illustration: ISTOCK.COM © John Bloor
A: To some UI-affiliated experts, including a NASA scientist, the answer is "yes." And the blistering summer heat that swept across the U.S. is a strong forecast of what global warming looks like.
July marked the hottest month on record in the United States, with an average temperature of 77.6 degrees Fahrenheit—more than 3 degrees above the 20th century average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The scorching month contributed to the warmest 12-month period the U.S. has experienced since record-keeping began in 1895.
By the end of July, drought plagued 63 percent of the country, a powerful straight-line windstorm ravaged communities from Chicago to Washington, and deadly wildfires consumed more than two million acres of land—nearly a half-million above average.
Such extreme weather and increased temperatures are entirely consistent with a warming planet, says UI engineering professor Jerry Schnoor, co-director of the university's Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research: "While we cannot attribute any single climate event to human-induced warming, increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere make it more likely that dry periods will become hotter, resulting in drought."
New statistics offer further evidence. While weather naturally varies from year to year, a new study by the "godfather of global warming," James Hansen, 63BA, 65MS, 67PhD, used a mathematical, data-based analysis rather than climate simulation models to assess the changes. Hansen found that, between 1950 and 1980, the odds of such extreme temperatures occurring were about one in 300. Today, the chances of such freak experiences are one in 10.
Head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a well-known climatologist, Hansen has warned about the consequences of climate change since the 1980s. His latest study links climate change to last year's drought in Texas and Oklahoma, the 2010 heat waves in Russia and the Middle East, and the 2003 European heat wave that killed tens of thousands of people. While he issued his findings before the U.S. summer heat wave, Hansen says that phenomenon only adds to the smoldering pile of evidence.
It's not just about the heat. As higher air temperatures and warmer ocean currents melt ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, other weather patterns like rainfall are affected. According to the National Climactic Data Center, seven of the century's top ten years for "precipitation events" have occurred since 1995. Of note this year: the Amazon River basin "super flooding" and the devastating monsoon in Bangladesh. Closer to home, experts are forecasting an above-average hurricane season for the U.S.
It's time to come clean. Schnoor believes the world has never faced so serious a global challenge—and that transitioning from the fossil fuel age to one of clean, renewable energy will prove the most significant accomplishment of the modern era.
Toward that end, both Schnoor and Hansen urge comprehensive energy and climate legislation. With support from legislators like Nevada Senator Harry Reid, who opened the recent Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas with a powerful speech on the critical need for effective climate policy, they are hopeful that such change will happen sooner than later. "Climate change is the issue of the century," Schnoor says. "Our greatest chapter of history is yet to be written."