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Are we hurting our world?

April 17, 2007|by LAURA BELL

What will Hagerstown be like in 30 years? Will you still live here? What about the climate?

How warm will it be? Some like it hot. Do you?

More and more scientists and political leaders around the world agree that global warming is a growing concern. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change, at www.pewclimate.org, reports a rise in Earth's overall surface temperature of 1.4 degrees. The warmest year on record is 2005, and the warmest decade since the Civil War was the 1990s.

Many factors contribute to a warming of the atmosphere, but scientists say human-caused factors are causing a steep rise in temperature, according to the Pew Center. In the last century, industrial air pollution and automobile waste gases have caused a surge in carbon dioxide, methane and other gases that trap heat in Earth's atmosphere. This is called the greenhouse effect, named after the way glass windows in a greenhouse trap warmth and allow plants to grow even during freezing conditions.

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We have always been taught that greenhouse gases are bad. However, according to North Hagerstown High School ninth grade biology teacher Patty Leazier, the greenhouse effect is the earth's natural temperature control system. We need it to maintain life. Without the greenhouse effect, the earth would be too cold for us to inhabit.

Greenhouse gases are only a problem now because humans are heating the atmosphere beyond natural levels. We are burning fossil fuels, which adds carbon to the atmosphere.

We are also cutting down rain forests, which means there are fewer plants to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Of course, temperatures naturally fluctuate from year to year. Some years are warmer, on average, than others. Weather hasn't exactly been normal this year. This year's spring weather has been the strangest many of us have seen.

"We can't tell if this is a cause of global warming," says Brett Anderson, a meteorologist with AccuWeather.

But according to www.wikipedia.com, most of the increased temperatures in recent years are most likely caused by human activity.

A warmer atmosphere could cause widespread changes to Earth, such as the melting of ice caps in Antarctica and Greenland, which would cause sea levels to rise. The climate could be much warmer in many parts of the world.

Or it could be colder. In the 2004 movie "The Day After Tomorrow," climate change causes polar ice and air in the mid-Atlantic and Northern states to be so cold it kills to reach as far south as New York. It might happen, according to Anderson, but "it would take a hundred years or so," he says.

Scientists don't know for sure what will happen if the Earth warms, but it could eventually end, ironically, in an ice age. Anderson explains that as greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere, they also warm the polar ice caps, causing glaciers to retreat and changing weather patterns. This would cause the sea level to rise, reducing the amount of dry land on the earth. If this happens then there would be less dry land to absorb the sun's heat which could cause an ice age.

Many places full of history and beautiful architecture could be under water and out of reach. The people in these regions would have to relocate.

The already dry and arid desserts would become even more barren and desolate. Arctic ice could shrink or disappear, leaving animals that depend on ice without a habitat; they might become extinct. Plants that live in the lands around the Arctic might be overrun by plants from warmer areas migrating northward.

Students have been taught almost every year in our science classes that humans are using up the earth's fossil fuels, that we are cutting down the rainforests, that humans are the cause of global warming.

Can we do anything to help the environment? Anderson has suggestions.

"Do what you can: Plant trees; recycle; use energy-efficient light bulbs; and, if you're old enough, try to use a fuel efficient car, depending on your budget," says Anderson. "The main thing is to be aware."

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