In 2014, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). As with previous reports, AR5 contained the latest findings of Climate Change experts from all relevant disciplines, as well as projections about the near future. In short, the AR5 and its predecessors were assessments of the impact anthropogenic Climate Change was having on the planet and how we could avoid worst-case scenarios.
On Aug. 9th, 2021, the IPCC released a report titled Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis. Combining the latest advances in climate science and multiple lines of evidence, this first report paints a rather bleak picture of the remainder of the 21st century. At the same time, it presents a call to action and shows how mitigation strategies and reducing greenhouse gas emissions will ensure a better future for all.
According to multiple sources – which includes NASA, the NOAA, the Berkeley Earth research group, and the Met Office Hadley Centre (UK) – global temperatures over the past few years have been some of the hottest on record. This is the direct result of anthropogenic factors like overpopulation, urbanization, deforestation, and increased greenhouse gas emissions (like carbon dioxide and methane).
According to a recent press release from NASA, in terms of global temperatures, 2020 was the hottest year on record – effectively tying it with 2016 (the previous record-holder). The release includes a dramatic video that illustrates average temperature increases since 1880 and the ecological crises that have taken place just this past year. This is yet another warning of how human agency is impacting the very systems we depend upon for our continued survival.
NASA and the NOAA just announced that 2019 was the second hottest year on record. It barely edged out 2016, the previous warmest year. And both 2019 and 2016 are part of the global warming trend: the last five years have been the warmest five years on record. And the last decade was the warmest decade.
Jeff Kargel is a Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. He is a geologist, a glaciologist, and a planetary scientist. Climate change is a major thread, and that is what he is here today to talk about.
To the scientifically uninitiated, it might seem like a frivolous idea: That those slight, wispy clouds that trail behind jet aircraft at such high altitudes could contribute to climate change. But they do.
Scientists love to measure things, and when they measured these contrails, which is short for condensation trails, they found bad news. Though they look kind of beautiful and ephemeral on a summer day, they pack an oversize punch when it comes to their warming effect.
Everyone knows about the extinction of the dinosaurs. A cataclysmic asteroid strike about 66 million years ago (mya) caused the Death of the Dinosaurs. But there’ve been several mass extinctions in the Earth’s history, and they didn’t involve killer asteroids. The worst extinction was caused by a rapid rise in temperature.
Earth’s most severe extinction occurred long before the killer asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. It happened some 252 mya, and it marked the end of what’s called the Permian Period. The extinction is known as the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, the End-Permian Extinction, or more simply, “The Great Dying.” Up to 70% of terrestrial vertebrates and up to 96% of all marine species were extinguished during The Great Dying.
In the 1950s, famed physicist Enrico Fermi posed the question that encapsulated one of the toughest questions in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI): “Where the heck is everybody?” What he meant was, given the age of the Universe (13.8 billion years), the sheer number of galaxies (between 1 and 2 trillion), and the overall number of planets, why has humanity still not found evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence?
This question, which has come to be known as the “Fermi Paradox”, is something scientists continue to ponder. In a new study, a team from the University of Rochester considered that perhaps Climate Change is the reason. Using a mathematical model based on the Anthropocene, they considered how civilizations and planet systems co-evolve and whether or not intelligent species are capable of living sustainability with their environment.
Today, Climate Change is one of the most pressing issues facing humanity. Thanks to changes that have taken place in the past few centuries – i.e. the industrial revolution, population growth, the growth of urban centers and reliance on fossil fuels – humans have had a significant impact on the planet. In fact, many geologists refer to the current era as the “Anthropocene” because humanity has become the single greatest factor affecting planetary evolution.
In the future, populations are expected to grow even further, reaching about 10 billion by mid-century and over 11 billion by 2100. In that time, the number of people who live within urban centers will also increase dramatically, increasing from 54% to 66% by mid-century. As such, the quesiton of how billions of people can live sustainably has become an increasingly important one.
“Astrobiology is the study of life and its possibilities in a planetary context. That includes ‘exo-civilizations’ or what we usually call aliens. If we’re not the universe’s first civilization, that means there are likely to be rules for how the fate of a young civilization like our own progresses.”
