Author: Yangguang Ou
Institution: Florida State University
Date: August 2008
"Softball-sized hail in Tokyo" "Record-breaking snowfall in New Delhi" "Numerous tornadoes have been sighted in Los Angeles" "Scotland is under a thick layer of ice sheet" "Tidal waves in New York City.." Scenes like these were once only destined for the cinema screens, such as in the 2004 blockbuster hit The Day After Tomorrow. However, a similar phenomena is rolling now in the first decade of the new millennia, though not on television.
The devastating aftermath of the recent category-four cyclone in Burma (Myanmar) is known to be one of the worst in history the country has ever seen. The news web AdelaideNow reported the death toll to be 22,500, forty percent of which were children, and predicted the homeless to be about one million and rising. The disastrous cyclone not only left millions of homes in ruins but also placed an area slightly smaller than the state of Delaware under water. Cyclone Nargis in Burma is only one in a series of violent storms that ravaged the Asian continent. It all started with the giant cyclone in China a couple of years before, followed a year later by Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh. Plus, who can forget the disastrous Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that left countless homeless and an entire city underwater due to severe flooding. This hurricane laid to waste a huge proportion of the Gulf Coast. In 2007, the Arabian Peninsula was also devastated by Cyclone Gonu, one of the largest cyclones in its history: so large that it was dubbed a "super-cyclone" by the media. Former vice president and now environmental crusader Al Gore said in a statement, according to the Business and Media Institute, that all of these violent storms are connected: ".we are seeing consequences that scientists have long predicted might be associated with continued global warming."
The Center for Science and Environment has also stated in their report that the intensity of tropical storms will increase with the rise in "sea surface temperatures." Henry Fuelberg, a professor in the Department of Meteorology at Florida State University, has stated that ".some people will say that the 1950s saw some big storms. It is hard to provide direct evidence to say global warming causes more frequent and more intense storms. However, my view is, just in case, we should do something about it. While science may be on the lookout for cause-and-effect, common sense tells us that something is happening right now." According to Fuelberg, it is also dangerous to give forecasts about this hurricane season because the climate is hard to predict. "Right now, we can predict the weather accurately within a week's range, because it depends on our confidences in the computer models we use. But until technology can produce better models that can map the entire weather system, we can only go so far as to predicting what may happen this hurricane season."
In addition to weather perils, global warming can also push many species to the list of endangerment or extinction, according to experts. Koalas, native to Australia, depend on a diet of eucalyptus leaves, which according to marsupial physiologist Hugh Tyndale-Biscoe (as reported by Fox.com), already contains low nutrient levels. According to the media report, a study by Ian Hume at Sydney University has suggested that an increase in carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, will decrease the nutrient level of the eucalyptus leaves. In this study, Hume discovered that carbon dioxide can bind to proteins and other nutrients in the eucalyptus leaves and hinder them indigestible by the koalas. Since the koalas' only food source comes from these leaves, their population can dwindle due to the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. ScienceDaily reports a similar situation for the caribou population: that caribou calf mortality has seen an increase in West Greenland. According to ScienceDaily, the cause of the increase is a phenomenon called "trophic mismatch," in which the seasonal births of their calves lagged a little behind the time peak of their food supply: willow, sedges, and tundra herbs. The ripening of these plants is signaled by temperature. An early rise in temperature, according to Eric Post at Penn State, signaled the plants to ripen and when the caribou migrate to these areas, the nutrient level has already started to decline because the ripening time of the plants has already passed. Thus, many caribous and their calves struggled with low nutrition. Similarly, the media reports that migratory birds have also felt the changes in global temperatures as many geese and robins became confused by the premature warming of temperatures. This phenomenon disrupts the cycles of the migration and leaves many birds frozen or else hurt.
Signs of global warming are also evident in the poles, as the StatesmanJournal reported in early May that penguin population has seen a drastic decline as well. According to the StatesmanJournal, krill, the tiny shrimp-like food source for much of the marine food chain, is declining in population as the dwindling of ice sheets makes it difficult for these small herbivores to find plankton that usually latch onto the shelves. The retreat of acres of ice sheets is caused by the increase in global temperatures. The average temperature at the poles has risen approximately three degrees Celsius, which not only reduced the habitat of penguins and other polar species but also decreased their food supply in turn. Consequently, the population of the penguins dropped drastically. Similarly, the polar bear population has also taken a sharp drop in the North Pole, according to Courant.com, where similar decreases in habitat as well as resources are also evident. Not only is polar ice retreating, but glaciers are as well, as reported by ScienceNews.com. Studies have shown that the glaciers in Glacier National Park may completely disappear in two generations at its current melting rate, becoming a mere fiction to new generations to come.
