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Global Warming and “The Day After Tomorrow”

by Daniel Lashof, May 24, 2004
 
 
Image from the sci-fi flick, "The Day After Tomorrow"

The local forecast calls for a monster tidal wave to crash into Manhattan, then temperatures to plummet, and by late afternoon, the entire Northeast to be frozen beneath a freshly spawned glacier.

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That is the scenario in director Roland Emmerich's $125 million disaster flick, "The Day After Tomorrow," which opens this week. The culprit is global warming. In the movie, the polar ice caps are melting, which sends fresh water pouring into the Atlantic. This overwhelms the ocean currents that normally warm the northern latitudes, triggering worldwide catastrophe.

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New Yorkers need not fear that global warming will set off such a sudden and spectacular natural disaster in real life, but "The Day After Tomorrow" has already inspired some to fear what they would consider a political disaster. NASA officials reportedly ordered their scientists not to answer questions about the film (though subsequently changed their minds after some bad press), while a spokesman for the Bush campaign told the New York Post -- perhaps more hopefully than factually -- "People know what they're watching is entertainment, and not grounded in basic scientific fact." Corporate lobbyists have been hinting that the film and the hoopla surrounding it is a conspiracy to pass the global warming pollution bill due up soon in the Senate.

Whether they like it or not, though, there are some kernels of truth behind the sci-fi storyline of "The Day After Tomorrow". Global warming really is a threat to New York. The question is, what kind of a threat?

In reality, experts don't know all the details yet -- global warming is one of the most complex scientific challenges we've ever known -- but we're quite confident about the basic facts.

We know for certain that global warming is happening now, and that it is happening faster than natural variation can explain. Since 1990, the Earth has experienced the ten hottest years on record. Satellite images show that the North Pole ice cap has shrunk by 20 percent since 1979. Spring is arriving earlier throughout the world.

Researchers at Columbia University's Earth Institute, NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan, and others recently completed a comprehensive assessment of the stakes in New York if global warming pollution is not curtailed. They conclude that the effects will be widespread across the region.

HEAT WAVE

Average temperatures in the Metro region have already increased by 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the 20th century. They're likely to rise as much as 6.5 degrees more by the middle of this century. As a result New York summers will go from occasionally muggy to persistently torrid. As many as 60 days a year, the National Weather Service Heat Index -- that's temperature combined with humidity to measure the discomfort -- will exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

HEALTH RISKS

That means significant health risks, particularly to vulnerable populations that are not prepared for them. For example, last summer more than 20,000 people died in Europe due to an unprecedented heat wave. New York has more air conditioners than Paris, but there are many poor and elderly in this city without them.

Health effects of heat and humidity are exacerbated by smog, which itself is elevated by higher temperatures. If all that isn't bad enough, higher carbon dioxide concentrations directly promote the growth of ragweed and other opportunistic plants that produce allergenic pollen.

The combination of heat, humidity, smog, and pollen, is the perfect incubator for asthma attacks, already a leading health threat in the city.

FLOODING

Rising seas will accompany higher temperatures as water expands (like mercury in a thermometer) and glaciers melt. During the lifetime of a child born today mean sea level will likely increase by as much as 3½ feet.

That may not sound like a lot, but it spells costly trouble for low-lying parts of the city, such as Coney Island and Southern Manhattan. Areas that currently flood once a century could see flooding every 20 years, or, according to researchers, even as little as once every four years.

Vital transportation links including many subways, all three airports and the Holland tunnel, are also vulnerable.

WHAT CAUSES GLOBAL WARMING - AND HOW TO STOP IT

The National Academy of Sciences and most other scientists say the cause of global warming is pollution, and the two major sources of that pollution are automobiles and coal-burning power plants. The pollution collects in the atmosphere and acts like a blanket, trapping the sun's heat.

This is a problem that has a solution -- reducing polution by focusing on alternative energy such as wind and solar power, improving the technology of our vehicles, and requiring specific emission standards.

THE SENATE BILL AND STATE ACTION

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote this spring on a bill that would for the first time make such standards the law, rather than relying as we have on voluntary measures. The bill, called the Climate Stewardship Act, came within seven votes of passing last fall, when it was introduced by Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman. This time around, it could hit the Senate floor as early as June.

Meanwhile, New York's Governor George Pataki is part of a growing trend toward state action. A year ago he called on eight neighboring states to create a regional solution, at least promising to take a leadership role to cut power plant emissions, and to invest in cleaner, more efficient energy technology.

"The Day After Tomorrow" is an extreme scenario, one that no climate scientist is predicting. But the real-life consequences of global warming are bad enough -- and it's time for us to do something about them.

Daniel Lashof is a climate scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council

Resources:
Global Warming Ignites Tempers, Even In A Movie, NY Times
The Climate Stewardship Act of 2003, by Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman
Global Warming Page of the Environmental Defense Network
Two Articles On Global Warming by James Hanson of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Article 1) (Article 2)


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