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Bringing the Heat

News & Features | November 1, 2010

Photo courtesy of Ben Heine

We all remember the beginning of the semester, sweating bullets as we moved into our dorm rooms, tossing and turning at night due to the overwhelming heat. We all wondered, “Is it supposed to be this hot in September?” Turns out, the answer is no. According to LiveScience.com, 2010 is now tied for the hottest year on record. (Currently, the superlative belongs to the year 2005.) A report from the US Government, quoted in the National Geographic Daily News, calls global warming “undeniable.”

The rise in temperatures over the last several years will have detrimental consequences in both the near and distant future, if the pattern continues. Not only will this rise in temperature have environmental repercussions, it will also impact major political affairs around the world.

The greatest effect of this long-term heat wave will occur near the poles of the earth. Small bodies of water are gradually disappearing, and some animals, such as polar bears, are being negatively affected. Lengthy droughts have also been an obvious result of this warming trend. Tufts’ Director of Environmental Studies, Colin Orians says, “[These droughts] make areas without good irrigation systems highly susceptible to crop failure. Stressed plants are also more susceptible to insect outbreaks. This is likely to lead to great reliance on pesticides with all of their environmental effects. This has implications for forestry as many of the pests are decimating forests in the West.”

Additionally, the scorching weather of 2010 and recent years has also contributed to forest fires, like those that rampaged the California wilderness not too long ago. Furthermore, California’s notoriously warm temperatures reached a new high last month, as Los Angeles set an all-time high temperature of 113 Fahrenheit in late September. The problems don’t end there. The permafrost below the surface of the earth has been observed to be melting, causing the ground to shrink and swell and permanently alter the lay of roads and railroads.

The United States can’t expect to see a large change of habits in response to these record-setting highs, since our lifestyle is so dependent on fossil fuels. Concerns for the American economy have continually overshadowed the more pressing concerns for our environment. And at the rate we’re going, we are headed nowhere but up; record high temperatures have been broken twice as often as record lows in the last decade.

Professor Orians has some ideas, and nothing too idealistic or far-fetched. “We need to rely less on fossil fuels,” he says. “Getting rid of oil and coal is not going to happen. Therefore, in addition to using less, we need to invest in clean coal technologies with the hope we can prevent carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere and leading to even greater warming.”

Another Tufts University biology professor, Francie Chew, also offered her opinion on what our best form of action can be to address the drastic spike in temperature. To her, it’s the collective action of citizens doing their part. She said, “Individual initiative is crucial. Even if one person recycling doesn’t accomplish a whole lot in itself, it helps to make others aware. Big policy changes can come through a series of small steps.”

So even if the possibilities seem grim for the US government as a whole to suddenly start “going green,” individuals who make an effort to be more environmentally conscious will have an infinitely important impact. It is impossible to eliminate our national dependence upon coal and oil. Yet eventually the consequences of our coal addiction will reach a breaking point; after so many fires, floods from melting ice, and shrinking species populations, the abandonment of reliance on fossil fuels will become mandatory. The problem is that right now, global warming is so easy to ignore, for the effects seem far-off.

One can only hope that world powers will begin to recognize the severity of the state of our climate that 2010’s temperatures clearly indicate. Unfortunately, with so much of the global market resting economically on the fossil fuel industry, a green planet may seem like a long shot.

While my first few nights in a stuffy, hot dorm room were unpleasant and sleepless, such things are undoubtedly the least of the problems that arise with the climate’s swift ascent into record-breaking statistics. It’s frightening to think of the world’s poles melting, the West Coast going up in smoke, and the planet’s biodiversity shrinking exponentially. The scientific community is begging the rest of the world to pay attention and take responsibility for what we’ve caused. As Professor Chew said, “individual initiative” can carry us a long way.