Hot Summers And The Earth Institute

At first, environmental concern was about global cooling. The 1960s were, climatologists now believe, the coldest decade of the 20th century, and several winters toward the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s seemed to accelerate the trend. Numerous major magazines, such as Time and Newsweek, ran cover stories proclaiming the possibility of a new ice age, and the sudden rise in the price of home heating oil—starting with the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-74—only increased worries about the Earth growing colder. Staff at the Lamont-Doherty Observatory were asked to comment on global cooling a number of times, but none of their pronouncements on the subject came anywhere close to the importance given to the first major statement about global warming, which came in the summer of 1988.

Although 1987 had a relatively cool summer, with plenty of dampness, 1988 started hot and stayed that way. A heat wave of unprecedented scale hit the East Coast and Midwest in late June, with temperatures soaring well above 100 degrees F (38 degrees C) in urban areas. New York and Washington, D.C., almost shut down for a few days at the peak of the heat wave, in late July. The trend did not reverse itself until about August 18, when a front of cool air moved in from Canada. This was the normal course of events in the American northeast, but it had taken about three weeks longer than normal to transpire. Near the height of this heatwave, Dr. James Hansen of the Goddard Center testified before U.S. Senators:

If our climate model calculations are approximately correct, the greenhouse warming in the 1990s will be sufficient to shift the probabilities such that the chance of a hot summer in most of the country will be in the range of 55 to 80 percent...! believe it is obvious that the man in the street will notice by then that the dice are loaded. There will be more hot summers than now, and the hottest ones will be hotter than they used to be.

Had Hansen made this prediction in the summer of 1987, few people would have given it much notice; but as he did it in the heat of 1988, millions of people paid attention. Suddenly, Hansen and Columbia were at the forefront of the debate about global warming.

The summer of 1990 was even hotter than 1988, and 1991 surpassed 1990. The hottest summer to date was 1995, and one year later Columbia announced the creation of its new Earth Institute, intended to bring together the activities of 11 institutions: the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation; the Biosphere 2 Center; the Goddard Institute for Space Studies; the International Research Institute; the Laboratory of Populations; the Earth Policy Center; Columbia's School of Public Health; the Earth Engineering Center; the Center for Environment, Business, and Renewable Resources; and the Program on Information and Resources. All 11 institutions would retain their individual identities, but all 11 also became part of the new Earth Institute. Columbia did its best to hire top scientists away from other research universities and bring them to the New York campus.

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