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Thursday, August 2, 2012

USA Today editorial: The atmosphere is juiced

Editorial: Are heat records performance-enhanced?

USA Today, August 1, 2012

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, baseball's decades-old home run records began to topple. Barry BondsMark McGwire and Sammy Sosa blasted their way past the storied marks set by Roger Maris (61 in 1961) and Babe Ruth (60 in 1927). All sorts of reasons were offered for the power explosion — the size of the strike zone, composition of the baseballs, dimensions of the ballparks, frailty of the pitchers and so on. The real explanation, it turned out, was the one before everyone's eyes: The players were juiced.

Something similar might be playing out with the weather. Heat records are wilting faster than the corn in the Midwest. July could end up as the USA's hottest month in recorded history. St. Louis, Indianapolis and Denver were among the cities on pace to shatter monthly records. St. Louis, in fact, has had a record 11 days of at least 105 degrees this summer.

This could, of course, just be an anomaly, like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s or Ruth's feat in 1927. Or, the explanation could be the same as in baseball, only less visible: The atmosphere is juiced. Not by steroids, but by the gigatons of heat-trapping greenhouse gases being emitted each year.

In baseball, performance-enhancing drugs didn't turn pop outs to shortstop into home runs, but what once were doubles off the left-field wall wound up instead in the bleachers. Similarly, climate scientists emphasize, global warming doesn't cause heat waves and droughts so much as intensify them.

Research meteorologist Martin Hoerling of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the effect of climate change is to move in and lower the fences on high temperature records. So what once might have been a 99-degree maximum becomes 100 or more. Hoerling, not known as a climate alarmist, says the odds are four in five that man-made global warming is behind recent heat records.

Evidence continues to mount that the warming goes beyond what could be expected by natural variability and the urban "heat island" effect. July was the 329th consecutive month in which the global temperature exceeded the 20th century average. High temperature records continue to outpace low temperature records by ratios of more than 2-to-1. Arctic sea ice continues to track at levels far below average.

Virtually all climate scientists agree that global warming is real and is very likely caused primarily by human activity.One prominent skeptic, University of California physics professor Richard Muller, now says he has done a "total turnaround" and agrees with the scientific consensus.

So it's time for the political debate to shift from whether the climate is changing to what can be done to keep the warming under control. The options are as familiar as they are controversial: put a price on carbon emissions; step up research and development of alternative energy sources; and convince developing nations, particularly China and India, of the need for action.

True, the political system, here and abroad, is ill-equipped to deal with long-range problems such as climate change, introducing a risk of costly failure. But past successes — reducing the emissions responsible for acid rain and for threatening the ozone layer — demonstrate what's possible once a threat is recognized.

Lawmakers who dwell on the cost of acting seem not to notice that excessive heat carries its own costs: huge air conditioning bills, parched crops and rising food prices. This year's record warmth could well be a preview of the new normal for future generations. And those generations will wonder why this one, instead of doing something, acted like the fans who cheered on the bulked-up boys of summer.

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