Transcript

Space Matters with Dr. Murray Parkinson

23 July 2008

murray-parkinsonDr. Murray Parkinson

You can also listen to the interview [MP3 13.9 MB].

Matt:

This is the La Trobe University podcast, I am your host Matt Smith, good morning, good afternoon and good evening, it all depends on where you're standing. And joining me today is Dr. Murray Parkinson, he's from the Space Physics Research Group in the Department of Physics. Thankyou for being here, Murray.

Murray:

Good afternoon Matt, it's nice to be here.

Matt:

So what would you like to talk to us about today?

Murray:

Well I've got an axe to grind. I believe Australian needs to fund a space research program and a space exploration program. We need to become a modern contemporary nation and if we don't establish a significant space program we'll be left behind.

Matt:

Why do we need a space program at all in Australia?

Murray:

Well there are many arguments there. Perhaps we can think of what happened in centuries past in Europe it was the nations who funded voyages of discovery. The British empire funded Captain Cook for example, and ultimately that lead to the establishment of colonies and Great Britain became the economic superpower and it prospered. Ultimately if we do not take advantage of space we will be left behind. Ultimately if we're just dependent on our allies for space services, our allies will act in their interests first and ours second.

Matt:

You've been doing a lot of research recently I gather into the effects that the solar system has on our current environmental state, on greenhouse gases on our global situation, is that true?

Murray:

A problem with the thinking of funding with research in Australia has been we need to understand the problem of global change therefore we fund global climate change research which usually means studying the lower atmosphere and the oceans. But I would contend that we know we're destroying the planet, we've known that for a long long time. There are in fact many possible links between space weather and the behaviour of the tropospheric climate. For example, one possibility is the influence of cosmic rays on the global electric circuit, the influence of cosmic rays on providing nucleation sites for the formation of clouds. That the sun has an eleven year sunspot cycle, as you know. Throughout that eleven year sunspot cycle the solar wind changes it's characteristics. The magnetic field strength changes on a cyclical basis and those magnetic fields can deflect charged particles. Cosmic rays are charged particles therefore the solar wind can potentially modulate the flux of cosmic rays which may modulate the formation of clouds and therefore the behaviour of the Earth's troposphere. I stress this isn't fact, these are just ideas and people are finding correlations, but it's not well established science, it's science at it's infancy. There's many many things we need to understand about the Earth's atmosphere other than just the behaviour of the troposphere and the oceans.

Matt:

So I think it seems like we're monitoring the situation but we're not researching into preventative measures.

Murray:

Well we're getting report cards. It seems to me for a long long time every year I hear a report on the news. Ice caps melting faster than anticipated, glaciers disappearing, we know all this, we know that, we don't need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars giving that money to scientists telling us that every year. Our politicians need to get on with business of solving these problems and we need to adapt and change. Where we need to direct our research funds is towards the unknown that can really help to shed light on the issues and advance our thinking. Here's a very good example of why it's so important to have a space program. You're aware of the hole in the ozone layer, everyone's aware of that. Now whilst that phenomenon was originally discovered using ground based detectors, it wasn't until a group of scientists at the British Antarctic Survey analysed satellite data that the full extent of the problem, the severity of the problem was realised. Now that happened back in the mid 1980s as a result of launching a spacecraft and putting it in near-Earth orbit to monitor Earth. It would have taken us a long time to realise the full extent of that problem. Now if we didn't make those observations and understand the full extent of how severe that problem was ultimately life as we know it would be totally transformed. This is perhaps an exaggeration but in a sense those observations helped save life on Earth. No doubt eventually we would have put together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle using a network of ground-based detectors, it was just so much more efficient to realise the full extent of the problem by the global scale perspective that a satellite can provide. In a sense the space program has a already helped save life on Earth.

Murray's Correction:

A scientific team at the British Antarctic Survey discovered the phenomenon using ground based detectors, and a scientific team at NASA revealed the full extent of the problem using satellite data.

Matt:

What do you mean by the Earth being banished from the universe?

