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The earth is burning up and we don't seem to care

Fri, Aug 11th, 2006
Posted in Commentary

Anyone who still scoffs when the global warming subject is brought up must either have his or her head stuck quite deeply into the sand or slept through the past month. In all of my 50-plus years, I cannot remember a spell when it has stayed as hot for such an extended time, as it did in late June and all of July. We've had hot stretches before, but at least it seemed to cool off at night. That hasn't been the case this summer.

Although we have central air in our home, we try not to use it - partially because we try to be energy conscious - but also because my wife and I feel it just isn't real healthy. But during this recent sweltering period, I don't think there were more than two or three nights that we shut off the AC and opened up the house. It just didn't seem to be cooling off at night.

It was quite ironic that the morning after I was commenting to my wife about the intense heat wave and the lack of nocturnal cooling we had come so accustom to, I came across an Associated Press article on this subject.

"Summer nights are much hotter in U.S. over past years," the headline read. According to the article, we have been suffering through three times more than our normal share of extra-hot summer nights, government weather records show. And climatologist and health experts both warn that this is a very dangerous trend.

During heat waves, one of the major causes of heat deaths is the lack of night cooling that would normally allow a stressed body to recover, scientists say. Some scientists say the trend is a sign of man-made global warming.

One top federal research meteorologist said he almost fell out of his chair when he looked over the U.S. night minimum temperature records over the past 96 years and saw the skyrocketing trend of hot summer nights.

From 2001 to 2005, on average nearly 30 percent of the nation had "much above normal" average summertime minimum temperatures. By definition, "much above normal" means low temperatures that are in the highest 10 percent on record. On any given year, about 10 percent of the country should have "much above normal" summer-night lows.

However, in both 2005 and 2003, 36 percent of the nation had much above normal summer minimums. It was even worse in 2002 when 37 percent of the nation suffered with above normal summer minimums.

While the highest-ever figure was in the middle of America's brutal Dust Bowl, when 41 percent of the nation had much above normal summer-night temps, the five-year average, between 2001 and 2005, far exceeds even the Dust Bowl years. And those figures don't bring this record-breaking summer of 2006 into the mix.

And it is not just the last five years. Each of the past eight years has been far above the normal 10 percent. During the past decade, 23 percent of the nation has had hot summer nights. During the past 15 years, that average has been 20 percent. By comparison, from 1964 to 1968 only two percent of the country on average had abnormally hot nights.

Scientists are not surprised with these findings. Climate models, used to forecast global warming, have been predicting this trend for more than 20 years. Many who laughed at these predictions or shrugged them off as a "the sky is falling" mentality, are now finally sitting up and taking notice. The record number of heat-related deaths, massive droughts and wildfires that are affecting portions of the country this summer, and the out-of-this-world electric bills that will be soon arriving in the mail, seem to be getting our collective attention.

Three decades ago this country was brought to its knees when the oil embargo occurred in 1973. Suddenly, the big gas-guzzling vehicles that Detroit was manufacturing and the American public had embraced for so long were traded in for much smaller, efficient cars. I was in my freshman year of college in the Twin Cities and remember how suddenly every other florescent light in the hallways and classrooms were turned off. Drinking fountains that used to run all the time to ensure a cool drink of water were turned off. Many of the tall buildings in downtown Minneapolis that used to light up the metro sky with office lights left on at night, became dark. Bright orange reminder stickers were common on light switches and thermostats, encouraging people to conserve.

People started using bicycles or the transit system to get to work and car-pooling became quite popular. People didn't just go out "cruising" anymore. Americans did sit up and take notice to the energy crisis because it hit them where it hurt the most - in their back pockets.

I'm not sure if it's because we Americans are just too adaptive or we have short memories. But less than a decade later, the lessons learned during the oil embargo of the mid-70s and the conservation practices that had become almost routine were quickly forgotten.

And now, a generation later, we are facing a much more serious problem, that will have far-reaching effects. We've pooh-poohed the Chicken Littles who warned that our day of reckoning was fast approaching. We traded in our compact vehicles for the massive SUVs that get 15 mpg, continued to build ridiculously-large homes with twice the floor space that we need and three-car garages, ripped out the grass and cut down the trees to make way for parking lots, mega-malls and shopping centers, and have once again become the same gluttonous society that was ravaging the landscape 30, 40 and 50 years ago.

Global warming is a very serious problem. And it's only going to continue getting worse. While I haven't seen Al Gore's movie on this topic, I plan to take it in very soon. Hopefully the summer of 2006, with the more than 1,000 heat-related deaths, and record-breaking temps, will get this country's collective attention as the oil embargo did 33 years ago.

Instead of spending precious time debating gay marriage and flag-burning amendments, the leaders of this country need to address one of the most serious issues facing not only our country, but the world. The summer of 2006 is a wake-up call to everyone. I just hope it isn't too late for our children's generation and the generations to follow.

Charlie Warner is the editor of the Houston County News in LaCrescent.

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