What Exxon Knew

Clearly, there's going to be an impact so I'm not disputing that increasing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere is going to have an impact. It'll have a warming impact. How large it is, is very hard for anyone to predict and depending on how large it is then projects how dire the consequences are. In the fall of 2015, an investigation by the Pulitzer Prize winning Inside Climate News as well as the Los Angeles Times and the Colombia School of Journalism revealed a trove of documents from scientists inside oil giant ExxonMobil, showing that Exxon scientists understood the mechanisms and consequences of human caused climate change as early as the late 1970s and early 1980s. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently subpoenaed oil giant ExxonMobil, apparently seeking documents that might show the company had downplayed the risks to profits and therefore to investors of stronger regulations on burning fossil fuels. The documents show Exxon understood a clear scientific consensus existed on the greenhouse effect, that the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could become a serious problem and mentioned the distinct possibility of effects that could be catastrophic for a substantial fraction of the Earth's population.

Exxon scientists stated their research was in accord with the scientific consensus on the effect of increased atmospheric CO2 on climate. Multiple documents mentioned potential adverse impacts such as flooding of coastal land masses due to the melting Antarctica sheets. Our view of this very complex subject over the years, over the decades, has mirrored that of the broader scientific community. In the early 1980s, the scientific community was just beginning to sound the alarm about increasing buildup of gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Researchers say increasingly large amounts of CO2 are accumulating in the atmosphere. They fear the earth will gradually become warmer, causing as yet uncertain but possibly disruptive changes in the Earth's climate 50 to 70 years from now. The discussions that have taken place inside our company among our scientists mirror the discussions that have been taking place in the work that's been taking place by the broader scientific community.

That's what the facts show. Scientists and a few politicians are beginning to worry that global energy planning does not take the greenhouse effect seriously enough. Those same computer models correctly predict the past climate of the Earth. They correctly predict the present climate of the Earth. It is reasonable that they are correctly predicting the future climate on the Earth, given the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases that were pouring into the atmosphere. Internal briefing documents for Exxon executives showed a science effort that was on the very cutting edge for its time. Graphs showed projections of temperature rise derived from increasingly complex atmospheric models, much like temperatures that have now been observed in the real world. Using global climate models developed by NASA, Exxon scientists agreed with the mainstream projections of approximately 3 degrees global average temperature rise for a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide with a rise of more than 10 degrees projected for polar regions, a phenomenon called polar amplification, which has now been actually observed. Exxon state-of-the-art climate modeling predicted a pattern of planetary warming, projecting the lower atmosphere to warm, while the upper atmosphere cooled, a telltale fingerprint of human-caused warming that has now also been observed in the real world.

This table from 1982 predicts conditions looking well into the future including the current year of 2015 where Exxon predicted atmospheric carbon levels for our time to within nine parts per million and a temperature rise to within a few tenths of degree of the best current observations. But in the following years, something happened at Exxon. The company seem to have forgotten the findings of its own experts. Proponents of the global warming theory say that higher levels of greenhouse gases are causing world temperatures to rise and the burning fossil fuels is the reason. The scientific evidence remains inconclusive as to whether human activities affect global climate. You know, there was no doubt that fossil fuels were the main driver of higher CO2 emissions and that CO2 emissions will lead to the climate change, right.

What Exxon was trying to figure out in the 70s and 80s was, when is it gonna hit and how bad is it gonna be but they knew it was gonna be bad like they admitted it is going to be bad, they used the word 'catastrophic' over and over again in documents. Fifteen years later, as the science became more certain, Exxon backed away from that and Lee Raymond talked about that. Many scientists agree there's ample time to better understand climate systems and considered policy options so there's simply no reason to take drastic action now. It's a pretty startling walk back from what, you know, the scientists said 15 years earlier. What he's concerned about and wants to know, is whether Exxon was using one set of scientific models to do its work in the Arctic, for example, where Exxon has been engaged in drilling and on the other hand, telling the public, telling its shareholders a very different set of facts about the state of climate change.

When you're making public disclosures to investors and when you're making public disclosures to government officials, there are laws regulating whether or not that's something that you really need to stand by so if there's evidence demonstrating purposeful concealment and it's too early to say then it really could be a big cloud over the company site. Exxon has funded a number of organizations that he said have been openly climate change deniers, he mentioned the American Enterprise Institute… Take for example, this hold 97% of scientists agree on global warming. That is an utterly fraudulent number. Has Exxon been funding these organizations? Well, the answer is yes, and I'll let those organizations respond for themselves. They're basically saying you and your industry are hiding the risks of climate change just like the tobacco companies hid the risks of smoking.

