile that preceded it.
This is what scientists call a feedback loop, and a similar one is also
melting the frozen land called permafrost, much of which has been frozen --
since the end of last ice age in fact, or at least 8,000 years ago.
Sealed inside that cryonic time capsule are layers of decaying organic
matter, thick with carbon, which itself can transform into CO2. In places
like the southern boundary of Alaska the soil is now melting and softening.
As fast as global warming is changing the oceans and ice caps, it's having
an even more immediate effect on land. Droughts are increasingly common as
higher temperatures also bake moisture out of soil faster, causing dry
regions that live at the margins to tip into full-blown crisis.
Wildfires in such sensitive regions as Indonesia, the western U.S. and even
inland Alaska have been occurring with increased frequency as timberlands
grow more parched. Those forests that don't succumb to fire can simply die
With habitats crashing, the animals that call them home are succumbing too.
In Alaska, salmon populations are faltering as melting permafrost pours mud
into rivers, burying the gravel the fish need for spawning. Small animals
such as bushy tailed rats, chipmunks and pinion mice are being chased
upslope by rising temperatures, until they at last have no place to run.
And with sea ice vanishing, polar bears are starting to turn up drowned.
"There will be no polar ice by 2060," says Larry Schweiger, president of the
National Wildlife Federation. "Somewhere along that path, the polar bear
So much environmental collapse has at last awakened much of the world,
particularly the 141 nations that have ratified the Kyoto treaty to reduce
emissions. The Bush administration, however, has shown no willingness to
address the warming crisis in a serious way and Congress has not been much
Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman have twice been unable to get even mild
measures to limit carbon emissions through a recalcitrant Senate.
A 10-member House delegation did recently travel to Antarctica, Australia
and New Zealand to meet with scientists studying climate change. "Of the 10
of us, only three were believers to begin with," says Rep. Sherman Boehlert
of New York. "Every one of the others said this opened their eyes."
But lawmakers who still applaud themselves for recognizing global warming
are hardly the same as lawmakers with the courage to reverse it, and
increasingly, state and local governments are stepping forward.
The mayors of more than 200 cities have signed the U.S. Mayors Climate
Protection Agreement, pledging, among other things, that they will meet the
Kyoto goal of reducing greenhouse emissions in their own cities to 1990
levels by 2012. Nine northeastern states have established the Regional
Greenhouse Gas Initiative for the purpose of developing a program to cap
for the entire cover story on Time.
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