We always want to talk about how we can make Mars more Earth like, but the reality is that we’re making Earth more Venus-Like. We’re Venusforming Earth. What are the various factors we’re impacting on a global scale, and how can we fix them?
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Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription
Fraser: Hey, Astronomy Cast fans – Fraser here. Let’s talk bucket lists.
I don’t know about you but Iceland is one of the places I’ve always wanted to go see the Auroras and finally, we’re puttin’ it together.
Dr. Paul Matt Sutter and I are going to be going to Iceland, February 6th to 12th, 2018. We’re going to be hangin’ out with you, taking pictures of Auroras, touring around Iceland; it’s gonna be the trip of a lifetime.
So, if you want to join us – we don’t have a lot of slots open – go to pmsutter.com/trips and it should forward you on to the Iceland trip. Go ahead and fill in that information. We’ve got until August, 2017, to make a reservation.
So, if this is in any way interesting to you – as interesting to you as it is to me – go on and go to pmsutter.com/trips and let them know that Fraser sent you.
Astronomy Cast Episode 439: Terraforming Earth
Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know.
My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today and with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, the director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Ast – Ohh! I couldn’t do it!
Pamela: Do you want to start over completely?
Fraser: I do want to start over, yeah.
Fraser: Although maybe, let me just put that right into the show. Yeah. No, you know what? We keep going. We keep going, Chad.
Fraser: Don’t cut this out.
Dr. Pamela Gay, the director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the director of CosmoQuest.
Hey, Pamela. How are you doin’?
Pamela: I’m doin’ well. How are you doing?
Fraser: Good. As you can hear, I’m not quite fully versed on the new title but I’ll get there. I’ll get there.
Pamela: It’s long. I went from having a really long institutional name to having a really long title. So, it balances.
Fraser: I’ve got one sort of thing to talk about, which is – well, two things. But Twitch just created Communities. And so, one of the things that I thought would be pretty interesting – a lot of people have asked about, like, streaming stuff – games and stuff – on, like, a place.
And so I thought it might be interesting for someone to make, like, an Astronomy Cast Community or a WSH Crew Community. I made one for Universe Today – I haven’t really figured out what to do with that yet – but that we can – people can come and play games and stream into this one bucket and watch each other play space-based video games – Universe Sandbox, things like that.
So, if anyone wants to coordinate something like that – spearhead something like that – I’m in. Just –
Pamela: Yeah, me too.
Fraser: Yeah. So, go ahead and just send either of us an email: email@example.com – and we will sort of take a look into it.
Pamela: Kerbal Space Flight also is discounted for Valentine’s Day –
Pamela: Because flowers aren’t forever, but space is.
Fraser: Okay. Here we go.
So, we always want to talk about how we can make Mars more Earth?like but the reality is that we’re making Earth more Venus?like. We’re Venusforming Earth. What are the various factors we’re impacting on a global scale, and how can we fix them?
This is such a weird – This is such a funny thing to me, so I’ll sort of explain, sort of – I mean, we sort of stumbled upon this idea for a show during a previous show but the gist is, is that everyone always wants to know, like: How can we fix Mars? How can we fix Venus?
Now, fixing Mars is an incomprehensible amount of work, right?
Fraser: Like, it has no atmospheric pressure. It has, you know, very low gravity. It has all these problems.
And then, Venus is, like, next-level – 90 times the atmospheric pressure of Earth. You would need to dump entire asteroids made of limestone into the Venusian atmosphere to lock up that carbon. Like, it’s crazy and yet people want to do it; they want to think it through and think, like, what – How can we do this?
And, at the same time, we are changing the climate and atmosphere of our own planet in ways that are directly impacting life here on Earth – and, specifically, human civilization.
So I just wanted to sort of, like, just bathe in the irony for an episode of Astronomy Cast and talk about what we can do to fix it.
Pamela: It’s true. And I know here – at least in north continental and central continental United States, and going into Canada to a point – this week has sort of brought this home to us, as the temperatures have wildly swung back and forth between “below freezing with large amounts of snow” to “tee-shirt weather” and then back again.
It’s crazy how not-what-you-would-expect our weather has become and how insane the growth of plants and animals out of season is becoming.
