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White House Sees Heat Wave

8 June 1998 7:00 pm
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WASHINGTON, D.C.--Boosted by El Niño, 1998 is shaping up as the warmest year of the millennium. Vice President Al Gore and scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced at a meeting here this morning that each of the first 5 months of the year "far exceed" previous global temperature records. Although El Niño has been waning in the last few weeks, scientists say the increase so far is large enough that 1998 is a very good bet to surpass 1997, the current record holder (Science, 16 January, page 315).

At the meeting, Gore used a new NOAA report entitled "El Niño and Climate Change: Record Temperature and Precipitation" as ammunition in the Administration's uphill battle to convince a skeptical Congress to back its proposals to reduce greenhouse gases, which most scientists say are contributing to a string of recent record-hot years. "This report is a reminder once again that global warming is real, and that unless we act, we can expect more extreme weather in the years ahead," Gore said.

A temperature increase itself is not a surprise: El Niño is defined by warming in the tropical Pacific, which typically fuels a rise in global temperatures a few months later. But this year's increase has been larger than expected. Based on measurements from weather stations, satellites, ocean ships, and buoys, NOAA researchers calculated that combined land and ocean temperatures are 0.25 degrees Celsius warmer than any previous recorded January-through-May period. Although 5 months is too brief to be meaningful on its own, climate researchers say that the jumps are well outside the 0.05 degree standard deviation on global averages.

That should be enough to make this year the hottest of the millennium, says climatologist Philip Jones of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. Studies of tree rings and other indirect measures of temperature have suggested that the last decade has been the hottest in at least the last 600 years--and likely the hottest of the last 1000. With El Niño cooling off, he says, 1999 and 2000 should be slightly cooler.

But it seems unlikely that a wild and warm winter will spawn a more favorable climate for Gore on Capitol Hill. Last week the Senate Appropriations Committee rejected the White House request to boost spending in 1999 on cleaner, renewable energy sources sponsored by the Department of Energy. That move earned a rebuke from Gore. "It's time for Congress to wake up to the mounting evidence and help us meet this challenge head on. The time to act is now." However, congressional staffers remain skeptical about the threat of global warming, and they say that extraordinarily low gas prices make additional spending on renewable energy technology even less tenable.

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