In contrast to popular beliefs, the tropics may be suffering more damage from the rising temperature than even the polar regions. According to Brian Inouye, a professor in the Department of Biology at Florida State University, development in some species of animals, such as tropical insects, depends on the temperature of their surroundings. "Even if the average temperature of the globe rises by a small range, developmental changes may not match the sprouting of the food source. You take tropical insects for example, their temperature tolerance are minimal. Like other exothermic species, their body temperatures depend very much on their surroundings," Inouye explains. In addition, since the tropics have static climate year-round, even endothermic species, which have adapted to its narrow range of temperatures, have only narrow ranges of tolerance themselves. According to ScienceDaily, arctic species may experience temperatures ranges from subzero to approximately sixty degrees Fahrenheit. However, the report continues, the temperature range for the tropics fluctuates only slightly around a constant average. Scientists have always labeled the tropics with the highest biodiversity, and a climatic change drastic enough to alter the tropics can be devastating.
Not only are species and weather patterns affected by global warming, but homo sapiens have witnessed problems of their own. The extreme weather patterns observed previously already can devastate many lives as well as destroy many homes, costing billions in property damage. However, experts say the effects of global warming do not end there. Lake Baikal of Russia, the largest lake in the world, is, according to ScienceDaily, large enough to hold all the water from the Great Lakes in the U.S. At 25 million years old, Lake Baikal is also the world's oldest lake as well as the deepest. Its existence was present long before any humans set foot on earth. Over the past six decades, a study was done by a joint team of Wellesley College and the National Center of Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) that showed the increase in the average temperature of the lake. Being a lake that supports 2,500 species of plants and animals, Lake Baikal is an important ecosystem as well as the source of one-fifth of the world's freshwater. Its temperature increase indicates that even the most isolated areas in the world is affected by global warming, and is also a piece of evidence that supports the existence of global warming in general. In addition, the temperature increase can be potentially harmful to the life the system supports, as an increase in the temperature of water reduces the amount of oxygen dissolved since gases are less soluble at higher temperatures. In addition, the increase in temperature has also increased the amount of chlorophyll as well as the phytoplankton population that can disrupt the food chain. Due to the increase in predation of zooplankton by small fish such as minnows, the population of phytoplankton will skyrocket due to less predation by zooplanktons. This can in turn lead to algal blooms, which can be potentially dangerous in depleting the water of nutrients. This problem is not only found in Lake Baikal, but in many aquatic environments, where an increase in the temperature of the water not only fuels more violent storms but also decreases the amount of oxygen available to aquatic life forms. In terms of direct effects on humans, this can pose a danger to fisheries because of the depletion of oxygen in the water. Not only that, but food shortages have already shown to be a problem in recent times, as recent as the past months, when increase in global temperatures have caused lower wheat and grain production.
Perhaps the scenes from The Day After Tomorrow is fiction in its special effects. And there have been no sightings of softball-sized hail in Tokyo or tidal waves devouring New York. Yet, there are still signs of unusually extreme weather patterns, the intensity and frequency of which have increased by the decade; many species from the polar bears to the tropical insects are endangered by the increase in global temperatures; the tree lines are moving further and further north; and not only that, but people are witnessing food crisis, closed-down fisheries, and water shortages, mixed in with many devastation from natural disasters as well. Direct evidence supporting the cause-and-effect of global warming may have on different aspects of our ecosystem may be vague, yet, as Fuelberg had put it: "It's like drinking and driving. Yes, there is a possibility that someone can drink and drive without getting hurt. But most likely, that won't always happen. Global warming is much of the same concept. You can't just brake the car or unplug the refrigerator to stop global warming. It's prudent to take immediate action right now."
No one knows what the future might hold for planet earth. All we can talk of is now.the present.today. But is "the day after tomorrow" closer than we think?