Using the Anthropocene as an example, one can see how civilization-planet systems co-evolve, and how a civilization can endanger itself through growth and expansion – in what is known as a “progress trap“. Basically, as civilizations grow, they consume more of the planet’s resources, which causes changes in the planet’s conditions. In this sense, the fate of a civilization comes down to how they use their planet’s resources.
In order to illustrate this process Frank and his collaborators developed a mathematical model that considers civilizations and planets as a whole. As Prof. Frank explained:
“The point is to recognize that driving climate change may be something generic. The laws of physics demand that any young population, building an energy-intensive civilization like ours, is going to have feedback on its planet. Seeing climate change in this cosmic context may give us better insight into what’s happening to us now and how to deal with it.”
The model was also based on case studies of extinct civilizations, which included the famous example of what became of the inhabitants of Rapa Nui (aka. Easter Island). According to archaeological studies, the people of the South Pacific began colonizing this island between 400 and 700 CE and its population peaked at 10,000 sometime between 1200 and 1500 CE.
By the 18th century, however, the inhabitants had depleted their resources and the population declined to just 2000. This example raises the important concept known as “carrying capacity”, which is the maximum number of species an environment can support. As Frank explained, Climate Change is essentially how the Earth responds to the expansion of our civilization:
“If you go through really strong climate change, then your carrying capacity may drop, because, for example, large-scale agriculture might be strongly disrupted. Imagine if climate change caused rain to stop falling in the Midwest. We wouldn’t be able to grow food, and our population would diminish.”
Using their mathematical model, the team identified four potential scenarios that might occur on a planet. These include the Die-Off scenario, the Sustainability scenario, the Collapse Without Resource Change scenario, and the Collapse With Resource Change scenario. In the Die-Off scenario, the population and the planet’s state (for example, average temperatures) rise very quickly.
This would eventually lead to a population peak and then a rapid decline as changing planetary conditions make it harder for the majority of the population to survive. Eventually, a steady population level would be achieved, but it would only be a fraction of what the peak population was. This scenario occurs when civilizations are unwilling or unable to change from high-impact resources (i.e. oil, coal, clear-cutting) to sustainable ones (renewable energy).
In the Sustainability scenario, the population and planetary conditions both rise, but eventually come to together with steady values, thus avoiding any catastrophic effects. This scenario occurs when civilizations recognize that environmental changes threaten their existence and successfully make the transition from high-impact resources to sustainable ones.
The final two scenarios – Collapse Without Resource Change and Collapse With Resource Change – differ in one key respect. In the former, the population and temperature both rise rapidly until the population reaches a peak and begins to drop rapidly – though it is not clear if the species itself survives. In the latter, the population and temperature rise rapidly, but the populations recognizes the danger and makes the transition. Unfortunately, the change comes too late and the population collapses anyway.
At present, scientists cannot say with any confidence which of these fates will be the one humanity faces. Perhaps we will make the transition before it is too late, perhaps not. But in the meantime, Frank and his colleagues hope to use more detailed models to predict how planets will respond to civilizations and the different ways they consume energy and resources in order to grow.
From this, scientists may be able to refine their predictions of what awaits us in this century and the next. It is during this time that crucial changes will be taking place, which include the aforementioned population growth, and the steady rise in temperatures. For instance, based on two scenarios that measured CO2 increases by the year 2100, NASA indicated that global temperatures could rise by either 2.5 °C (4.5 °F) or 4.4 °C (8 °F).
In the former scenario, where CO2 levels reached 550 ppm by 2100, the changes would be sustainable. But in the latter scenario, where CO2 levels reached 800 ppm, the changes would cause widespread disruption to systems that billions of humans depends upon for their livelihood and survival. Worse than that, life would become untenable in certain areas of the world, leading to massive displacement and humanitarian crises.