.. and then using tactics that are very similar to what the cigarette industry or tobacco industry used for many years even though the overwhelming scientific consensus was that smoking cigarettes is bad for you, they would find a few scientists that would disagree and then they would say, look, scientists disagree so that's essentially how they would try to trick the public into thinking that smoking is not that bad. There are allegations that ExxonMobil also funded research from somebody for example at the Smithsonian Institution without disclosing and without that person disclosing that he was going on a certain path whereby there were other scientists within ExxonMobil that might have had beliefs to the contrary. You have received over a million dollars and funds from coal and oil interests. The last grant you received from a funder with no ties to the energy industry was in 2002. That's over a decade ago. In recent weeks, ExxonMobil has accused Columbia School of Journalism of ethical misconduct in reporting this story. In response, Steve Coll, the Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, has refuted those allegations in a detailed letter since published in The New York Times.

Meanwhile, 2015 will soon go down in history as the hottest year globally in the modern record with indications that 2016 will be even warmer. We can't be a 100% sure, but which is more prudent? Which is wiser? …to do nothing and hope that a mistake has been made, or to take these predictions seriously even if there's a chance the precautions you will take will be unnecessary..

8 Negative Effects of Climate Change

Climate change is real, and it’s affecting us all. From severe heat waves to extreme flooding, here are 8 negative effects of climate change. You’d wish it was all just a hoax… Number 8: Destruction of archeological sites We often think about how changes in the climate are threatening the lives of humans, animals, and plants on the planet. But we fail to realize that it’s not only the living that are affected by climate change. In fact, archeological sites – priceless windows to our past – are suffering as well. High sea waves are hitting Easter Island, the famous site of the moai – mysterious giant head-and-torso statues built by ancient Polynesians. The platforms supporting the moai are slowly being damaged by sea water, and if this continues, the monolithic figures might fall off and end up at the bottom of the ocean one day. Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado is also at risk, and is cited as one of the places most vulnerable to climate change in the US.

There are thousands of archeological sites here, constructed by the ancient Puebloans thousands of years ago. But rising temperatures have caused frequent wildfires, and with it the destruction of rock carvings. This also causes the exposure of new sites and artifacts that become vulnerable to erosion and flooding. These are just two examples of many priceless ancient artifacts and ancient archeological sites in the world that are at risk. Archeologists seem to be in a race against time to document and protect these places before they are gone forever. Number 7: Food shortages We’ve mentioned how climate change and global warming leads to drought, deforestation, and pest infestation. All of this combined causes one major problem – it inhibits the ability of farmers to grow food. In order to grow, crops need to be on fertile land, which becomes largely unavailable due to water shortages.

Food shortages have not occurred widely yet, and international trade will likely prevent any major famine to affect us soon – at least not in the near future. But at the rate we’re going, food prices will soon skyrocket, both due to shortages and the need for refrigeration when extreme heat waves come hitting. Third World countries on the other hand, have it harder. In less developed countries, drought equates to star facial and suffrage sing. Prolonged drought and conflict have left 16 million people across East Africa on the brink of star facial and in urgent need of food, water and medical treatment. Number 6: Rising CO2 levels Since the Industrial Revolution over 2 centuries ago, we’ve gradually been producing more and more Carbon Dioxide on a regular basis. With large scale industrialization and the burning of fossil fuels, we’ve put a total of 2000 gigatons of CO2 in the atmosphere, and about 40% of it has stayed there.

Humans have only been roaming this planet for a relatively short period, yet today’s CO2 levels are the highest they have ever been for millions of years. C02 is one of the main gases contributing to the greenhouse effect, the process by which radiation from the atmosphere heats the planet’s surface. The greenhouse effect is essential for supporting life on the planet, but its extreme intensification has led to global warming. Number 5: Global Warming Global warming – it is the main form of climate changing, and the 2 terms are even often used interchangeably. As of right now, the Earth is warming at a scary rate, 10 times faster than at the end of the Ice Age. Since we started measuring global surface temperature in 1850, each decade seems to surpass the previous, and that rate does not seem to be slowing down. This directly affects us in a number of ways, mainly in the form of drought and extreme weathers. Since the previous century, mega droughts have been appearing everywhere all over the Earth.

