Posted by: Dr Pano Kroko Churchill | August 16, 2012

We know Space Travel accelerates Climate Change, but is it good for the Earth?

0ur industrial consumer civilization continues to pump out more and more greenhouse gases with each passing year into an atmosphere treated as an open sewer. The direct effect is increasing temperatures and decreasing the livelihood of the bottom of the pyramid people across the world. This is affecting especially harshly the ones least responsible amongst our humanity. Our atmosphere is already overburdened with carbon, methane and soot, and our habit of increasingly dumping into this “open sewer” of air, has already resulted in hotter temperatures, an acidified ocean and chaotic weather and will be making our earth unlivable by century’s end.

Business, government or technology forecasts usually look on from a quarter to one year and at the extremis from five or 10 years onwards. Yet some climate scientists, look out not five and ten years but decades and even fifty years into the future and there is even some talk about a century. But all that doesn’t matter because in reality, carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere today will affect the Earth and it’s inhabiting species for hundreds of thousands of years hence.

How will greenhouse gases change the present, the near and even the far future? No one can say for sure exactly how Earth will respond, but we have been experiencing Climate Change’s negative and even downright nasty effects for twenty years now already. And of the future? Look at more of the present with ferocious intensity. Is it hot enough for you in the US dust bowl right now? How is that working for farmers and agriculturalists across the world and especially in these United States?

Still climate scientists, using mathematical models built from knowledge of past climate systems, as well as the complex web of processes that impact climate and the laws of physics and chemistry; can make predictions about what Earth will look like near term and long term.

Yet we are jumping into this new polluting industry wholly unregulated as far as environmental affairs and vastly damaging soot emissions are concerned. Surprisingly these new atmosphere and earth warming profit making endeavours, such as frivolous commercial space flight – space travel et al – are not required to file an environmental impact statement at all. Mainly because we have not established the proper Authority managing the atmospheric Commons yet. And these smart operators are taking advantage same as the whalers were doing before the International ban on whaling, when we were faced with extinction after several kinds of whales disappeared completely. Because as a business Space Travel operators are not frivolous at all, but rather shrewd, profitable, and rational if rapacious, exploiting a flaw of the Commons and human vanity, as this type of T-Rex consumption and associated emissions are at the pinnacle of lifestyle connoisseurs. Lifestyles of idiotic conspicuous consumption patterns of course but there you have it. De Gustibus Ne disputantum Est. And if that is their Lifestyle taste and they can afford the $200 K for a few minutes of witlessness and weightlessness at the edge of space that gives the user an air of uniqueness and privilege – so be it. And even if these Marie Antoinettes of consumption think, that this space travel junket is good for their mental health, it’s not a good trade off when his/her consumption warms up the planet rapidly and kill off others around the world. Yet all objections aside, private space flight is a rapidly maturing industry with tremendous earth warming potential.

But as thinking humans we must ask ourselves if there is some redeeming quality to this Space Travel Business, besides the obvious negatives.
Let me know because we are trying to engage in a dialogue with the Space Travel Industry but without any luck. Yet this dialogue must happen… What do you think?

Let’s look at Spaceport America, a private space travel launch site, located in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which opened its first runway on October 2010. During the next years, companies such as Virgin Galactic, headquartered at Spaceport America, expect to make up to two launches per day for space tourists. Meanwhile, the NASA Authorization Act passed by US Congress in September 2010 provides US $1.6 billion in private space-flight investments and another Billion in grants to develop vehicles to take astronauts and cargo into orbit.

And what our response should be is known but we seem to be going the other way. Let’s see which way we are going? And Why?
Are we going to straighten things up and fly right or not?

Virgin Galactic is just one of many companies pushing forward with commercial spaceflight …. but they are not considering at what cost to the environment…

“There are fundamental limits to how much material human beings can put into orbit without having a significant impact,” says Martin Ross, an atmospheric scientist at the Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles, California and an author of a specific study on the matter whose findings, were reported in a definitive scientific paper in press in Geophysical Research Letters, and suggest that emissions from about 1,000 private rocket launches a year would persist high in the stratosphere, potentially altering global atmospheric circulation and distributions of ozone.

“There are clear fundamental limits to how much material human beings can put into orbit because they have a very significant impact” And this is because commercial rockets burn a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen. But several private space-flight companies, such as Virgin Galactic, may soon use a more economical ‘hybrid’ rocket engine that ignites synthetic hydrocarbon with nitrous oxide, says Ross. These hybrid engines emit more black carbon than a kerosene and oxygen engine, he adds.

