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Bad News from the Deep Ocean plus a related book review

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Here’s a scary story from the SF Chronicle with the headline, “Ocean tells the story: Earth is heating up. Human activity, not variables in nature, cited as culprit.”

This is new data from deep in the ocean. Objective scientists recognize a drumbeat of warning from a variety of sources. Special interests still engage in wishful thinking, as if that will reverse the trend.

It’s time to dust off an old review and post it here.

The curtain rises on the dimly lit stage. Flashes illuminate the backdrop and a rolling rumble fills the hall. The Change in the Weather, a drama in many small acts, has begun. We in the audience willingly face uncertainty, mystery, and clues both false and true, for we know in the end we will sort everything out and return to our normal world.

Yet the world we return to is somehow different — or at least we see it differently.

That is the goal of every author, and New York Times science reporter William Stevens achieves it admirably in this challenging yet readable book. He forces his readers to confront the reality that normal weather isn’t what it used to be, and that the implications of The Change in the Weather are profound for the world of the twenty-first century.

The greenhouse effect and consequent global warning are not millennialist fantasies. Even the “contrarians,” whom Stevens gives their due, admit that the average temperature of the world is rising. Their disagreements with mainstream scientists are about the magnitude, details, and consequences of the increase, and the role of human activities in it.

The signs of change are everywhere. The 1990s dominate the list of the hottest years since weather record-keeping began; but the increase in temperature is only part of the story. More energy in the world weather system means more severe extremes. Cities around the world are suffering record heat waves, floods, droughts, and blizzards. Severe storms are more frequent and extreme. Spring is coming earlier and fall later in the far North. Plant and animal ranges are shifting toward higher altitudes and the poles. Ice sheets are melting, and glaciers are receding. Large scale cyclic phenomena, such as El Niño, may be growing stronger and more frequent.

How much of this change is due to human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels? That is difficult to quantify, because the Earth’s climatic history is one of constant change, even without human intervention.

Though scientists are becoming better at modeling the complex land-air-water climate machine of our planet, their predictions are full of uncertainty. Some forecasts are as dire as the loss of entire nations and coastal communities to rising sea level and surging tides. Others are as benign as bountiful harvests in favored agricultural areas. On one hand, changes may be gradual and reversible. On the other, we may experience a sudden and irrevocable transition to a new climatic pattern.

How different will the world of our great-grandchildren be, and will we humans be prepared to adapt our lives and political institutions to the changes in global weather? Though Stevens offers several possibilities, he doesn’t venture a guess about which prediction will come to pass. Like his readers, he sits in the audience and watches the drama unfold, offering only this closing comment: “The experiment is running, and time will tell.”

Ph.D. physicist Fred Bortz is the author of many books for young readers, including Dr. Fred’s Weather Watch: How to Create and Run Your Own Weather Station. His reviews are archived online at The Science Shelf.

Other Wind- and weather-related reviews on The Science Shelf include the following:

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About Fred Bortz

  • Bennett Dawson

    Thanks for putting this up Fred. I caught a great program on PBS the other night. “Strange Days On Planet Earth” is a wonderful program dedicated to the changes brought about by our global marketplace, and the effects of mankind’s industrial society.

    The episode I watched showed the invasion, of every part of the globe, by non native species. It turns out that 90% of the life in San Francisco Bay, by weight, is non native species….

    Facinating stuff, and we have it here in Vermont too. A few years ago we started having swarms of little beatles that looked like ladybugs, but weren’t. It turns out that they were brought into Vermont to try to control an invasive water plant in Lake Champlain.

    The bugs are not eating the water plant, but they are swarming into our homes and crawling all over our windows for most of the year.

    Good job! Bio defence is a tricky subject, and it rarely works out as planned. Keep us updated on any new dwevelopments!


  • Thanks Bennett. I also have a review on my site of a book called about invasive species called Nature Out of Place. The URL follows, and I tried to make that the URL link to my name above in this reply as well.

    So many environmental issues to worry about!