Rainfall has been scarce, farms get deserted, and lakes are drying up. Some lakes have even dried up completely, and are no longer existent. An example is Bolivia’s Lake Poopo, which was once its country’s second largest lake. The process of global warming brought increased temperatures to the region, and its evaporation rate multiplied exponentially since the 1990s. By December 2015, Lake Poopo had completely dried up, leaving only a few marshy areas. According to scientists, it is unlikely that it will ever recover. While some places are affected by drought, other places are more vulnerable to extreme weathers in the form of heat waves and storms. The frequency and duration of heat waves has increased greatly within the past half century, and are only going to get worse. Heat waves alone kill more people in the United States compared to natural disasters like tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods combined. Global warming also affects storm formation, by decreasing the temperature difference between the poles and the equator.

Some experts have found a correlation between global warming and the intensity of recent Atlantic Ocean tropical cyclones such as Katrina, Wilma, and Sandy. Number 4: Losing our forests Climate change affects all life on the planet, and this includes forest ecosystems, many of which have been destroyed indirectly by global warming. Bark beetles are major pests that feed and breed between the bark and wood of various tree species, damaging them in the process. These insects thrive in warm temperatures, and as a consequence of global warming, have expanded their ranges and proliferated widely in the forests of North America and Europe. Millions of acres of forest have been destroyed due to bark beetle infestation in recent years. Another cause of widespread deforestation is wildfire. While climate change does not directly cause trees to burn up, wildfires are generally the result of forests getting extremely dry.

Global warming lessens the humidity of forest areas, making them vulnerable to catch on fire. Forests in the western coast of USA, particularly in California, get set ablaze often during dry seasons. If rain fell more often, these forest fires would be extinguished much quicker. There has indeed been a notable increase in wildfires in California within the last decade compared to the decade before, meaning a correlation with climate change is very much likely, and would probably get worse with rising temperatures. Number 3: Insufficient energy to meet demands Since the dawn of mankind, people have learnt of various ways to keep themselves warm – from starting simple fires to creating electric-powered heaters. One of the main reasons for energy demand used to be heating, as people needed to survive long and chilly winters. But a global trend that started in the past century has seen a reversal, especially with the invention of cooling devices like refrigerators and air conditioners.

With the climate getting warmer and warmer, the demand for cooling has skyrocketed. With the increase in carbon emissions and the resulting hot temperatures, the demand for more energy to produce cooling is getting out of control. The worse thing is that this creates a neverending heat-producing cycle. More demand results in more power plants and cooling devices being created, which when used, emits more carbon that heats up the environment. Our only hope is the creation and use of clean energy sources that could keep up with the demands while breaking this vicious cycle. Research and development in solar power shows promise. On the other hand, hydro-electric power is expected to fall behind, as global warming and droughts have caused a decrease in river water levels. Without enough water flow, generators at the dams will not be able to provide energy.

Meanwhile, sea levels are rising, creating a potential risk of flood and storms that could cripple power generators along coastlines. This would disrupt power transmission to entire cities, and create a more desperate demand for energy. Number 2: Melting ice caps & rising sea levels Water covers more than 70% of our planet, and they absorb most of the heat added to the atmosphere. So it’s only natural that is where the extreme changes of climate change are seen. Sea levels around the world have been rising a 10th of an inch every year, and they’re already up 8 inches since 100 years ago. There are two reasons for this. One water expands as it gets warmer. Two, because glaciers, ice caps and icebergs are melting, so they add up to the ocean’s water volume. White sea ice is essential in reflecting sun rays back up into the atmosphere.

Without an ice layer, the dark ocean absorbs the heat rays, feeding the cycle forward. Summer sea ice in the Arctic has decreased a staggering 40% since just 40 years ago, making it the lowest in 1400 years. Antarctica is also experiencing a similar thing, with its western glaciers melting at an alarming rate. At this current rate, the oceans would be up a meter higher by the end of this century. Coastal settlements would be flooded, and many of them would become uninhabitable. And it’s not just cities, but entire nations are also at risk of being wiped off the map. The island country of Maldives is particularly endangered, and is at risk of being swallowed up by the ocean within the next few decades. Their leaders’ pleas to the world to cut global greenhouse gas emissions have been generally ignored, and they are already looking into purchasing new land from neighboring countries to settle their people in the future. Number 1: Animal extinction All the damages caused by climate change is not only affecting us humans, but nearly all the other species on the planet are also struggling to adapt to these changes that we have caused. A lot of animals, mostly birds, are seen beginning their seasonal migrations a lot earlier.