In addition to offering a possible resolution for the Fermi Paradox, this study offers some helpful advice for human beings. By thinking of civilizations and planets as a whole – be they Earth or exoplanets – researchers will be able to better predict what changes will be necessary for human civilization to survive. As Frank warned, it is absolutely essential that humanity mobilize now to ensure that the worst-case scenario does not occur here on Earth:
“If you change the earth’s climate enough, you might not be able to change it back. Even if you backed off and started to use solar or other less impactful resources, it could be too late, because the planet has already been changing. These models show we can’t just think about a population evolving on its own. We have to think about our planets and civilizations co-evolving.”
And be sure to enjoy this video that addresses Prof. Frank and his team’s research, courtesy of the University of Rochester:
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe. But here on Earth, it’s rather rare. That’s unfortunate, because in our warming world, its status as an emissions-free fuel makes it a coveted chemical. If German researchers are successful, their Synlight project will help make renewable hydrogen fuel a reality.
Dubbed the “artificial Sun”, the Synlight uses concentrated light to power Thermochemical Water Splitting (TWS.) Every school child knows you can produce hydrogen by electrolysis—running an electric current through water. But that takes an enormous amount of electricity. TWS might be a better way of getting hydrogen out of water, but it takes an enormous amount of energy too, and that’s what the German research is about.
When combusted with pure oxygen—inside a fuel cell for example—hydrogen’s only waste product is water. No greenhouse gases or particulates are produced. But if we want to use it to power our cars, buses, trucks, and even airplanes, we need enormous amounts of it. And we need to produce it cost-effectively.
“Renewable energies will be the mainstay of global power supply in the future.” – Karsten Lemmer DLR Executive Board Member
The idea is to use the heat generated by Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) to extract hydrogen from water, thereby eliminating the need for electricity. CSP systems use mirrors or lenses to concentrate a large area of sunlight into a small area. The heat from that action can be used to power TWS. The Synlight project in Germany is demonstrating the viability of TWS by mimicking the effect of concentrated sunlight. In doing so, researchers there are building what’s being called the world’s largest artificial Sun.
German researchers at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) at Julich near Cologne built the Synlight, a system of 149, high power lamps of the type used in film projections. When all these lamps are turned on, Synlight produces light that is about 10,000 times more intense than natural sunlight on Earth. When all the lamps are aimed at a single spot, Synlight generates temperatures up to 3000 Celsius. The challenge now is to develop materials and processes that can operate in such an extreme temperature.
The Synlight system itself uses an enormous amount of electrical power to operate. But that’s often the case with experimental facilities. The Synlight project will mimic the effect of intense, continuous solar energy, something that is not readily available in Germany. By building a test facility powered by electricity, researchers will be able to reliably perform experiments without being delayed or affected by cloudy weather.
“Fuels, propellants and combustibles acquired using solar power offer immense potential for long-term storage and the production of chemical raw materials, and the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Synlight will enhance our research in this field.” – Karsten Lemmer, DLR Executive Board Member
As Johannes Remmel, the North Rhine-Westphalia Minister for Climate Protection, said, “”We need to expand existing technology in practical ways in order to achieve renewable energy targets, but the energy transition will falter without investments in innovative research, in state-of-the-art technologies and in global lighthouse projects like Synlight.”
This is not the German Aerospace Center’s first foray in concentrated solar power. They’re involved in a number of projects to advance concentrated solar power and thermal water splitting. The DLR is a partner in the Hydrosol II pilot in Spain. It’s a reactor for solar thermochemical hydrogen production that has been in operation since 2008. They’re also involved in the first commercially operated solar tower plant, an 11 megawatt system in Spain called the PS10 solar power tower.
One of the most worrisome aspects of Climate Change is the role played by positive feedback mechanisms. In addition to global temperatures rising because of increased carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, there is the added push created by deforestation, ocean acidification, and (most notably) the disappearance of the Arctic Polar Ice Cap.
However, according to a new study by a team of researchers from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, it might be possible to refreeze parts of the Arctic ice sheet. Through a geoengineering technique that would rely on wind-powered pumps, they believe one of the largest positive feedback mechanisms on the planet can be neutralized.
Their study, titled “Arctic Ice Management“, appeared recently in Earth’s Future, an online journal published by the American Geophysical Union. As they indicate, the current rate at which Arctic ice is disappearing it quite disconcerting. Moreover, humanity is not likely to be able to combat rising global temperatures in the coming decades without the presence of the polar ice cap.
