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We have not inherited the World from our ancestors, we have borrowed it from our children.
--Native American Saying
THE STORM INTENSIFIED THROUGHOUT THE NIGHT; from intermittent wind gusts it heaved itself into a raging turmoil. Off the east coast of the United States, no less than three low-pressure vortices, or lows, converged into a fury. The tide was high and the sea swept landward far beyond its normal range. The waves, whipped by hurricane-level winds, ripped at houses and high-rise buildings near the shore, tearing many of them to pieces in minutes. This storm had no equal.
Outside our suburban Philadelphia flat, the air pressure dropped. As the wind rushed past the outside wall, the consequence of a well-known natural law, the Bernoulli Theorem, set in. (This natural law has the same effect on an airplane wing; the resulting difference in pressure above and below the wing creates lift.) As the rising velocity of the air outside created a lower pressure, the pressure difference between the outside and inside wall surfaces of our building continued to build with the wind's velocity. The wind whined, its varied pitch a descant of parallel voices.
I heard a shattering crash. The bathroom window smashed out of the wall; glass, frame, casement and all went careening into the street. I was now part of the action as I scrambled to grab the papers blowing everywhere; some were even being sucked out through the jagged hole in the bathroom wall. Only much later in the night did this behemoth of a storm move out to sea and leave us in relative peace.
The storm of March 1962 was not a hurricane. Not at all. It did not form in the tropics and the season was wrong. But it behaved like a hurricane: It packed a hurricane's punch and caused extensive damage along the Delaware and Maryland coasts. Winds and wave action reduced entire blocks of homes to rubble. The juxtaposition of three lows in conjunction with high tides raised one of the worst storms in the East Coast's history, not unlike the powerful and deadly storm Sebastian Junger described in The Perfect Storm.
This was a storm, then, full of sound and fury; but it faces an opposite number on the weather spectrum; this weather steams languidly upon the sky's stage, as it did for me one summer day in Vienna. It shows no rage, nor does it sing in a crashing, whining chorus. In recent years during the summer, a heavy and uniform yellow-gray sky often glowers darkly on an afternoon; only the Sun's diffuse rays shining through the haze breaks the oppressiveness. As we endure the pervasive, stifling heat and intense headache-breeding glare, no breath of air breaks the stillness; no zephyr relieves the miasma; no cloud breaks the uniform sky. When the Sun sets, no one sees it; the dull orange-red ball vanishes into the grayness while still well above the western horizon. Thus do we describe the most common of all types of weather, especially in or near urban regions. As the twentieth century drew to a close, this desolate weather pattern grew ever more common during the summers. It affected not only cities known for oppressive summer heat-Washington, Rome, and Athens-but also Vienna, Copenhagen, and London, cities that during the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century were refuges from intense heat.
We have described two extremes in the weather of the temperate regions of the world. In the first, the winds of winter storms wreak havoc in barbaric proportions; in the second, not even a gentle susurrus stirs the leaves wilting in the unrelenting heat. Climatologists know that both these extremes are growing more common. Extreme though they appear, they constitute the "normal" weather of the future. Most of the twentieth century saw a gentle period of weather that was abnormal in its very normality and relative calm. The floods and drought, the long steamy summers and cold snowy winters are our likely lot for the coming century, and our adding greenhouse gases can only further and prolong the misery.
The swirling highs and lows, the warm and cold fronts, and the storms and calm interludes are normal features of the atmosphere of a rotating planet. Even if we could somehow smooth these irregularities into an undisturbed clear and even state, it would take only a few weeks for the air to return to its present diverse condition. Earth, with its endless procession of sunshine, overcast skies, and sunshine again, is unique among the objects in the solar system. Our marbled blue-and-white globe appears half clear and half cloudy from space. Ours is the only planet from which the Sun and the stars are visible on clear days and nights, but not on cloudy ones.
The other worlds in our solar system either hide behind impenetrable veiled atmospheres or bare their surfaces to the universe. In the first group we find Venus and the four gassy giant planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, along with Saturn's largest satellite, Titan, and, in a sense, the Sun, which is gaseous throughout. The terrestrial planets have desolate, barren surfaces covered with craters; these were formed in the early days of the system, when debris collided with debris everywhere before, during, and after the larger, gassy planets had coalesced and formed. Our globe is not interchangeable with any other; we must care for it if only because there is no other worthy real estate around.
No part of our natural environment is as visible and as variable as the weather. Neither the solid surface of our world nor the oceans undergo the variety and rapidity of change that occurs in the atmosphere. The atmosphere is the gaseous part of our planet and as such it is subject not only to a number of influences but to a rapidity of change that liquids and solids rarely experience. Together with the topography and composition of the surface, the atmosphere forms the background for a diversity of life, which it helps sustain. Through its normal diurnal and seasonal variation, the atmosphere defines the limits of agriculture, a discovery that, perhaps more than any other, led us from lives as nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled lives in villages and cities. A stable supply of food, in turn, allowed some citizens to take up trades not related directly to the accumulation of food: People became priests and scribes (and eventually, even meteorologists), developments that led to our modern complex society.
Climatic conditions once dominated human activity and to some extent still do; what natural sequence of events provokes more praise or vexation than the weather? Extreme weather conditions may cause disruptions in climate, but vegetation soon recovers, as does animal and human life. Primitive people learned to adapt to the varying conditions of their surroundings, but as civilization became more complex, with its globally intertwined economies, people were not always well prepared to survive during extreme weather conditions.
The state of our preparedness is the key to our future. Evidence for imminent major changes in the global climate is substantial and growing. Chief among these is a change, increasing at an ever faster rate, in the composition of the Earth's atmosphere. Most, if not all, of the changes result from human activity. The recognition of this fact has only recently brought climatology into the forefront of scientific study the world over...