For instance, scientists have found that the Icelandic black-tailed godwits have started migrating 2 weeks earlier than normal to escape the summer heat. Some animals are moving away from their natural habitats towards cooler areas in higher elevations. The distribution patterns of Adelie penguins across Antarctica have also changed significantly. They are known to mainly feed on Antarctic krills, which are small crustaceans that stay under ice caps. But with fewer ice caps remaining, Adelie penguins find themselves in short of food supply leading to mass migrations. All this migration of various animal species is indeed a sign of the climate getting warmer every year. We have also seen a disturbing change within the behavior of several animals. The melting of polar ice in the summer has led to Polar bears channel arising their own cubs out of desperation in order to stay alive. The ocean is our planet’s largest carbon sink. With more Carbon Dioxide released into the atmosphere, more of it ends up dissolving into the ocean, causing a decrease in the water’s pH levels.

Although still far away from turning the ocean into acid, creatures with calcium shells are really sensitive to these slight changes. The ocean is on the course of hitting a pH level of 7.8 within a century, which would mean the end of about one third of the ocean’s species. The Orange-spotted filefish has already gone locally extinct around Japan due to extensive coral bleaching and hypersensitivity to warm waters. Some animal species have already gone totally extinct. The Golden toad that was once native to the forests of Costa Rica was last sighted in 1989, having likely all bite off due to high temperatures. They were known to mate in wet conditions, and the repeated dry seasons presumably ended their species..

China’s Climate Stance Laid Out by a Top Government Strategist

The key change is now China is faced with the so-called middle-income trap. In this stage, we continue to prioritize the development agenda — urbanization and industrialization. We haven't finished that. But on the other hand we have stringent constraints on natural resources and environmental quality. I would say there are two major aspects for China to shape its climate policy. One is its own development process. Another one is international responsibility. For the first aspect, its own development course, I would say there have been more and more endogenous reasons for China to take action. I would interpret that into restructuring the economy and changing the development pattern to upgrade its economy. China had to do something to change its economy. Otherwise there would be no hope for its further development. For the other aspect, its international responsibility, my understanding is China will take its responsibilities as a large developing country, but certainly subject to its capabilities, also on an equitable basis.

China will make the decision not only with the understanding of its own situation …but also the overall design of the global responsibility system, including looking at the share of burden or benefits in the process from other countries — for example the United States, Europe, Japan. In these aspects China continues to keep the idea of common but differentiated responsibilities, very frankly…. China insists in the position to make the framework [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] the political and legal basis for the global regime and we do not see the necessity or need to rewrite or interpret the convention. There have been a lot of changes in the past years, but our observation is for the basis of the convention, its principles and supporting scientific facts, there have been no significant changes. Take cumulative [greenhouse gas] emissions as an example. Up to now, by 2010, our estimation is Annex 1 parties [industrialized countries as agreed to at the time] continue to account for around 70 percent of the cumulative emissions. This is one of the supporting scientific facts.

This is why the U.N.F.C.C.C. believes developed countries should take this historic responsibility. Further interpretation of historic responsibility is the course, the reason for this landscape of cumulative emissions…. Certainly there will be an evolution. China's share will become larger and larger in these indicators. But anyway, now the decision we will make will be based on the facts today. When we design the architecture for the next 10 or 20 years that means today when we discuss that, we encourage developed countries to consider their cumulative emissions as a total and then to take more responsibility. Furthermore, let me come back to the pathway as the source of cumulative emissions — energy mix, efficiency, technology finance, population, etc. etc., we believe this is the deeper driver to lead to the landscape of cumulative emissions. But we need to change that. If we want to make change we need to influence those drivers.

We see some changes of emissions trajectories in developed countries. If there are some reductions we welcome them. But we would request more because we believe this is something developed countries have to do to take their historic responsibility. But furthermore, we see this high-carbon pathway has been transferred to developing countries, and also multiplied or enhanced by the current international trade and investment system, especially in the context of globalization. So this is also dominated by developed countries. This is my understanding. But certainly complaints cannot solve the problem. We want to be more constructive so let's see how we can change the drivers, especially for developing countries, especially for emerging economies. So I believe we should work together to see how to change the drivers of development pathways for both developed and developing countries and the unite way we expect more emission reductions from developed countries while we have new innovative development pathways for emerging economies.

