Global Warning

What do you get when greenhouse gases inspire greenhouse guesses? A heated argument--but not much scientific agreement.

No ivory tower, the facility is a pinkish sandstone structure designed to echo the Mesa Verde ruins. A narrow road snakes its way up from the valley below, past a sign proclaiming that NCAR is "sponsored by the National Science Foundation," to a park-like setting of natural grasses and widely spaced conifers nestled up against the Flatirons. A "weather trail," open to the public, winds off behind the complex where deer and Lycra-clad joggers play.

In the lobby of the main building, tourists hailing from California to Korea wait for their tour to begin; a toddler wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan "I love my planet" wanders among them. The tour guide, a friendly young man named Tom, begins his spiel by informing the group that if they came to see the Atomic Clock, they're going to have to go back down the road to the National Institute for Standards and Technology. NCAR, he says, studies weather and climate. And climate, he explains, is the average weather of a region, affecting such things as where, and how successfully, crops can be grown. Then, with Tom in the lead, the tour sets off to view a variety of displays concerning subjects being researched by this center's scientists who, Tom says, are doing their thing elsewhere in the building.

Lightning...tornadoes...hail...all aspects of Mother Nature at her worst are represented here. But through their "applications program," Tom says, NCAR scientists are working to mitigate bad weather. For example, NCAR developed an apparatus to detect microbursts near airports. Microbursts, of course, "can cause an airplane to make premature contact with the ground," Tom notes with a smile. When the chuckles die down, he adds, "We also were asked to look into microburst activity out east when they were planning DIA."

"How did it compare to Stapleton?" asks a man who flew in from South Dakota.
"At least as much and probably stronger," Tom replies. "They took our findings into consideration...and built it there anyway." He smiles again, and everyone laughs except the guy who asked the question. He looks worried.

People worry a lot about things over which they have no control, like the weather. And politicians, who presumably have some control over something, don't always listen to the advice of scientists.

The group wanders past an "obsolete" Cray Supercomputer--purchased in 1963 for $15 million--and heads to the second-floor foyer, which is decorated on one side with paintings by local artists and on the other with a variety of photographs of the sun. At the far end is a display dedicated to an area of research for which NCAR is often in the news these days: climate change and global modeling. Of NCAR's $98 million budget, $63 million comes from the National Science Foundation, which gets its money from the federal government; the rest comes from other government agencies, such as NASA and the FAA, and non-government sources.

This exhibit includes an illustration of the "potential" global-warming pattern for the year 2050 A.D. based on computer projections, or modeling--an NCAR specialty. The text accompanying the graphic concedes that the models cannot "exactly predict" climate for specific regions but "can give a reasonable estimate." Humans, the panel continues, are adding an "uncertain element" to global warming. But despite this uncertainty, the NCAR display asserts--with an unequivocable assurance that drives global-warming "naysayers" up the wall--that there will be an increase in global temperatures of 6 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next fifty years. Such an increase, it warns, could mean rising sea levels, unpredictable droughts and floods, and the extinction of some plant and animal species.

A older woman looks at the panel and shudders. "Oh, 2050," she says to her husband. "Glad I won't be here."

The Earth's temperature has always fluctuated. The most obvious examples are the Ice Ages, periods of cool temperatures when much of the world was covered by glaciers, which were followed by warmer periods when the glaciers retreated. It's been 10,000 years or so since the last major Ice Age, known as the Pleistocene Epoch, when average temperatures were 5 to 9 degrees cooler than today. Since then, however, the world has experienced a series of less dramatic global warmings and chillings.

About 6,000 years ago, during the Holocene Maximum, when the great civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt were flourishing, the Earth was an estimated 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, and wetter, than it is now. Hippos and crocodiles lived in what today is the bone-dry Sahara.

By 1400, the world on average had cooled to temperatures comparable to those of today. But in the intervening centuries, it would cool even further into what is known as the Little Ice Age. "Little" in terms of the extent of global cooling, it had a major impact on humans.

The cold caused great cultural dislocation and strife. In the 1600s and 1700s, farms and villages in Europe were crushed by glaciers that crept down from the mountains as priests, who blamed the events on sinful people, asked God to intercede. At various times, ice choked the North Atlantic, ruining the fisheries in Scandinavia. Along the east coast of North America, northern tribes moved south to avoid the cooler weather and shortened growing seasons, coming into conflict with southern tribes. As late as the 1800s, New York Harbor froze so solid that people could walk from Manhattan to Staten Island.

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