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Letter from the Editor

Thursday, March 30, 2006

He told us so

If you've ever watched Seinfeld, you've seen Tom's Restaurant - the real life Manhattan cafe where so many of the sitcom's quirky greasy-spoon scenes were filmed.

What you don't know is that just upstairs is the modest little office of James E. Hansen, a nondescript 63-year-old stargazer. You don't know his work as well as you do Jerry Seinfeld's, probably, but maybe you should.

Because when global warming turns the globe crazy, if it does, Jim Hansen is the guy who can say, "I told you so."

And this most important of scientists of our generation is from just down the road from here, growing up in Denison.

Not that you would have noticed him much. While the town has bunches of signs about its famous daughter Donna Reed, if you asked around much about Jim, you'd get a lot of "Who?"

He is son of a tenant farmer turned bartender and a waitress, one of seven kids, a halfway decent second baseman in northwest Iowa Babe Ruth leagues, a kid who didn't crack the books much, but saved his paper route money and went to the University of Iowa to study the stars.

Astronomy did him well, and he traveled the world working and studying the sky, coming to the office above Tom's Restaurant to work for the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In the 1970s, he was satisfied with his work as Principal Investigator for the Pioneer Venus Orbiter experiment, and would have finished his career as a lofty but anonymous sky-watcher. But then a Harvard researcher asked for his help in calculating something called the greenhouse effect - checking to see what manmade gasses were doing to the earth's atmosphere.

Dr. Hansen was hooked immediately. He sensed the practicality and immediacy of the issue, something you don't get starting at Venus for a lifetime. "Captivating," he called it.

He's been on that job ever since, specifically studying what the greenhouse effect - global warming - is likely to do to nature and civilization.

It might be hard to imagine from within the lingering chill here in his native northwest Iowa this week, but global warming is no longer a theory. The 1980s were the warmest decade in history, and the 1990s were warmer still. The ice cap in Greenland is melting, the news tells us this week, and the ocean warming. Historically, temperature records vary by only hundredths of a degree, but in 1998 alone, it was three-tenths of a degree hotter than ever before.

That doesn't sound so bad in un-tropical Iowa, but if Hansen is right - and he's always been right - the temperature by 2050 will be hotter than it's been in 200,000 years on earth, the hottest since the dawn of modern man.

Glaciers will melt, the seas will expand and engulf low-laying lands including parts of our east and west coasts and threaten island nations, climate zones will shift 400 miles, perhaps too fast for some living things to adapt. Floods would increase, "hundred year droughts" of farm country could become as common as every 3-11 years within this century.

Populations would be forced to move, causing political, environmental and social upheaval.

By the end of this century, it could be as hot as in the waning days of the dinosaur age 65 million years ago. A changing world. It's hard to imagine, and easy to ignore.

But the rubber may begin to hit the road before long. Projections call for the number of days hotter than 90 degrees in high-admissions New York City to more than double by the 2010s. (Big Apple turns Baked Apple, apparently.) Sea level on the east coast is rising .11 inches a year. The number of extreme precipitation and drought events are increasing. And the spread of diseases can change with the temperature, as the West Nile Disease has rapidly moved north lately.

And hey, you don't even want to know what the depletion of the ozone's going to do to your grandkids' skin, eyes and lungs.

A profile in Audubon magazine a few years back notes that few believed in James Hansen's greenhouse predictions when he first made them. The lanky, soft-spoken former Iowan was under fire from the government, industry and even talk show hosts when he made global warming into an issue, telling a Senate committee in 1988 that "The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now."

Many fellow scientists cut him down, noting that the earth had been slightly cooling uninterrupted since 1940. The Bush Sr. administration attacked him. One top climatologist called his work "a phenomenal snow job." Science magazine ran a story called "Hansen vs. the World on Greenhouse Threat."

But you can't argue with right. Hansen held his ground under the heat, continuing to testify to Congress and pursue his work and answer the skeptics even as his father died and his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Not long ago, a major United Nations report on climate change admitted of Hansen's work, "His science is impeccable, and his prescience in unparalleled."

Not bad for a second-rate second baseman and starry-eyed distracted student from rural Iowa.

And testing has shown him dead on, every step of the way. The atmosphere contained carbon dioxide naturally at about 280 parts per million, but 200 years of burning coal, oil and gas had increased that to 365 ppm by 1998 - that's a fact.

Of course, the trend is not unstoppable. You could take efforts to make your home more energy efficient, drive a car that uses less gas, turn off unneeded lights and turn down the thermostat, walk or bike instead of driving in town, push for more of those wind turbines; heck, you could plant a tree (they produce oxygen and filter a bit of carbon dioxide out of the air.)

Going to do all that? Well, nahhh, probably not.

So what if our Dr. Hansen is right? Don't want to think too hard about that, do you? And if and when people come to realize what we've done, or at least helped to do, there will be a lanky, crinkly-eyed old stargazer from this neck of the woods perhaps still just up the stairs from the place where those busloads of tourists come to see the famous lunchstand from Seinfeld, who tried and tried to tell us so.

* Reach the editor at dlarsen@stormlakepilottribune.com