In my mind I have three typical pathways. One is the U.S. pathway, with per capita emissions at around 20 or 18 tons [per year] per capita and the European pathway around 10 or less, and a third one will be innovative for China, India and later developing countries. But actually the third one, the innovative one, has not existed in reality but we have to work together to create that. This leads to the need for technological assistance, financial assistance, and also the need for innovation for technology for the global regime. This is what we have to work together very hard for 2015 agreement. Coming back to China, China has a stronger and stronger endogenous motivation to make emission reductions. Because we are aware that, along the classic pathway, we have no hope for the future. We need to make some change in energy mix. It seems to me, based on lessons learned from developed countries and their history, their change has mainly derived from fuel switching — from coal to oil to natural gas, with less and less carbon intensity. This is a successful experience in history.

So my question is if China can follow that. I hope we can. Then the question is can we have the safe, reliable import of natural gas, because our own reserve is very limited for the moment and the U.S. becomes larger and larger, and maybe the largest oil and gas production country. Certainly I'm very interested in that. And then the Middle East, Russia and other sources. If we can have very stable, very reliable and safe supply of natural gas, why not? And also the price. One thing I was exploring recently was, the U.S. can export natural gas or it can export the capacity to drill for natural gas. How much can the U.S. help China through partnership with getting at your own gas reserves, or is that on a time scale that's just too long? I think this is one of the key prioritized areas for the U.S. and China to cooperate with each other… Certainly we have different geographical structure so we need some technology development, but I believe that experience and technology from U.

S., including the commercial model, should be helpful for us. We are keen to communicate with the U.S. and to explore the opportunity to cooperate. But certainly natural gas or shale gas should not be the only aspects that we work together on. Certainly we have some other things to do — for example efficiency. Energy efficiency for manufacturers, buildings, transport. They have huge potential based on our estimates and I.E.A estimates, this is the major arena for us to reduce emissions in the coming decades. … For the moment, coal-fired power plants dominate our share of generation, so ultra super critical or even I.G.C.C. The other one is C.C.S. The reality is coal will continue to be a major source [of energy] for our country although we hope we can reduce the share of coal. And renewables should also be another area where we work together. But certainly one outstanding issue is the enabling environment, including the treaty environment. Very frankly, presently, we two countries, also with the E.

U., we have some trade conflict on solar PV [photovoltaic panels], etc., etc. I think we should sit together to consider how to address this specific issue. In my mind, renewable energy is very important for climate protection. We should work together. On the one hand, we follow the [World Trade Organization] rules, market rules, but on the other hand we should consider how to address global commons issues, externality issues. I do not believe that only market rules can address that. Market rules are good enough for trade, for commercial benefits but for global commons we need some additional institutional arrangement. I've written about some new businesses in the States that are doing very well installing solar panels. But the reason they're prospering is because China's price is low.

So there's a benefit in the United States to installers of solar panels from the fact that China has a lot of capacity, which cuts against this concern that some in the U.S. have that China's cheap solar panels are bad. It's a little complicated. If you look at the overall global supply chain, sometimes we are mixed. Some U.S. companies and Chinese companies have shared stockholders… It would be nice if we can sit together to have some joint research, joint study on cost/benefit analysis, trade analysis, legal analysis to see how to develop some win/win solutions. … The ideal outcome will be the commercial society will continue to make money to support the economic recovery, but on the other hand we have a stronger and stronger renewable industry to contribute to emission reduction for the whole world. Policymakers and think tanks should work along this direction.

But I do not believe it will be workable just to complain and debate trade conflicts. I think we can do something for that. My individual judgment is we continue to need nuclear. Although there are a lot of concerns about safety, but if you look at different industries at different times of the past, if you look at the performance realities all over the world, from France to the U.S., I should say essentially they are safe, and they are becoming safer and safer. Given the different options, we should not give up nuclear for the moment. It should be one of the important options. It's a matter of trading off among different sources of energy, costs and benefits, safety and risk, etc. But after all I we should keep some share for nuclear, especially for China. The U.S. also has some very advanced technologies.

I believe we two countries should cooperate on nuclear to make it safer and safer..

