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A parking lot effect?

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Spewing from factory stacks and car tail pipes, carbon dioxide is the poster child of "greenhouse gases." Most scientists long ago concluded that CO2 is the single biggest cause of climate change and that cutting its output is the best way to slow global warming.

So why are a tiny but growing number of atmospheric scientists taking a hard look at parking lots? Because, they say, land-use changes have at least as much, and perhaps even greater, impact on climate change than CO2. It's a radical idea that has heated up the scientific community and is prompting a wider look at the forces behind climate change. The effect on public policy could be enormous.

Do massive asphalt and concrete "urban heat islands" like Houston or Atlanta really help ratchet up the global thermostat? What about huge tracts of farmland like those that span the Midwest?

Eugenia Kalnay thinks so. Her research into the impact of land-use changes on global temperature is getting attention from other scientists, even if this debate hasn't exactly leaped into the public arena yet.

Earth's surface temperatures have risen about 1 degree F. in the past century with faster warming in the past two decades, the National Academy of Sciences reports. The 20th century's 10 warmest years all occurred in the last 15 years of the century.

But according to Dr. Kalnay's study, published in the journal Nature last spring, urbanization, agriculture, and other human changes to landscapes in the US - quite aside from CO2 - account for as much as 40 percent of the temperature rise over the past 40 years - much larger than previously believed. That could make it a contender for CO2's crown.

Kalnay, a University of Maryland researcher, was director of environmental modeling at the National Weather Service from 1987 to 1997. She oversaw development of computer models for the now ubiquitous three- to five-day forecasts.

But it is her recent research that struck a chord with the scientific community. Kalnay and coauthor Ming Cai have received a huge amount of both praise and criticism. "We were both taken aback that instead of the paper going quietly, we got hundreds and hundreds of comments and questions," she says.

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