Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Mercury is Rising: A Look at Global Warming

As early as 1896, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius predicted the warming of the Earth's temperature through an increase in the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2). At that time, however, given the rate of CO2 emissions then, Arrhenius was not alarmed by this possibility. More than a century later, Arrhenius's prediction has become a reality with global warming becoming one of the most pressing threats to life on Earth.

While the Earth's temperature passes through a natural cycle of heating and cooling, or what skeptics of climate change call natural climactic swings, scientists have found that human activity has contributed to much of the heating of the Earth for the past century. And studies point to so-called greenhouse gases (GHGs) as the major culprits.

The Earth's atmosphere contains concentration of gases (such as methane and CO2) which trap some of the heat coming from the sun. These trapped heat keeps the planet warm and makes it possible for life on Earth to thrive and be sustained. This process is called the greenhouse effect. But years of massive GHG emissions and buring of fossil fuels, brought about by industrial processes, vehicle use, and every other human activity involving the use of energy, has abnormally increased the level of GHG gases in the atmosphere (now much higher compared to 650,000 years ago), thus making the planet hotter. Per the latest estimate, the world's temperature has gone up by more than one degree Farenheit and even higher in the polar regions.

The atmosphere's natural alternating cycle of warmth and cold usually takes hundreds of thousands of years. In contrast, we are now seeing an abnormal increase in global temperatures. Eleven of the 12 hottest recorded years occured between 1995 and 2005 ever since the thermometer can gauge the temperature. As a result of this, we are now seeing the effects of global warming taking its toll on Earth: glaciers and sea ice are melting (sea levels have risen faster over the last century), precipitation patterns are shifting wherein snow and rainfall has been observed to be increasing in certain areas of the planet, and some animals have changed their migration patterns by moving farther north in search of cooler climate.

There is now a general consensus that the question is no longer whether there is global warming being caused by human activity, but the question is more on what can be done to prevent or stop global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), consisting of hundreds of leading scientists the world over, which was formed by the UN Environment and Development Program in 1988 in collboration with the World Meteorological Organization, has released a report in 2001 declaring unequivocally that humans have caused the rise in the Earth's temperature.

Unless action is taken by the world's leading industrialized nations, such as China (now the biggest emitter of GHGs) and the United States, the Earth's temperature will continue to heat up to abnormal levels, increasing to as much as 10 degrees Farenheit. This will be catastrophic because it will melt the polar ice caps and increase worldwide sea levels that will flood coastal regions; extreme weathers will beset us, such as stronger typhoons and hurricanes; crop yields will drop greatly as increased rainfall is followed by longer periods of droughts; many plants and animals will become extinct as their habitats are destroyed. These are but a few of the dangers of global warming if left unchecked.

Let us hope that the Coppenhagen Climate Conference on December 2009, which will be participated by 170 countries and several non-governmental organizations worldwide, will result in an effective and sustainable plan to combat global warming and climate change.

In the meantime, let us do our part in helping in our own small way in the overall effort to stop global warming, such as becoming more energy efficient and saving energy in our daily activities. We can, for example, replace our incandescent light bulbs with flourescent bulbs, lower the thermostat in our heating systems during winter, avoid using our cars whenever possible, unplug unused applicances, turn off lights when not in use, etc. We could also help by participating in information drive to educate the public about global warming or urge our political leaders to take action. These individual actions, when combined together, will have great impact on our environment.

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