Fraser: Now, you have – You are confusing “climate” with “weather”. Rookie mistake but, you know – I mean, we’re seeing at the North Pole – and I forget the centigrade version of this – but it was like – It’s 50 degrees Fahrenheit –
Fraser: – warmer than normal. Of course, I’m a Canadian; I only understand Celsius so I don’t even know what that is in Fahrenheit – what that is in Celsius. But it sounds like a big number, so it’s a lot, right?
Fraser: That the North Pole is ridiculous.
Let’s talk a bit about how we got into the trouble that we’re in. What are the actual factors that we’re doing? And let’s talk a bit about, like, what we can do and what are some of the – You know, if we looked at geoengineering the planet, what are some of the factors and, you know – that we can try and bring it back in line?
Pamela: Okay. So, the one that everyone knows about is greenhouse gasses. We have changed the way that our planet retains and radiates heat. The heat we get from the sun comes through the atmosphere – nice, happy, all sorts of different colors of light – warms up the ground, ground re-radiates it in the infrared and the atmosphere is like, “And we shall keep this.” So, yeah – we’re retaining more heat than we used to and more heat than we would like to. So, there’s factor one.
Factor two is changes in albedo. So, once upon a time, snow was white. Any of you who live in cities know – snow, after a few days – not white, because of all of the pollution that we let loose into the atmosphere; it gets onto the snow and, those of you who live in cities with melting snow, know that the more the snow melts, the more black, crusty nastiness is on top of the snow.
So we have this two-factored problem of snow that is kind of all over the planet – or used to be – has been covered in layer of air pollution, because we have cars and planes and trains and all those sorts of things, and, as that snow melts, it gets blacker and blacker and blacker because you have the snow going away and the layers upon layers upon layers of what had been not that much pollution adding up as the snow goes away, leaving behind only the pollution. This takes nice happily, white snow that was happily reflective and turns it black.
And, as anyone who has a black car knows, black cars are perfectly happy to absorb all of that heat and roast everything underneath that black car exterior – exacerbating the melting of the snow, the glaciers, the ice, all those sorts of things, which then starts to reveal the dirt, the grass, the open water beneath – lowering the albedo even more. So we have this albedo issue.
Fraser: Right. And a couple of episodes ago, when we were talking about rebuilding, we sort of looked at geoengineering at this kind of global scale. You know, if things are into this total collapse, what are some, like; Hail Mary passes that we can do to try and get things back in control? But if we – You know, we’re taking more of a long-term approach; something that we’re looking at hundreds, thousands of years to kind of bring the climate of Earth back to where we, as human beings, would prefer it.
You know, where do we start to terraform Earth?
Pamela: So, first thing you have to do is just like when you’re cleaning a house. You start out by gathering all the things that belong in this area, piling them up; all the stuff that belongs in this area, piling them up. And you prepare to get the spaces for them ready.
And here, what we have to do is look at the fact that we have certain ecological niches that just aren’t as habitable as they used to be and we need to grab samples of all the life forms – the flora and fauna and all the other unclassified stuff – that exists in those ecological systems and save them up over here, so that we can put them back when the area is ready.
So, step one is definitely the Arc approach, where both zoos have worked to grab as many samples as they can; botanical gardens have worked, and then we also have libraries of both seeds and biological samples – not that we necessarily know what to do with the biological samples right now – but we’re building towards the future.
So, start by getting all the sperm, eggs and seeds and living critters – as much as you can fit.
Fraser: And get their genetic code, if you can.
Fraser: To get a snapshot of what our planet looked like before it started to go off the rails.
Pamela: Exactly. And one of my favorite things that I’ve read about in science fiction is the idea of taking asteroids, hollowing them out – the thing I talk about all the time – and having the African Plains asteroid, having the Amazonian Rain Forest asteroid, having the American Southwest asteroid; taking each of these ecological niches and giving them their own safe space to last out while we fix our planet.
Fraser: But now you’re going back to – Like, that’s – Once again, like, you’re like, “I’m taking my toys and I’m going home.” Like, this planet is –
Pamela: It’s only temporary.
Fraser: – you know, is so gone that all I can think of is, “I want to go and hollow out an asteroid and see if I can make giraffes enjoy spinning around the, you know, center –
Pamela: Yeah. But I always want to hollow out an asteroid. This is a given.
Fraser: No, I understand that. You’re just looking for some excuse to hollow out an asteroid and then send the giraffes to Alpha Centauri. I know that.
