The Earth Banished from the Universe

The Earth Banished from the Universe

23 Jul 2008

Dr Murray Parkinson

You can also listen to an interview [MP3 13.9MB] with Dr Parkinson entitled Space Matters, or read the interview transcript.

We have long known about the inevitable consequences of producing too much greenhouse gas and the greenhouse effect, and its potentially catastrophic consequences for our planet. Yet we have done next to nothing to avert the impending catastrophe, excluding a few green-coloured token gestures designed to make us feel good. Solving the problem is fundamentally a political problem, not a scientific one. Even if the dangers of anthropogenic climate change have, for some reason, been exaggerated, the risks of not taking action far out weigh any benefits gained from "business as usual".

It thus seems rather odd then, that politicians and senior scientists continue to redirect our precious research dollars away from scientific endeavours that would shed light on the behaviour of Gaia, and towards the usual studies of the Earth's atmosphere and oceans which re-enforce the Greenhouse doomsday scenario. Is it that we know we are on the verge of destroying our planet, and mistakenly believe that better knowledge of fisheries and weather alone will save us?

Or is there so much competition for the precious research dollar amongst scientists themselves that they unconsciously use every thing at their disposal to win money –even at the expense of the greater public good? The scientific community of climate change scientists is a powerful political block. It works something like this: we are destroying the planet, so give us a swag of money and we will give you a more detailed progress report. Then twelve months later the media reports, "Scientists say Antarctic ice sheets are melting faster than expected", and so we give them more money to announce something similar next year. This has been the basic story for decades.

Why do we only study the Earth's oceans and atmosphere, as if the Earth were an isolated system, and not the Sun and space and their possible influence on the Earth via a multitude of pathways? The Australian Antarctic Division has nearly eliminated its space physics program over the past decade in favour of atmospheric and marine science because of its perceived relevance, and the perceived irrelevance of space. A similar process is underway with the British Antarctic Survey, and indeed, nearly the entire space physics program of the United Kingdom might soon be eliminated in favour of more "relevant" science.

It is almost as if our politicians and senior scientists believe that the Earth is separate from the rest of the universe – that it is a timeless entity unto itself, and that the Sun and stars are mere fixtures on a celestial sphere which orbits our human-centred world. It is as if they believe we have to get it "right" here on Earth before we look at anything off-world. It is as if they believe that venturing out into space is a waste of time and money and that the Earth is immune to the machinations of the wider universe.

Of course we need to study the Earth's lower atmosphere and oceans, for the intrinsic virtue of that science, and to help us better adapt to a changing world. But to solve problems, we also need to keep an open mind and study many other things besides. We cannot afford to deny the existence of the rest of the universe and its many influences on our world. The Earth resides close to an active source of energy, the Sun, which we have barely begun to understand. The Earth's climate is probably affected by space via a multitude of pathways and feedback processes involving the effects of total solar irradiance, the solar wind and cosmic rays. All of this science is still in its infancy, and may ultimately explain a significant fraction of climate variability.

Complexity in the fluctuation of solar activity and ground level atmospheric temperature are matched1. It seems unlikely that this matching is a mere coincidence. This beckons us to explore all the possible pathways by which the Sun and near-Earth space can influence the Earth's atmosphere. The near-Earth space environment includes the magnetosphere, ionosphere, and upper atmosphere. Spacecraft missions which explore the Sun and the near-Earth space environment may ultimately provide the means to understand the way in which the Sun regulates the Earth's climate.

Australia needs to redirect significant research funding towards topics where the unknowns are greatest, and thus enable the possibility of major advances in thinking. The role of the atmospheric electric circuit and its relationship to space weather and global climate change are poorly understood. There is a possibility that cosmic rays of solar and galactic origin activate nucleation sites for cloud droplet formation. Cosmic rays may also play a role in the triggering of lightning. Cosmic rays are electrically charged particles and thus are deflected by magnetic fields. The ever-changing magnetic fields carried by the solar wind are thought to modulate the incidence of cosmic rays penetrating the Earth's atmosphere, and thus possibly climate.

Venturing into space provides impetuous for technology development which will help us address the problems confronting us here on Earth. Importantly, the space environment provides a unique global-scale perspective on Earth which is otherwise difficult to attain using ground-based sensors. The discovery of the full extent of the Antarctic ozone hole using satellite data demonstrates the crucial role space exploration can play in ensuring our survival. Perhaps it is no exaggeration to suggest that failure to discover the Antarctic ozone hole may have lead to an environmental catastrophe and immense human suffering. The loss of ozone and increased exposure to UV radiation would ultimately modify life as we know it.

Paradoxically, in order to avert the destruction of the Earth's biosphere, we may need to redirect more of our effort toward the exploration of space.

1Scafetta & West, Physics Today, March 2008

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