Most people do not associate hurricanes with New York, New Jersey or Eastern Canada ... they are a problem of the Caribbean and subtropics.
The media gets animated when a major weather event occurs in a region that does not normally experience such phenomena. This excitement is exacerbated when it is somewhere significant, such as New York. Such activity then invites opinion, ranging from a tropical storm that went off track to the early signs of major climate change. Whatever your views, the recent meteorological events in the northeastern United States have certainly enticed conversation.
According to the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, a storm such as Hurricane Sandy over the United States’ North Atlantic seaboard has been predicted for over half a decade. The scientists also projected large-scale flooding in New York City: a scenario that could arise if a 1.5 foot rise in sea level were combined with a storm surge generated from a Category 3 hurricane; if sea levels rise due to climate change, this situation could occur by the 2050s. For some, this is a reason to demand stricter regulations on climate change policy and carbon tax to reduce the threat of climate change and the predicted rise in sea level; for others, this is nothing more than an unusual and unfortunate natural event that occurs every so often.
Predicting the Unknown
There are many misconceptions concerning the terms "climate change" and "global warming." Climate change refers to any change – be it more or less extreme – in climatic conditions over a given area and time frame, which can be caused by natural and manmade events. Global warming implies an increase in global temperature, usually due to human activity. Many scientists agree that an increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane (combined with deforestation) could result in an increase in global temperature. However, increased atmospheric temperatures could also lead to other phenomena.
One theory, popular in the 1970s, involves the reversal of the North Atlantic Gulf Stream, caused by the melting of ice floes in Greenland, which could lead to expanding ice cover and greater glaciation over much of Europe and Asia. Alternatively, increased carbon dioxide levels could fuel photosynthesis, and hence plant growth and productivity, which could benefit agriculture and global food production. There is also evidence to suggest that a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels could alter the chemistry of the marine environment and result in ocean acidification, which could impact the development of marine animals that impregnate calcium carbonate into their bodies.
The Earth’s climate has been warmer in the past and, on a geological timeframe, altering from a cooler to a warmer period is a normal process. Layers in certain rock strata, for example, indicate a major warming period that occurred around 56 million years ago, at the end of the Palaeocene epoch. These rock layers have a distinct lack of calcium carbonate deposits, a substance that originates from the remains of sea organisms. This layer that is devoid of calcium carbonate is thought to have occurred by a rise in carbonic acid in the ocean, due to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Atmospheric carbon dioxide increase is a normal occurrence in the earth’s history, be it due to volcanic eruptions or other natural events, which are thought to occur over a period of thousands of years. The concern now, however, is the current rate of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gas emissions, which are thought to have increased steadily from around 250 years ago at the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, the release of these gases are almost certain to rise due to the growing global human population, rising affluence in China, India, Brazil and other developing nations, and increased agriculture and deforestation.
Today, climate change is a term that implies doom and gloom. Documentaries, such as An Inconvenient Truth often rely on shock tactics, while films including The Day After Tomorrow make a fallacy out of the concept. We can only predict the future with the knowledge and understanding we have today and evidence accumulated from the past. Computer models and projections should not be taken as conclusions, either; the world is far too complicated and it is not possible to accurately predict the weather next week and certainly not the global climate next decade. Nevertheless, many current predications suggest that extreme and unusual weather events are likely to increase over our life time, and events such as Hurricane Sandy could be an indicator of how the natural world may influence our lives and human activities over the next century.