Of particular concern is the rate at which polar ice has been disappearing, which has been quite pronounced in recent decades. The rate of loss has been estimated at being between 3.5% and 4.1% per decade, with in an overall decrease of at least 15% since 1979 (when satellite measurements began). To make things worse, the rate at which ice is being lost is accelerating.
From a baseline of about 3% per decade between 1978-1999, the rate of loss since the 2000s has climbed considerably – to the point that the extent of sea-ice in 2016 was the second lowest ever recorded. As they state in their Introduction (and with the support of numerous sources), the problem is only likely to get worse between now and the mid-21st century:
“Global average temperatures have been observed to rise linearly with cumulative CO2 emissions and are predicted to continue to do so, resulting in temperature increases of perhaps 3°C or more by the end of the century. The Arctic region will continue to warm more rapidly than the global mean. Year-round reductions in Arctic sea ice are projected in virtually all scenarios, and a nearly ice-free (<106 km2 sea-ice extent for five consecutive years) Arctic Ocean is considered “likely” by 2050 in a business-as-usual scenario.”
One of the reasons the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet has to do with strong ice-albedo feedback. Basically, fresh snow ice reflects up to 90% of sunlight while sea ice reflects sunlight with albedo up to 0.7, whereas open water (which has an albedo of close to 0.06) absorbs most sunlight. Ergo, as more ice melts, the more sunlight is absorbed, driving temperatures in the Arctic up further.
Arctic sea-ice extent (area covered at least 15% by sea ice) in September 2007 (white area). The red curve denotes the 1981–2010 average. Credit: National Snow and Ice Data CenterTo address this concern, the research team – led by Steven J. Desch, a professor from the School of Earth and Space Exploration – considered how the melting is connected to seasonal fluctuations. Essentially, the Arctic sea ice is getting thinner over time because new ice (aka. “first-year ice”), which is created with every passing winter, is typically just 1 meter (3.28 ft) thick.
Ice that survives the summer in the Arctic is capable of growing and becoming “multiyear ice”, with a typical thickness of 2 to 4 meters (6.56 to 13.12 ft). But thanks to the current trend, where summers are getting progressively warmer, “first-year ice” has been succumbing to summer melts and fracturing before it can grow. Whereas multiyear ice comprised 50 to 60% of all ice in the Arctic Ocean in the 1980s, by 2010, it made up just 15%.
With this in mind, Desch and his colleagues considered a possible solution that would ensure that “first-year ice” would have a better chance of surviving the summer. By placing machines that would use wind power to generate pumps, they estimate that water could be brought to the surface over the course of an Arctic winter, when it would have the best chance of freezing.
Based on calculations of wind speed in the Arctic, they calculate that a wind turbine with 6-meter diameter blades would generate sufficient electricity so that a single pump could raise water to a height of 7 meters, and at a rate of 27 metric tons (29.76 US tons) per hour. The net effect of this would be thicker sheets of ice in the entire affected area, which would have a better chance of surviving the summer.
Over time, the negative feedback created by more ice would cause less sunlight to be absorbed by the Arctic ocean, thus leading to more cooling and more ice accumulation. This, they claim, could be done on a relatively modest budget of $500 billion per year for the entire Arctic, or $50 billion per year for 10% of the Arctic.
While this may sounds like a huge figure, they are quick to point out that the cast covering the entire Arctic with ice-creating pumps – which could save trillions in GDP and countless lives- is equivalent to just 0.64% of current world gross domestic product (GDP) of $78 trillion. For a country like the United States, it represents just 13% of the current federal budget ($3.8 trillion).
And while there are several aspects of this proposal that still need to be worked out (which Desch and his team fully acknowledge), the concept does appear to be theoretically sound. Not only does it take into account the way seasonal change and Climate Change are linked in the Arctic, it acknowledges how humanity is not likely to be be able to address Climate Change without resorting to geoengineering techniques.
And since Arctic ice is one of the most important things when it comes to regulating global temperatures, it makes perfect sense to start here.