In a couple hundred years or so, some scientists say, Memphians who want to go to the beach will just pack up the car and head down to the river bluffs. They believe global warming could raise ocean temperatures and cause the polar ice caps to melt completely. The result: a dramatic rise in sea level that could swallow current coastal cities, eventually bringing the coastline up to Kevin Kane's front porch.
Far-fetched? Not according to Jerry Bartholomew, chair of the University of Memphis earth sciences department. "Memphis will be beachfront property," he says. "All of the major cities along the coast -- Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami, Tampa, Charleston, New Orleans -- would be underwater. If you raise sea levels 300 feet, they're under 300 feet of water."
It may sound like a gloom-and-doom scenario, but more than 20 percent of the polar ice caps have melted since 1979, according to The Weather Makers, Tim Flannery's new book on climate change.
Only time will tell how quickly the caps will melt -- or if the melting will continue -- but most scientists now agree that the earth is undergoing some sort of warming trend and that the outlook for the future is troubling.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (an international group of climatologists), the earth has already warmed one degree in recent decades. They say the reason is an excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the result of more people burning more and more fossil fuels.
Locally, it's hard to say what effect, if any, global warming has had. Since it is a theory, nothing can be proven. However, Memphis has experienced hotter summers and milder winters for years now, and local plant life is changing. Some plants that don't normally thrive here are now thriving, while some native plants aren't faring as well. These could be temporary changes due to natural weather trends, or they could be human-induced, permanent changes resulting from global warming.
If it is indeed global warming, and the ice caps continue to melt, Memphis will experience more than just a great view of the ocean: Think overcrowding from migrating populations, crop failures, and increases in mosquitoes and disease. That scenario is admittedly a long way off, but scientists say the time to deal with the problem is now.More