Pamela: At the end of the day, we have places like the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park, which are amazing breeding facilities. And they work in concert with zoos all over the world. China has an amazing panda program. And it’s through this network of zoos that ship around the children, to make sure that we don’t have too much in-breeding, and we can secure the biodiversity.
This is really the realistic intermediate stage of: Grab everything, put it somewhere safe and then let’s clean up the mess we made.
Fraser: So we’ve talked about preserving life forms. What other changes could we make, should we make? You know, obviously, greenhouse gasses. Other, you know – well, methane, carbon dioxide, things like that – reducing them.
Pamela: So, step one is: Find all the things that you need to have later and set them aside; protect them.
Step two is the: Now we’re going to make a total mess of things while we try and fix – It’s the “make things worse before you make them better” stage.
Fraser: I mean, are we talking about our economy? You know, our standards of living? Things like that?
Pamela: Yeah. Unfortunately, that is part of it.
So, as a starting point, you have to get rid of the things that do bad. So, those of us who were children of the ‘80s may remember the days of giant hair, which was generally supported by aerosol hairspray. You may remember the days when Freon was the major thing that was used in air conditioning units.
There were all of these chlorofluorocarbons that we were putting into our atmosphere simply in the name of convenience, big hair and cold rooms. And we have, because of international agreements, found ways to hold up our hair and cool our houses that don’t put chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere because it was realized the chlorofluorocarbons were breaking down the ozone in the atmosphere, which is needed to protect us from a whole variety of different rays that otherwise would get to us and do bad things to our genetic structure.
So, just like we had to pass international treaties to stop the emission of chlorofluorocarbons, we’re going to need to have international agreements that push back the release of greenhouse gasses. This is everything from methane to various hydrocarbons; all the things that come out of our tailpipes, come out of – And by “tailpipes”, I mean both those of cows and cars.
Fraser: Yeah, yeah.
Pamela: And we also are going to have to fundamentally change our lifestyles in ways that will change how our economy works. The fact that I can get a kiwi in February from New Zealand, that kiwi – while tasty and awesome – is not as tasty as if it were in season, and has a much larger carbon footprint than if it was in season. And by “in season”, I mean locally here in the United States, at least. So, when I ship a kiwi from New Zealand to Edwardsville, Illinois, it has to get flown. And sometimes, that’s all you have to say.
Fraser: Yeah, yeah.
Pamela: Amazon Prime is destroying the planet, one air shipment at a time. And, as much as I love me my Amazon Prime, I love the planet too. And this is my own personal day-to-day moral dilemma.
Fraser: Should you order that thing or not?
Pamela: Right. And isn’t it better for me to go to the local farmers market when I want to buy things direct from the artist or to go to Etsy, where it’s going to get mailed to me. Where should my fruits come? Where should my vegetables come from? All of these things are choices we have to make.
I adore my iPhone. And, as far as I know, pretty much all smartphones are made – well, in Asia somewhere. So, again, carbon footprint – garbage footprints. We have to figure out – and it’s going to have huge economic impacts – how to change the way we live in very fundamental ways, that lowers our garbage, that lowers our carbon footprints, that lowers our methane footprints, that lowers the gasses we’re putting out.
Fraser: One of the things – we’ve talked about this in the past – is that, you know, when we talk about saving planet Earth – the reality, of course, is the planet Earth doesn’t need us; planet Earth is going to be fine without us. You know, we talked about this. The planet will reset itself; that we make decisions as individual consumers on a day-to-day basis, like should I – from Amazon Prime – should I eat that kiwi. And yet, we oftentimes don’t. And oftentimes choose the option that is, well, a little hard on the planet and push things a little more. You know? Should we fly? Right?
You know, you can have electric cars. You can have electric rail, electric semis, but you can’t have electric airplanes really.
Pamela: Well, you can. They’re just not good yet.
Fraser: Sure. Yeah, yeah.
Pamela: And how do we balance things out? I mean, it comes down to – How often have all of us made the decision to hop in the car to drive five minutes to something that we could walk to in thirty? And these are choices.
And I think there’s a certain hopelessness that we all are like, “Well, I can’t personally make a difference so (expletive) it. I’m gonna just muck up the planet in the name of convenience.”
Fraser: Yeah, yeah.
