ASK A SCIENTIST
Question: How is global warming affecting our lives?
Answer: Although there are many aspects to global warming, let's focus here on two main ones - ecological changes and changes that could affect us directly economically.
Before we begin, it is important to realize that the overwhelming scientific consensus is not only is global warming underway, but that even with heroic efforts to counter its effects the momentum of the process will still result in major climate change. Thus the question becomes more one of "how much change will occur" rather than "will change occur".
Virtually every projection predicts not only warmer but more violent weather. Though only global warming may not cause any specific incident of extreme weather, we should see not only more events like hurricanes but also these will are likely to be more extreme. For example, Katrina would probably have occurred anyway but its high intensity, apparently by very warm water in the Gulf of Mexico, is exactly what global warming theory would predict. Locally, 2006 brought us two very different flooding events so extreme that either one would have been predicted to occur no more than once every 500 years. The probability of both occurring is just about incalculable! Though science can't say that global warming caused either of these events, it can say that these are what we would expect to happen. The costs here involve not only many millions to repair the damage but also the greater cost involved because of the need to reengineer and rebuild our urban infrastructure to withstand water flows greater than anyone thought would ever occur.
The range of many diseases and pests are limited by temperature. For example, warming climate has allowed malaria to expand its range. In our area Lyme disease has apparently been limited by cold temperatures but this disease may become much more common here, perhaps changing the way we feel about outdoor recreation during the time of year when deer tick nymphs, the disease carrier, are active. On the global side, large-scale extinction seems unavoidable. Coral reefs provide a good example. The current modest 1 degree F global temperature has already sufficient reef dieback that 16% of coral reef species are already extinct and current projections indicate a 50% loss by mid-century. Amphibian extinctions in certain areas of the tropics are already huge, again almost certainly a result of warming temperatures. Polar bears in the Arctic and several penguin species in the Antarctic will need a miracle to survive the current and impending massive loss of the ice pack their feeding strategies depend on. The costs of this impending huge loss of biodiversity can only be guessed at.
While on a human time scale, we can't stop some of the effects of global warming from occurring, serious action to limit carbon emissions will help prevent even more serious effects later in this century.
Ask a Scientist appears Thursdays. Questions are answered by faculty at Binghamton University. Teachers in the greater Binghamton area who wish to participate in the program are asked to write to Ask A Scientist, c/o Binghamton University, Office of Communications and Marketing, PO Box 6000, Binghamton, NY 13902-6000 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the Ask a Scientist Web site at askascientist.binghamton.edu. To submit a question, download the submission form(.pdf, 460kb).