“Rain and weather wash out these particles from the atmosphere near Earth’s surface, but in the stratosphere there isn’t any rain and they can remain for 3 to 10 years,” says Michael Mills, an atmospheric chemist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, and another author of the paper.
Climate change caused by black carbon, also known as soot, emitted during a decade of commercial space flight would be comparable to that from current global aviation, researchers estimate.

The findings, reported in a paper in Geophysical Research Letters, suggest that emissions from 1,000 private rocket launches a year would persist high in the stratosphere, potentially altering global atmospheric circulation and distributions of ozone. The simulations show that the changes to Earth’s climate could increase polar surface temperatures by 1 °C, and reduce polar sea ice by 5–15%.

And here comes the Soot surprise because the researchers ran global atmospheric models of an injection of about 600 tonnes of black carbon per year at a single location: Las Cruces. The results showed a soot layer in the stratosphere that stays within 10° latitude of the launch site, says Ross. Furthermore, around 80% of the black carbon remained in the Northern Hemisphere, spreading out to between 25° and 45° northern latitude.

The black carbon layer caused the temperature to decrease about 0.4 °C in the tropics and subtropics, whereas the temperature at the poles increased by between 0.2 and 1 °C, he says, emphasizing that the exact details would have to be refined with further models. The black carbon also caused ozone reductions of up to 1.7% in the tropics and subtropics, and increases of 5–6% in the polar regions.

The results are surprising, says Simone Tilmes, an atmospheric chemist at NCAR who was not involved in the study. “What’s interesting is that if you force the whole climate system in one point or one hemisphere you can make big changes,” she says. Further, more detailed studies examining the circulation of particulates will to help to reduce some of the uncertainties in the model, she adds.

Ross and his team hope to organize scientists, engineers and members of the private space-flight industry to discuss the kinds of measurements that need to be made to produce more definitive results.

“The goal here is to support the commercial space industry so that it can develop normally,” says Ross.

He compares the problem to another one facing the commercial space & travel industry: space debris from the accumulated waste that remains in orbit and can present a potential collision risk to astronauts. “We have to come together to take care of the space commons,” he says. 

Yet that dialogue is resisted by the vastly capitalized Space Travel Industry because they think it inimical to their aims. ANd that is as misguided as they come. Because sticking our heads in the sam=nd is no way to fly to the skies…

Yours,
Pano

PS:

The carbon dioxide emitted today will affect the planet for hundreds of thousands of years.
If humanity continues to spew greenhouse gases into the air at the current rate, we will re-create the hot, wet conditions of the Cretaceous era, some 100 million years ago.
At present, humanity is altering the climate 5,000 times faster than the pace of the most rapid natural warming episode in our planet’s past.

There’s a good summary on what may happen in an extreme warming/anoxic
event at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permian%E2%80%93Triassic_extinction_event

And here are some of the most notable effects of our anthropogenic climate change due to our increased emissions of soot, carbon and methane into our greenhouse atmosphere, besides the obvious heating up and chaotic storm weather:
1) Catastrophic loss of calcifying marine organisms, due to ocean acidification = End of all coral and exoskeleton species of life.
2) Coal gap – indicating that draw down of carbon from the atmosphere
may be affected long-term by the loss of the largest one of the operating carbon sinks.
3) 2/3 loss of all terrestrial mammal families and species.
4) CO2 direct toxicity to humans as well as most animals.
5) Destruction of ozone layer, leading to very high UV levels hitting on the surface of the earth.

And even if we don’t suffer such a catastrophic destabilization
of the biosphere, there could be a civilisation survivability situation in a moderate to high-warming climate. Although I think it more likely that civilisation will collapse COMPLETELY.  However, that kind of biosphere destabilization is what I think we can expect – principally because of the rate of change of climate, not just because of the absolute levels of CO2.  

I think we’d potentially be looking at human extinction.  If we don’t have a technological civilisation left, then any biosphere perturbations that we cannot individually survive (high UV, high H2S, etc.) will simply kill everybody.  

It’s this threat which we should be focussed on managing when we choose to release these vast amounts of soot into the atmosphere just so we can go one up on everybody else by flying high up in the atmosphere with our friend Richard.

Besides, there are easier ways to fly and you can smoke them in any Amsterdam Cafe without damaging people’s lives.

Yet is there some other dimension of hope that would justify Recreeational Space Travel and offset the negatives?

Let me know…

References
Ross, M., Mills, M. & Toohey, D. — “Scientists predict that soot from commercial space flight will increase global temperatures.”
Geophysical Research Letters — Publication. doi:10.1029/2010GL044548 (2010).

Adam Mann — “Space tourism to accelerate climate change”
Published 22 October 2010 in Nature magazine of record for Earth Sciences. NATURE. Publication. doi:10.1038/news.2010.558


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