- many people thought that terrorists were our number one enemy. But the recent past has reminded us that we have another, much deadlier killer lurking all around us: nature
- vicious storms from the Gulf of Mexico caused as much damage to our country than any terrorist attack ever could
- Warmer water also fuels hurricanes and makes them more intense, like the three Category 5 storms this fall
In this post-9/11 world, many people thought that terrorists were our number one enemy. But the recent past has reminded us that we have another, much deadlier killer lurking all around us: nature. Natural disasters in the past year have exposed a problem that will affect us even more in the future. Our planet, it seems, is getting increasingly warmer and unstable.
This September, vicious storms from the Gulf of Mexico caused as much damage to our country than any terrorist attack ever could. The wind and flood damage caused just by the Category 5 Hurricane Katrina is estimated to cost the U.S. upward of $150 billion, not to mention over 1,000 lives, many of which belonged to people already living in extreme poverty.
Two other Category 5 hurricanes, Rita and Wilma, also tore through the Gulf Coast, causing significant damage and loss of life. It was the first time on record that three Category 5 hurricanes happened in the same season.
Now, I’m not going to say that global warming caused any of these hurricanes to happen.
Obviously, natural disasters like these will continue to occur long into the future. That’s clearly not too bold of a prediction; all sorts of similar events have happened before and many more will happen again.
However, what’s relevant is the fact that problems like higher temperatures and intense hurricanes seem to be happening more and more frequently now.
So are these disasters just part of a natural cycle on our planet, or is the Earth starting to get angry with us?
After all, it would have good reason. The U.S. alone produces 20 percent of daily carbon dioxide emissions, despite making up less than 5 percent of the global population.
Because our vehicles, power plants and factories have been blowing all sorts of toxic substances up into the atmosphere for over a century, it shouldn’t be surprising that we could face some consequences for our actions.
The pollutants we pump into the atmosphere cause a “greenhouse effect,” in which carbon dioxide molecules allow heat from the sun to travel into the atmosphere but prevent it from traveling back out.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that the average global and ocean temperature has risen over one degree Fahrenheit in the past century, and that carbon dioxide levels could double by 2100, based on current emission levels.
The U.N. study predicted an average global temperature rise of 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the next century if this happens.
A small temperature rise might not seem like a big deal, but hotter weather is already having a noticeable effect around the globe.
Over 200 cities in the U.S. — including New Orleans — broke records for all-time high temperatures this summer, as did the water nearby in the Gulf.
Also, NASA measured the Arctic ice caps from various satellite images and found that they were at the smallest levels ever measured.
They concluded that if it keeps melting at current rates, by the end of the century, the Arctic could be completely ice-free during the summer months.
Now, all that ice obviously doesn’t just disappear when it melts; it turns into water. And lots of melted ice leads to higher sea levels, which can lead to more flooding like we saw in New Orleans.
Warmer water also fuels hurricanes and makes them more intense, like the three Category 5 storms this fall. Don’t be surprised if you see even more high-category hurricanes in the future.
A warmer climate will also enable diseases to spread more quickly, such as malaria or the avian flu that currently has many people scared.
Mike Leavitt, President Bush’s secretary of health and human services, recently said that a pandemic like avian flu “is essentially nature’s terrorist.”
America already has a war on terror. Will we declare war on nature? Unfortunately, we’ve already been doing that for a long time with our cars, planes and factories.
But only now are we beginning to see what happens when nature starts to fight back.