Weather Forecast


DEXTER PERKINS: Science's uncertainty doesn't excuse inaction

GRAND FORKS -- Katie Tubb's Viewpoint makes some good points, but suggesting that October's Hurricane Sandy is unrelated to global warming is incorrect or at least dangerously misleading ("Blame Sandy on warming? Not so fast," Page A4, Dec. 7).

Climate scientists all acknowledge that global warming leads to more water in the atmosphere. This means more large storms and other severe weather events. Of course, many factors cause any single hurricane, but as the planet warms, the probability of more large storms like Sandy increases.

Why is this important? It is important because, as Tubb points out, much of the damage caused by Sandy can be blamed on people. The hurricane destroyed houses, roads and subways because of how and where people built them. They might have been constructed to be Sandy-proof but were not.

So, as we move forward, deciding how to build and where to build depends on what we think the future will bring. Acknowledging that more large storms are very likely to hit the East Coast is important.

Unfortunately, scientists are much better at explaining past events than in predicting the future. Experts are in near unanimous agreement that the global warming that has occurred since the industrial revolution is largely, if not entirely, due to burning coal, oil and gas. Historical records, climate models and other data all support this idea.

These same experts have differing ideas about what the future will bring, but none of the predictions about warming and its impacts are encouraging, and some are catastrophically scary.

Despite the uncertainty, as people in New Jersey and New York rebuild, they must plan for what is yet to come. It is really a question of deciding how much risk is acceptable and how much to invest to insure against unpredictable catastrophes.

The uncertainty of science and of predictions also is a key idea in Daniel Svedarsky's Viewpoint about fossil fuels ("Too soon to celebrate 'fossil fuel abundance,'" Page A4, Dec. 8).

Nobody really knows how long remaining petroleum supplies will last, but as Svedarsky points out, the large easy to find oil fields have already been developed. New developments, including the Canadian tar sands and shale oil in western North Dakota, are increasingly difficult and inefficient to produce.

Most experts agree that the era of abundant, affordable oil is winding down just when global demand is going up. Many predict severe petroleum shortages in the next few decades.

Wise planning depends on predicting future energy supplies, but such predictions are uncertain. In light of this, it only makes sense to adopt policies that promote conservation and energy efficiency. In this way, we can extend petroleum resources and save money at the same time.

And, it also would be foolish if we do not focus on developing clean, renewable energy sources before we find ourselves in a real energy crunch.

Conserving fossil fuels and developing alternative energy sources makes sense for other reasons. There is little question that continued burning of coal, oil and gas will lead to more global warming. This means more Hurricane Sandys and has other serious implications.

Recent studies show that the rate of ice melting in both the Arctic and Antarctic is accelerating, and warming of the ocean means that seawater expands. Sea level is rising everywhere; so, storms like Sandy will do increasingly more damage.

Of course, predicting future sea level is uncertain. National Geographic just reported that "a recent study says we can expect the oceans to rise between 2.5 and 6.5 feet by 2100, enough to swamp many of the cities along the U.S. East Coast. More dire estimates, including a complete meltdown of the Greenland ice sheet, push sea level rise to 23 feet, enough to submerge London and Los Angeles."

We can hope that these predictions are wrong. But it would be foolish if we don't start thinking about their implications and making plans now.

Some people use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for doing nothing. But, it's important to remember that uncertainty works both ways: the problems posed by global warming and dwindling energy resources might actually be worse than most predictions.

Taking a cautious and conservative view and planning appropriately may be the best strategy to safeguard our future.

Perkins is a professor in the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering at UND.