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Despite 50-plus inches, no ice age is here

February 18, 2010 12:35 am



WHILE WE are digging out from under the snow here in the Fredericksburg area, some people are trying to use the storms to bury the idea that global warming is a serious concern.

The family of Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, a prominent global warming skeptic in Congress who has raked in more than $2 million from oil and gas companies, built an igloo in Washington and adorned it with a cardboard sign reading "Honk if you global warming." Free Lance-Star columnist Donnie Johnston joined in the fun with his column "Forget global warming, we're facing new ice age" [Feb. 12].

The idea that people are trying to explain global warming amid a snowstorm may be good for a laugh, but this unusual snowfall is simply the latest in a series of bizarre weather events here in Fredericksburg. Winter and summer alike, we have been witnessing intense rains, snows, and exceptionally strong winds in recent years.

Even small storms have left their mark. Two separate storms snapped tree trunks in my backyard that were each more than a foot thick. My insurance company called these storms "microbursts." When the insurance companies start teaching us new ways to describe oddball weather patterns, it's time to pay attention to what is really happening.

The idea that the snowstorms are evidence of an "ice age" is amusing but completely unfounded. I am not as hardy as my neighbor who was out shoveling snow in shorts and a T-shirt, but there is nothing remarkable about temperatures that have often soared into the 40s throughout the "snowpocalypse." This is typical for this time of year. Nobody said global warming would end winter.

The real story about these storms is the intense amount of water that was unleashed. Scientists have long predicted that global warming would trigger other climate changes, including more severe storms in the Eastern United States. Amanda Staudt, the climate scientist at National Wildlife Federation where I work, explains what is happening in a report available at "Warmer air caused by global warming can hold more water, creating conditions conducive to bigger storms. We are seeing a trend toward heavier snowfall in places where this warmer, moister air collides with cold air masses."

Sound familiar? When warm air masses push up from the South, Virginia becomes the battleground. It has happened before, but not like this year. Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at Weather Underground, writes that "the two huge snowstorms this winter in the Mid-Atlantic are definitely a very rare event one should see only once every few-hundred years, and is something that has not occurred since modern records began in 1870."

Why is our climate being thrown out of balance? As we burn oil and coal, we are pumping 29 billion tons of heat-trapping carbon pollution into the atmosphere from tailpipes and smokestacks every year. NASA is now reporting that this past decade was the warmest on record, and 2009 tied for the second-warmest year on record. Even cold months can be warmer than years past. Worldwide, this past January was the warmest yet on record.

For our kids and grandkids, snowstorms may be the least of their concerns if we fail to act to reduce pollution and invest in clean energy alternatives. Warmer average temperatures could increase concentrations of ground-level ozone, which is known to aggravate respiratory problems such as asthma, especially in children and seniors. Virginia's incredible diversity of native wildlife--more than 700 species of birds, fish, and animals--will have to adapt to rapid changes in climate and habitat or perish.

Why do polluters work so hard to persuade us not to believe NASA and other scientists? Because they are worried we are going to shift to cleaner alternative energy sources like wind and solar and also pursue greater energy efficiency. If we take a bite out of our dependency on oil, we take a bite out of their enormous profits.

Congress is working now on clean energy legislation that would reduce our dependence on oil, create more than 45,000 clean energy jobs here in Virginia, and reduce pollution. Corporate lobbyists are hard at work pressuring Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb, and Congressman Rob Wittman, to let clean energy legislation die in Congress.

If corporate polluters succeed, we all lose. We will lose the clean energy race, and those jobs will go to Beijing instead of Virginia. Instead of being good stewards of the environment, we will leave our kids with a dangerous inheritance. Our senators need to stay focused on delivering jobs and clean air to Virginia by passing legislation that limits pollution and unleashes investments in clean energy alternatives.

Jeremy Symons lives in Leeland Station. He is senior vice president for Conservation and Education at National Wildlife Federation.

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