in Slow Motion
With the advent of NSF-sponsored supercomputers, climatologists began building models of atmospheric change that now embrace millions of years of oceanic, atmospheric, biological, geological, and solar processes. For example, by the late 1980s NSF-supported researchers at the University of Washington were able to reconstruct the wide extremes of temperatures that existed 250 million years ago within the giant supercontinent of Pangaea.
In 1999, climate modelers at the NSF-funded National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, managed to accurately simulate a century of known climate history. The scientists then carried these simulations a century into the future. Their model suggests that if carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise at their current pace, there will likely be a boost in global temperatures as well as a 40 percent jump in winter rain and snow within the southwest region and Great Plains of the United States. The model also shows that the warming effect would be more severe in the United States than in Europe or Asia.
While global warming might not rival earthquakes and hurricanes for dramatic immediacy, such gradual but significant climate changes can indeed have disastrous consequences for human society. As ice caps melt, sea levels will rise, threatening coastal habitation and commerce. Warmer temperatures will also radically alter when, where, and whether farmers can grow certain crops. Climate models that can predict such events with a fair degree of certaintyand perhaps suggest what can be done to minimize their impactwill make an invaluable contribution to the field of natural hazards research.