The rapid influx of natural disasters over the past several weeks has begun to spread whispers about the end of the world--and even if you don't buy into that fundamentalist the-end-is-near-crap, perhaps you've thought about it. Those ideas may seem to tie us into a higher power and spread hopeful feelings that we're more important than we seem but at least some of these "signs" may actually be the work of a more local and sinister power: humans. Science, not magic is what fuels the recent hurricanes, storms and flooding the globe has seen. The explanation is global warming.
Time for a crash course in global warming. The vast majority of the energy the planet uses comes from fossil fuels which consist of things like oil, gas, and coal. Burning these fuels gives off carbon dioxide, just as a campfire gives off smoke. This is why you may hear the nickname "dirty energy" if fossil fuels are discussed. We use this dirty energy so much that the amount of carbon dioxide we've released into the atmosphere has become quite significant. What this amounts to is an increase in the land, air and water temperatures on our planet. This may be anywhere from a fraction of a degree to several degrees, but such a small change on a global scale has many far-reaching consequences, not just warmer weather. This is why some environmentalists and scientists refer to global warming as climate change--this phenomenon will not just result in higher thermometer readings but might also cause extended tropical disease ranges, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, habitat loss and more extreme storms.
The thermodynamics of weather such as hurricanes and tropical storms are complex but it can be broken down. Warm water and an unstable atmosphere cause hurricanes. This is why we don't see artic hurricanes--the water there is too cold. Now ask yourself, what will happen if that warm water becomes even warmer, and cooler waters that never used to experience hurricanes are suddenly warm enough to generate them? The less conservative among us would say this is an obvious result of global warming, while those shamefully in denial would only admit this is an interesting coincidence.
With this half of the puzzle completed, let's look at the other half: the increase in intensity and frequency of hurricanes. It's not paranoia, they are indeed on the rise. The number of category four and five hurricanes worldwide has nearly doubled over the past 35 years, and are now making up 35 per cent of all hurricanes rather than 20 per cent found just 20 years ago. The North Atlantic has been the home of some 20 tropical storms this year including 11 hurricanes and the infamous Hurricanes Katrina and Stan which each claimed the lives of at least 1,200 people in the US and Mexico respectively. In the North Atlantic, category four and five hurricanes are up by 56 per cent within the last 15 years and 2005 was the second most action-packed hurricane season on record, with 1933 still just barely holding the number one spot.
After finding an increase in sea surface temperature, knowing that warm waters influence hurricane formation and strength, and knowing there's an upward trend in hurricane activity, drawing a strong link between these storms and global warming is a very valid move. Ignoring this connection is akin to ignoring documentation about cancer being linked to smoking simply because it's easier to deny the truth than to quit the habit--or to lose money in the industry. It's as foolish to stay addicted to fossil fuels as it is to nicotine, though it's a difficult habit to break. We need to stop using such a high quantity of energy in our homes, businesses, cars, industry and manufacturing, and start using forms of energy that don't produce carbon dioxide, like wind, solar or geothermal power.
It's sad that we know exactly what's causing the problems of global warming and how to stop it but all we need is the motivation to change. If this season's hurricanes are enough to plant the seeds of Armageddon in our minds, surely they are enough to plant those of environmental awareness.