So, for sort of larger trends though, I mean, what are some of the things that are sort of coming on-line that are sort of helping, hopefully, bring the planet back towards its, sort of, happy place?
Pamela: Well, we are developing better scrubbers, better filtration systems, better recycling systems. None of them are ideal. I mean, at the end of the day, nothing is going to be effective as saying no to overnight shipping; saying no to more face-to-face meetings; saying no to, in fact, let’s have everyone working in an office building.
Things like people working from home, even one day a week, can have a huge impact on the climate. This is why cities like Beijing will periodically have, “No one is allowed to drive today” in order to affect the atmosphere.
There are new devices being designed – again, I’m seeing this coming out of China, where the problems are so amazingly severe – where they’re developing scrubbers that go through and pull all of the particulate out of the atmosphere – basically, giant HEPA filters that look like reverse chimneys and –
Pamela Yeah, they’re kind of amazing. And the one that they currently have up, the material that it’s pulling out of the atmosphere is then getting turned around and turned into jewelry. So, you have this tangible, physical way of putting something in your hand that comes out of the crud that otherwise would’ve gone into your lungs.
Fraser: That’s kind of crazy that you can – I thought about this as sort of an idea: That you could build, like, artificial trees that are actually carbon dioxide extractors – let them use solar power or something like that – and they would, you know, poop out –
Pamela: So, those are called real trees.
Fraser: I know. I know but you know real trees – eventually you’ve got to cut them down and then they reintroduce their carbon back into the atmosphere. But if you could, like, somehow extract carbon into some kind of solid and then –
Pamela: Well, again –
Fraser: – bury it or whatever, right?
Pamela: It comes down to the choices we make.
We have trees on this planet that are older than my country and way older than your country. And we have, in fact, some plants that are over a thousand years old. And if we, instead of planting trees with a 50-year life expectancy, plant things with a 500 year life expectancy even, that starts to change the equation. Plant things that grow tall and build our houses in the feet of the trees – look more like a Wookie village than our current clean-cut suburban neighborhoods.
These kinds of differences also affect heating and cooling bills. The temperate areas under the trees – you have a thermal lag where it doesn’t get as cold, because you’re being insulated by the canopy; and it doesn’t get as hot, because you’re being shaded by the canopy.
There are choices.
Fraser: Right. And one of the big ones is – well, is to live in cities.
Pamela: Yes, yes. One of the horrible things that we’re doing is changing the albedo of our landscape. It keeps coming back to this whole: How do we change the reflectivity and absorbency of our landscape by paving the world and making it a parking lot? Suburban neighborhoods, with your cookie-cutter houses, start by clean-cutting in most cases. And then you have a lot of individual homes that aren’t stacked because they’re individual homes.
By making where we live smaller and smaller and more vertical, we condemn a smaller part of the land to be a thermal sink. And we put everything back to – well, the grasslands and forests that had the past reflectivity and the past carbon sequestration.
Fraser: How do you think things are going to play out right now? As, you know – If you sort of, like, looked at the trends that are going on. I mean, there’s a bunch of trends that are going against us, right?
Fraser: There’s the increased greenhouse gas emissions, the potential feedback loops, the – You know, the –
Pamela: Increased launches into outer space?
Fraser: Sure. The desertification, the ocean acidification, the changes of the Gulf Stream, the changes in salinity – you know, there’s a ton of things that are going in the wrong direction.
Fraser: But there’s a bunch of stuff that are going in the right direction. Things like, you know, the fact that the population – although it is growing now – is expected to, you know –
Pamela: Decrease – yeah.
Fraser: – decrease in, you know – in the future. And, you know, standards of living are going up and, as people make more money, they can switch to less polluting, cleaner sources of things they use.
And then, you know, you look at some of the technology. I mean solar panels, things like that. You know, they’re falling on to the technology curve – the way we produce our power, the way we store our power – they’re becoming technologies. As we’ve all seen with our computers, they get cheaper and cheaper and cheaper.
So, kind of game out where we’re at and which things are really going to play a part in them.
Pamela: So, my personal prognostication – and this is based on doing far too much reading but not being as good at economics. So this is probably a worst-case vision, based on my understanding of economics.
So, we’re going to go through a continued period where the short-term desire to make money overruns the long-term desire to better the planet; where we are seeing the fact that solar power, the fact that electricity, the fact that many of these green energies are getting cheaper and cheaper and cheaper, is going to lead to increased use of essentially much cleaner manufacturing techniques, much cleaner electricity, much cleaner transportation, at the personal level and at the corporate level for buildings.
