The ultimate bad weather forecast.

Author:Schulman, Audrey
 
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Promiscuous burning of fossil fuels has pumped more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than at any other time in the last 350,000 years. Unless this trend is reversed, New England can expect grave problems--ecological, economic, public health, and public safety--from more frequent and more extreme storms, rising seas and sunken coastal areas, higher average temperatures, and increasingly intense heat waves. As for the latter, New Englanders such as those above--coping with the heat in a Harvard University fountain--will find increasing competition as the century deepens.

The early morning winter sky is dark from the new moon. A northeast wind is pushing a 12-foot tide up Boston Harbor.... On the downtown waterfront--now relocated up State Street--city crews and local property owners are once again piling sandbags to defend the older buildings from the rising bay. On Monday, the Boston Redevelopment Authority will meet to discuss proposals for more permanent protection for the historic districts ... this project has become very contentious. Many Bostonians believe saving even the most historic buildings is throwing away money as rising seas push relentlessly inland. Others argue the historic soul of the city is literally disappearing and must be saved at virtually any cost. *

At 9 a.m., by the time most working Bostonians were unsuspectingly off to work, not a single snowflake was falling. By 2 p.m., the snow was a foot deep, the wind rising toward its 80 mile-per-hour peak velocity.

The roads filled quickly with fleeing commuters, but the snow kept piling up, and the wind increasing. As cars skidded out, colliding with each other or the deepening snow banks, lanes were cut off. At 3:30, a truck jackknifed across I-93, blocking the fast lane in both directions. By 4 p.m., all driving in Massachusetts had stopped--and wouldn't resume for a week. Not only was it impossible to drive, it was declared illegal. How else could three feet of snow be cleared from the streets, now strewn with abandoned cars?

On the coast, seas crested 16 feet above normal. Seventy-five people died, more than 10,000 were evacuated, and hundreds of homes were destroyed.

Even for those safe in their heated homes, food ran low. Most grocery stores and banks were closed for a week, oil deliveries stopped, and looting began. Fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars couldn't move. The entire infrastructure of a city ground to a halt.

In all, the Blizzard of 1978 cost more than one billion dollars. It was the greatest New England natural disaster of the 20th century, but it almost certainly won't be the greatest of the 21st.

"WITH CLIMATE CHANGE, there'll be changes in both mean and extremes."

Paul Kirshen, Ph.D., a research professor in Tufts University's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, leans forward to make that point, his speech stuttering with emotion. He's heading a three-year study of the effects of climate change on the greater Boston area. What he means is that not only will climate change raise average temperatures in New England, but also that natural disasters will become more frequent and extreme. The Blizzard of '78 was the kind of storm that comes once every 100 years. By 2100, such storms will arrive, on average, every 24 years, or so claims the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a scientifically illustrious group that is a partnership of the UN Environmental Program and the World Meteorological Program. And, the IPCC adds: A catastrophic storm of the kind formerly seen in a region only once every 500 years could hit every 38 years.

It makes sense. From painful experience, we know what can happen when human body temperatures rise only a few degrees: sudden chills, stomach pains, diarrhea ... systems out of whack. Extreme oscillations occur. The planet's global interactions of meteorological, oceanic, and biological systems are more complex than even the human body's. Of course there will be more storms.

Physicians can't predict if, or when, feverish patients will experience sudden chills, and climate scientists can't say exactly what will happen to our planet, or when. They can only make statements about likelihood and possible outcomes.

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