Web edition: October 8, 2010
Print edition: October 23, 2010; Vol.178 #9 (p. 30)
The forecast for Earth is in, and it’s not good. So writes Cullen, a climatologist formerly of the Weather Channel, in her new book subtitled Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet. If trends continue, she says, by the middle of this century — a mere 40 years from now — no place on Earth will experience the same weather that it does today.
In the first part of this provocative book, Cullen recounts the near century-long history of weather prediction and how that science serves as the foundation for modern climate projections. Climate simulations, she points out, rely on the same laws of physics used in weather forecasts and give scientists the closest tool they have to a crystal ball.
Cullen then draws on recent research to conjure an image of future climate for seven locales that could be especially hard-hit. Models suggest that in densely populated, low-lying Bangladesh, for example, rising sea levels will boost storm surges and flood coasts, submerging as much as a quarter of the nation and driving millions to become climate refugees. And in Australia, warmer water temperatures and acidifying seas could kill corals in large parts of the Great Barrier Reef, which attracts more than 2 million tourists and boosts local economies by about $6.9 billion a year.
Much of the blame for these changes can be pinned on humans, Cullen argues. No climate model that includes only natural influences like solar variability and volcanic eruptions — not a single one — yields results that match actual temperature trends of the past century. Only if heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions are included can the observed climate be reproduced.
For people to avoid a dismal climate future, Cullen’s prescription is to trust climate forecasts and substantially trim carbon dioxide emissions, beginning soon. In the meantime, places that will be most affected by climate change would do well to begin adapting to a new and warmer climate. If you don’t start sandbagging until flood waters are up to your waist, she warns, it’s already too late.Harper, 2010, 329 p., $25.99.