Recent increases in "greenhouse gases" (or GHGs) leading to global climate change are a growing concern
worldwide, with potentially dramatic implications for local
communities, economies, and environments. Quality of life may
be greatly impacted in ways as yet unknown or only estimated.
GHGs are found in trace amounts in Earth's atmosphere, which is
composed of approximately 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen; the remaining
1% contains all the greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, sulfur
dioxide, nitrous oxides, and methane, among others. These
gases are transparent to light, so the sun's rays easily come
through the atmosphere to reach Earth's surface. However,
these same gases trap heat by preventing short-wave radiation from
exiting the atmosphere back into space. Were it not for the
presence of GHGs, the planet would be a much colder place, very
likely inhospitable to humans and other species presently extant.
Earth has experienced wide variations in greenhouse gas levels
throughout its five-billion-year history. Volcanoes,
decomposition of organic matter, and the respiration of animals all
produce GHGs. Research on ice cores (which retain
atmospheric "memory" in much the same way as trees' rings) shows
that increases in greenhouse gases are correlated predictably with
increased surface sea and land temperatures.
Since humans came on the scene, atmospheric chemistry
remained fairly stable when compared to other geologic eras.
However, while humans have indeed lived through ice ages and warming trends,
the rapid rise of greenhouse gases since the beginning of the
Industrial Revolution about 150 years ago lends a potential of
greater extremes in temperature than seen before in the span of
human existence. An important issue now, therefore, has to do
with "anthropogenic," (or "man-made") sources of GHGs, which are
emitted primarily during the burning of fossil fuels, and from
forest clearing and burning, from livestock (flatulence and manure), and from organic
decomposition (anthropogenic in landfills).
A common misperception with respect to climate change was
engendered inadvertently by the term "global warming," which
was first widely used beginning in the 1980's, and which implied
a uniform and consistent warming of land and sea worldwide. A
more accurate prediction of change associated with warming trends
(which are clearly evident in the data) is the expectation of an
increase in statistically anomalous (or rare) weather events.
Such predictions have been borne out in recent data, which show
dramatic increases in the frequency and intensity of global storm events.
Floods, tornadoes, and droughts (the latter sometimes accompanied by fires) are
on the increase, and are occurring in unexpected geographic
To use hurricanes (and cyclones) as an example, each degree increase in surface
water temperature above about 82 degrees is akin to pouring gasoline on a
fire, in terms of increasing the intensity and storm-force wind
diameter of a tropical storm. Hurricane Katrina grew to
Category 5 status in the Gulf of Mexico in late August 2005, at the
point where the surface water temperature was 90 degrees. A
few weeks later, in an even warmer Gulf, Hurricane Rita was measured
as having the lowest central minimum pressure on record (central
minimum pressure is a reliable indicator of hurricane severity, with
lower meaning more severe), and also the largest storm-force wind
diameter on record (the hurricane was over 400 miles wide).
While any one storm cannot be used as "proof" of climate change, its
size and intensity are nevertheless inextricably related to simple
properties of physics.
implications of changes in atmospheric physics are indeed global in
scope, practical solutions for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions must be initiated and carried out at
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