Murray:

What do I mean by the Earth being banished from the universe…

Matt:

A little sign saying 'Andromeda or bust'…

Murray:

I can remember in my childhood our primary school teacher instigated a debate: should we have a space program. She felt as if we were wasting our money going to the moon and everything, and we should spend all of that money solving poverty on Earth and addressing all the environmental problems. There is an attitude amongst some of our senior scientists and politicians that we need to solve the problems on Earth by studying fisheries and the oceans and the atmosphere and that's true, it's all a question of balance. But they would have us believe that the Earth does not exist in a universe, and it's not influenced by that universe.

Matt:

Okay, so we're isolating ourselves too much?

Murray:

Yes, and in fact the way to solve these problems is to set ourselves enormous challenges. Perhaps this is quite an abstraction to make, but let us ask ourselves why is the United States of America the dominant economic power on this planet, the most wealthiest nation on this planet? You could argue that it's because President Kennedy set the challenge of putting man on the moon. He should have set the challenge of putting women on the moon, that would have been more interesting, but he set that challenge and that mobilised the nation and it had so many flow on effects for the rest of their society. If Australia set itself this major challenge it would flow on to industry in so many ways, and it may seem like a long shot, a major abstraction for me to make, but it will also empower us to change in the ways we need to change to solve our environmental problems. We don't want to limit our capacity for adaptation and change. That is entirely counterproductive.

Matt:

Is there a chance that the effects of space weather are going to start interfering with the amount of junk that we've thrown up in space around the orbit of the Earth? Is there a chance that it can provide interference with our equipment up there over time?

Murray:

Yes Matt, space weather is an extremely important issue. Colleagues in America spend enormous sums of money on space weather. The military are obviously interested in it because it effects their operations but it also has a major impact on civilian life. Space weather effects can disable communication satellites, they can take out power grids. A major storm that occurred last century, a major geomagnetic storm induced by coronal mass ejection events from the sun took out very large sections of the power grid in Canada and North America. Geomagnetic storms drive very strong currents in the Earth's ionosphere which induce currents in the power grids, and then those current surges take out the transformers. We regularly lose satellites because of geomagnetic storms. It is big business, it effects us increasingly as we become a more technological society. Historically we know the sun has had major influences on the Earth, for example the so called mini ice age of the 1600s.

Matt:

1600 to about 1800 sometime?

Murray:

If I remember correctly there were actually two little mini ice ages and they can be correlated with reconstructions of the Earth's temperature in relation to our knowledge of sunspot activity in the sun. When my outstanding colleagues in the climate change community run their general circulation models, it's almost as if they pretend that the historic variability in surface level temperatures in the troposphere what was minimal prior to the industrial revolution. And so they base all of those increases in temperature and attribute it to anthropogenic effects. Now I'm not a climate change sceptic, I believe 100% we have to change our ways and adapt. But history may ultimately show that much of this variability is of natural origins or related to solar activity and other processes.

Matt:

Even though at the moment our world is getting hotter, are you saying that that would happen whether or not the human race was on the world?

Murray:

Yes, correct, global climate change occurred prior to the industrial revolution and it would occur in the absence of our excessive emissions of greenhouse gases. Solar activity has been unusually high for the first fifty years of the 20th century. Now because of the time lags for the Earth's system to reach an equilibrium because the deep ocean's currents cycle over on timescales of a decade there can be a long time delay for that enhanced solar activity to have its full impact. It is very possible that part of the recent step-like increase in the temperature of the troposphere has been due to that enhanced solar activity. However I don't want to advocate that line, I know there are politicians and business people out there who would love to say that we don't need to worry, that it'd be centuries before the greenhouse gases destroy the atmosphere. There's no doubt whatsoever that we are destroying this planet and we have to change. To me it seems immaterial whether we're going to completely destroy our environment in ten years, fifty years or a hundred years, that's all we're debating here. There's no doubt we have to change. But at the end of the day I suspect a lot of the change we're attributing to anthropogenic effects are really natural effects. But even when we allow for those it's inevitable that we're going to make our lives very difficult for ourselves if we don't change and adapt, and why don't we change and adapt, it's in our best interests, it will be better for the economy, it will be better for everything.

Matt:

Dr. Murray Parkinson, thankyou for your time today.

Murray:

Thankyou Matt, it's been a pleasure speaking to you today.

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