But I think large-scale shipping is going to continue – because Elon Musk hasn’t built us trucks yet – is going to continue to be a real problem because we still don’t have good train and boat infrastructure to replace long-haul trucks on many different continents. So, we’re going to have continued release of fairly significant carbon, especially when we look at the global level, because we also have nations like India, China – the continent of Africa, where we have flourishing economies that aren’t yet green – and extraordinarily dense countries. And in countries that don’t yet have the full infrastructure to start turning on the green power.
So things are going to get worse on a global level for a while but we’re going to see this ramp-up of more and more green technology.
Unfortunately, what I suspect is going to happen is we’re going to start to see collapse of the fisheries and significant change in where food can be grown due to changes in the environment. We’re already starting to see various parts of the ocean that you just can’t fish in the way you used to. We’re starting to see parts of the world – like Australia, which is an entire continent – that are dealing with the kind of heat and drought that precludes farming, for the most part. So I suspect we’re going to hit a point where food prices go up, food prices go up; food is no longer generally affordable for people working in the service economy.
And, in my worst-case reading-things-with-dread, I’m concerned that increases in food costs are going to start to hit maximum at about the same point that increases in productivity decrease the workforce to the point that we have an even greater separation between the haves and the have-nots because we just don’t need as many people, globally, in the manufacturing sectors and in the service sectors. Every time we build a Starbucks or a McDonald’s that you order using your cell phone, you’re unemploying somebody.
This coupling of increasing food prices and decreasing needs for low-income jobs – if that all hits at once – we’re going to have a collapse of the global economy. And honestly, I’m really hoping I’m totally wrong on this.
Fraser: Yeah, I – Well, me too. Me too.
So, I think just to kind of bring this back around, that if we were looking at planet Earth the way we look at Mars and go, “How do we fix it?” What would be the, sort of – the prescription? How would we, as – You know, how would you, as a scientist – how would, you know, planetary scientists look at this problem and go, “Okay,” you know, “all you gotta do is crash 14” you know, “comets into the” – you know, “into the ice caps and” you know, “and let off” you know, “volcanoes.”
And we talk about the – You know, there’s the – that’s the geoengineering; that’s the sort of mega-project route –
Fraser: – but the, you know – How can we sort of fix it?
Pamela: So the things that need to happen that we’re not talking about are, we need to severely restrict use of underground aquifers that are causing ground to actually sink; for instance, what’s happening in Mexico City and Texas and the American Southwest. We need to stop emptying the aquifers, in general. We need to start finding ways to scrub the atmosphere and return the surface of the planet to its old albedo values.
This means putting trees back, putting grasslands back, moving people out of the suburbs and into the cities, at least to go back to historic kinds of – and here, I’m looking at 1600s where we still had some cities but we weren’t yet doing quite what we’re doing to our planet. We need to work to fix the salinity of the ocean – and by “fix”, I mean like literally fix it so that we don’t decrease the salinity of the ocean – and we need to figure out what is necessary to get glaciers re-glaciating; get that fresh water sequestered back into ices, get the North and South Poles refrozen somehow. It’s –
Fraser: But how do you do that? You know?
Pamela: This is where we have some large-scale problems that we need to figure out how to solve. I mean, the simplest way to do it is – like I said last episode, all I want for Christmas is a supervolcano to go off without killing people.
We need to find a way to temporarily plummet the temperature a bit in a way that gets the glaciers to rebuild as the atmosphere clears back out. There’s a chance that the right kind of supervolcano could give us a leg up on that.
Fraser: Right. The supervolcano that blasts off with an enormous amount of carbon or – sorry. What’s the main thing that goes up into the atmosphere? That – during a volcanic eclipse, like –
Pamela: It’s the silica dust.
Fraser: Oh, sorry. Yeah, the – Right, it’s the dust and the chemicals that go up and darken the Earth to buy us a couple of years. Yeah. Well, let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
Okay. Well, thank you very much, Pamela, and we’ll talk to you next week.
Pamela: Sounds good, Fraser.
Male Speaker: Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at astronomycast.com. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet us @astronomycast. Like us on Facebook or circle us on Google Plus.
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Duration: 31 minutes