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Our Changing Planet

(See endnotes 12, 13, 14)

In 1989, the US Global Change Research Program was started as a Presidential Initiative and then mandated by Congress in the Global Change Research Act of 1990, which requires “a comprehensive and integrated United States research program which will assist the nation and the world to understand, assess, predict and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change.” Thirteen departments and agencies of the federal government work together to carry out the mandate of Congress, which is to build a knowledge base on human responses to climate and global climate change; to coordinate and regulate federal agencies on climate working in research, education, communications, and decision support; and to produce an annual report of their research findings on climate change, and have the President of the United States submit this report to Congress. In the last 20 years, the United States through the US Global Change Research Program has developed an understanding of the short-term and long-term changes in climate, the ozone layer, land cover, and ecosystems, and has made the world’s largest scientific investments in the research of climate change.

Reports of global climate change impacts in the United States indicate at least ten key findings. They are:

  • 1. Global warming is unequivocal and primarily human induced.
  • 2. Climate changes are underway in the United States and are projected to grow.
  • 3. Widespread climate-related impacts are occurring now and are expected to increase.
  • 4. Climate change will stress water resources.
  • 5. Crop and livestock production will be increasingly challenged.
  • 6. Coastal areas are at increasing risk from sea-level rise and storm surges.
  • 7. Risk to human health will increase.
  • 8. Climate change will interact with many social and environmental stresses to substantially increase the level of these stresses.
  • 9. Thresholds will be crossed, leading to large changes in climate and ecosystems.
  • 10. Future climate change and its impacts depend on choices made today.

Despite year-to-year fluctuations in temperature and weather conditions, the overall trend is for warming, with all its attendant problems. Unfortunately, there is a huge political discourse surrounding the global warming topic, and in some areas there is a decision to ignore scientific data especially to make political points. This type of emotional response to global warming based on lack of scientific information can readily be found on the Internet today.

It is the increase in temperatures in the world that is helping to contribute to the potential for: the increase in emerging and re-emerging diseases, reduced crop yields, increased level of algae in water, increased water demands including for irrigation and use of the groundwater supply, severe droughts, and power outages. Increased temperatures also contribute to decreased ice packs in the Arctic and Antarctica and the increase in water levels around the coasts of the country leading to greater potential flooding of these areas. Also, increased ocean temperatures may lead to increased severity of storms.

It is projected that temperatures in the United States will rise on average in the next 100 years if nothing is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. (In fact, in 2012, the average temperature in the United States rose by 1° Fahrenheit.) This could cause extreme weather, both wet and dry. There were discussions at the 2012 annual meeting of the Geological Society of America about the potential problems created by climate change and how it affected the severity of hurricane Sandy when it reached the East Coast of the United States. Rising sea levels contributed to the storm surge record height. Sea surface temperatures contributed to the flooding. Increased temperatures over Greenland and increased temperatures in the Arctic may have had an effect on air masses and the position of the jet stream.

Global warming may result in a sharp increase in heat-related illnesses and deaths as well as respiratory and cardiovascular disease, especially in the most vulnerable populations of the elderly, the poor, children, and people suffering from other diseases. Increased temperatures would exacerbate problems of air pollution and health, ozone formation, amount of waterborne and foodborne diseases, amount of vector- and rodent-borne diseases, and amount of emerging infectious diseases.

Other changes affecting people and the environment include:

  • 1. Deforestation which may result in loss of species of plants and animals, increase greenhouse gases, increase carbon when the trees are burnt, interfere with the water cycle, and cause soil erosion leading to increased silt entering bodies of water
  • 2. Encroachment by agricultural areas which may result in loss of plant species, decreased water quality, loss of wildlife and wildlife habitat, loss of mineral sources, soil erosion, changes in groundwater hydrology, increased air pollution, and significant new noise pollution
  • 3. Wetland modification which may cause a massive loss of fish and shellfish, increase vulnerability of the coastal areas to storm surge and flooding in commercial, industrial, and residential areas, and affect the navigation of ships in areas which are used for water transportation
  • 4. Building of dams which may interrupt and destroy ecosystems, interfere with fish migration, alter water flows, retain sediments which may be necessary for ecosystems downstream, contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, etc.
  • 5. Road construction may cause air pollution initially from the use of the various pieces of heavy equipment and the dust being created during the construction process; cause air pollution from the vehicles utilizing the new road; cause noise pollution initially from the construction work and later from the vehicles utilizing the road; cause water pollution from the rainwater and snow melt off the roads carrying gasoline, oil, heavy metals, and other pollutants; and create the potential for droughts, fires, and the spread of infectious diseases
  • 6. Mining may cause erosion, acid mine drainage, contamination of soil and water with heavy metals, reduced surface and groundwater quality, deforestation, air pollution from dust and heavy equipment, and land pollution from tailings and slag heaps
  • 7. Creation of new urban areas with all the attendant environmental and health problems mentioned throughout this book
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