Friday, December 5, 2014

Climate change: it can reach into space

Time now again for Science Friday.

Being a primarily responsible publication, Discover magazine has named the past year's research on climate change at #2 of its top 100 Science Stories of 2014. This encompasses everything from the UN's study that concluded climate change is "almost certainly" of human origin to the melting of Antarctica. Even as the climate change worsens and temperatures continue to rise worldwide on average, the past year did present a glimmer of hope. The U.S. and China recently agreed to reduce greenhouse emissions. At the same time, however, the Republican takeover of Congress seems to spell a forthcoming halt to any of the administration's efforts to ameliorate the situation. It takes no measure of clairvoyance to see we're headed for trouble.

This is all grave enough, but I had no idea that the problems with our climate actually extend into space.

I found an article from a few years back that explains what this means. People familiar with space will tell you that the Earth is encapsulated by a veritable cloud of metal. This "cloud" is made up of spent rocket boosters, satellites both working and dead, and millions of particles of debris sometimes no larger than four inches across in size.

In other words: space junk.

As the lower atmosphere of Earth gets warmer due to the collection of greenhouse gases and the trapping of infrared energy, the upper atmosphere cools. This reduces friction. The lessening of friction means that less of the metal junk gets dragged back down to burn in the atmosphere. And that means more space junk sticks around.

The debris we're talking about already poses a serious risk. On the one hand, it threatens new launches. A rocket carrying a new probe or satellite or...even worse...a vehicle carrying a human crew, could conceivably collide with these orbiting fragments. This debris is also a threat to satellites already in orbit and working fine. A collision with space junk could take out a satellite that assists our national security system or one designated to bring you your next NFL game. I'll leave you to decide which is worse.

Unintended consequences.

Human actions are loaded with them and climate change is just one example. If the consequences of such an environmental effect can reach into space, I'm willing to bet that yet more "unintended consequences" lurk in waiting as a result of our actions.

This is going to suck.

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