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January 3, 2011

Science and "The Day After Tomorrow"

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Wet Water Shortage (11.08.01) - How could a prediction of more rain lead to worries about less water? It's something else we can blame on global warming.

Global Warming (05.05.04) - A group of scientists have published information they say strengthens the case for global warming.

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One of the first big-budget movies of the summer is using the power of Hollywood to bring home the message of global warming. But many scientists are criticizing it for getting the science wrong. This ScienCentral News video reports on the real impact of global warming.

Global Warming Reality

Tidal waves washing through Manhattan and tornadoes ripping through Los Angeles may make for a good plot in the movie "The Day After Tomorrow," but that's not what we can really expect from global warming. Scientists investigating climate change have been studying the issue for several decades, but only recently have some begun taking a hard look at the impact on specific locations.

Boston's Climate in 50 Years

One location under study is the area in and around Boston, where a team of scientists, engineers and policy makers have been working together to try to figure out what the area's climate might be like in a few decades. If their computer models are correct, future Bostonians could expect to have the option of spending more time at the beach with a climate that resembles that found in Atlanta today.

The team is led by Matthias Ruth, director of the Environmental Policy Program at the School of Public Policy at theUniversity of Maryland, and Paul Kirshen at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Tufts University. The team includes more than a dozen engineers, geographers, modelers and policy analysts, and collaborates closely with Boston's Metropolitan Area Planning Council and over 100 stakeholders from public, private and non-profit sectors.

Ruth's team looked at the number of days over the next hundred years when the temperature is projected to top 90 and found "significantly more days above 90 degrees," when compared with today's level. In fact, Ruth expects the number of 90-plus days to double or even triple over the next hundred years.

Weather And Health

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Because many homes in Boston are very old, and built with construction methods designed to trap heat, Ruth warns that this will temporarily "increase the mortality over and above what we would see otherwise." That's because heat waves can be especially difficult for those without access to air conditioning. A heat wave in France in 2003 killed more than 10,000 people, while a heat wave in Chicago in July of 1995 cost an estimated 465 lives.

However, Ruth's team expects that future residents of Boston will adapt to the warmer climate, and because winters will also be warmer, over time, the number of weather-related deaths overall should actually decline.

Energy Use

The team's study of energy use shows just how complicated planning for a warmer planet will be. "There is a slight increase in energy demand throughout the region throughout the year," Ruth says. "But, what's really key is that this doesn't happen uniformly through the year."

Warmer summers should increase the need for electricity, but warmer winters would require less oil for heating. "We would expect that the peak load demands for the months of June, July and August increase significantly, well beyond what we see now," says Ruth, careful to add, "not all of the additional demand is directly attributable to climate change. Some of it has to do with the fact we're using more electrical equipment."

Ruth's team estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of the additional demand in summer will be attributable to climate change, but he points out that the study only looked at electrical needs on a monthly basis and that additional studies on a daily or hourly level would be needed to more accurately predict electricity use.

Water Shortage

Compounding the energy issue is that there might be less water available to generate electricity. A warmer winter might yield more precipitation, but instead of falling as snow, more of it might fall as rain. If so, it will flow through the dams earlier in the year and not when it's needed. "If we have, let's say, a decline in water availability for cooling purposes during hot summer months, not only do we have a decline in drinking water and water for other purposes, but we are now out during the months where we need the most electricity; we have less of an ability to generate it," Ruth explains.

Across the Board

What's really unique about this study, says Ruth, is that, "we did not solely look at, for example, electrical systems or water systems or health systems or transportation or communication, whatever they are within urban areas, but that we've really analyzed them in their interrelationship, and that's really new." Besides scientists, the study team incorporated engineers and policy makers, and Ruth says that his team was "able to learn from them and also teach them about climate change."

Ruth points out that while this study is "very place specific," the procedure is one that could be applied to studying climate change anywhere in the country. An overview and summary of the project is published in the journal World Resources Review. Portions of the study have been published and presented at various scientific meetings including the 2003 American Association for the Advancement of Science, but the final report is due out later in 2004. This project was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Research and Development as a STAR ("Science to Achieve Results") Grant.

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