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updated: 7/25/2012 2:47 AM

Society would have to change to stop global warming

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  • Corn struggles to grow due to a lack of water and excessive heat in a field farmed by Bill Cassibry of Paducah, Ken.

    Corn struggles to grow due to a lack of water and excessive heat in a field farmed by Bill Cassibry of Paducah, Ken.
    Associated Press


You wanted to know

"Will global warming end?" asked students in Katherine Crawford's fifth-grade classroom at West Oak Middle School in Mundelein.

Global warming is a phrase that refers to the gradual increase in the earth's surface temperature and higher atmospheric temperatures.

Scientific evidence shows this is a direct result from an increase of greenhouse gases, which act like a giant brick wall in the earth's upper atmosphere and trap heat and radiation. That heat causes warmer temperatures and unusual weather patterns.

Some greenhouse gasses occur naturally -- volcanic eruptions and the sun's activity are examples. Human actions like burning fossil fuels, oil and natural gas generate carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gasses. The added carbon dioxide has the same effect of putting a lid on a pot of boiling water to force temperatures to rise at a faster pace.

Will this phenomenon ever end?

"Human activities are dramatically increasing the amounts of certain gases in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide most important among them," said Phillip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute and author of scientific studies on global warming.

A recent report, to be published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, concludes the situation as it is now will lead to increased temperatures and higher sea levels. Study calculations show global warming was 20 times more likely to have caused last year's severe heat wave in Texas in which 100-degree temperatures lasted for 70 consecutive days.

"It takes nature a long time, 50 to 100 years, to remove carbon dioxide molecules that we unnaturally add to the atmosphere," Mote said.

So when will the warming process slow down or even reverse?

"It will stop increasing sometime after the amounts of carbon dioxide stop increasing," Mote explained. "For that to happen, humans will have to almost stop putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We would have to step on the brakes."

The solution seems simple, but everyone would need to drastically change their habits.

"America's response to climate change is ultimately about making choices in the face of risk," said Duke University Dean William Chameides, co-author of a year-old report from the National Academies that calls for a national government response to stop global warming.

The faster fuel emissions are reduced, the lower the risks to society, according to the National Academies, a group of scientists and business leaders from the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.

Unfortunately, no measures have been put in place to date that will make noticeable changes.

"Humans are adding these gases faster every year," Mote added. "We're stepping on the gas pedal.

"Some countries and states have said they want to hit the brakes soon and stop global warming by the end of this century; maybe they will. But others -- like China -- would have to hit the brakes too to stop global warming," Mote said.

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