Global Warming Explained

So, we've all heard of global warming and climate change and that carbon dioxide is causing our planet to heat up. But what exactly is the science behind it? To get there, we first have to understand the greenhouse effect The greenhouse effect is a process that maintains our planet's temperatures at liveable levels and is pretty much the reason life on Earth is even remotely possible. You see, the sun is constantly shooting energy towards the Earth mostly in the form of visible light which is then absorbed by our planet heating it up. This heat is then released from our planet's surface in the form of infrared light. Here's where greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide come in. Completely surrounding our planet these greenhouse gases create a blanket that allows visible light to freely pass through to the surface of the Earth but traps infrared light as it tries to leave therefore, slowing the release of the planet's heat back into space.

Keeping it just warm enough for us to sustain life. However, the more greenhouse gases there are in our atmosphere the harder it becomes for the planet's heat to escape and thus causing a global warming. and that's exactly what has been happening since 1750 or the industrial revolution. You see, before the industrial revolution the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere lingered around 270 parts per million. But since then, it has increased at an exponential rate reaching over 400 parts per million this past October. The last time there was this much CO2 in our atmopshere human beings didn't exist. And there's no doubt that this unprecedented increase in CO2 is caused by human activity. Every living thing on Earth is made of carbon and this very element is continuously cycling to maintain an equilbirum through a process called the carbon cycle.

While things such as the death of plants and animals, the eruption of volcanoes, and wildfires release carbon into the atmosphere things like photosynthesis from plant life can help remove and sequester it. However, when the industrial revolution began humans started digging up and burning fossil fuels which are really just the decomposed remains of ancient plants and animals, to use as energy. In other words, we found stockpiles of carbon which has been kept deep beneath the Earth's surface and burned it for energy and in the process, added extreme amounts of carbon dioxide right into our atmosphere On top of this, we carried out deforestation on a massive scale and sabotaged what carbon filtration system the planet had provided us with. completely toppling the equilibirum between carbon emission and removal.

With over 200 years of throwing this life sustaining equilibirum off balance, action must be taken immediately to mitigate the impact of our changing climate. The first major step we can take is shifting to clean energy sources as soon as possible so as to prevent a further increase of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. And when we look at the rapid growth of clean energy, this is a shift that we can make. All we need is a unified push towards a more environmentally conscious global society..

Venus: Death of a Planet

From the fires of a sun’s birth, twin planets emerged. Venus and Earth. Two roads diverged in our young solar system. Nature draped one world in the greens and blues of life. While enveloping the other in acid clouds, high heat, and volcanic flows. Why did Venus take such a disastrous turn? And what light can Earth’s sister planet shed on the search for other worlds like our own? For as long as we have gazed upon the stars, they have offered few signs that somewhere out there are worlds as rich and diverse as our own. Recently, though, astronomers have found ways to see into the bright lights of nearby stars. They’ve been discovering planets at a rapid clip, using orbiting observatories like NASA’s Kepler space telescope, and an array of ground-based instruments. The count is almost a thousand and rising. These alien worlds run the gamut, from great gas giants many times the size of our Jupiter, to rocky, charred remnants that burned when their parent star exploded. Some have wild elliptical orbits, swinging far out into space, then diving into scorching stellar winds.

Still others orbit so close to their parent stars that their surfaces are likely bathed in molten rock. Amid these hostile realms, a few bear tantalizing hints of water or ice, ingredients needed to nurture life as we know it. The race to find other Earths has raised anew the ancient question, whether, out in the folds of our galaxy, planets like our own are abundant, and life commonplace? Or whether Earth is a rare Garden of Eden in a barren universe? With so little direct evidence of these other worlds to go on, we have only the stories of planets within our own solar system to gauge the chances of finding another Earth. Consider, for example, a world that has long had the look and feel of a life-bearing planet. Except for the moon, there’s no brighter light in our night skies than the planet Venus, known as both the morning and the evening star. The ancient Romans named it for their goddess of beauty and love. In time, the master painters transformed this classical symbol into an erotic figure, then a courtesan.

It was a scientist, Galileo Galilei, who demystified planet Venus, charting its phases as it moved around the sun, drawing it into the ranks of the other planets. With a similar size and weight, Venus became known as Earth’s sister planet. But how Earth-like is it? The Russian scientist Mikkhail Lomonosov caught a tantalizing hint in 1761. As Venus passed in front of the Sun, he witnessed a hair thin luminescence on its edge. Venus, he found, has an atmosphere. Later observations revealed a thick layer of clouds. Astronomers imagined they were made of water vapor, like those on Earth. Did they obscure stormy, wet conditions below? And did anyone, or anything, live there? The answer came aboard an unlikely messenger, an asteroid that crashed into Earth.

That is, according to the classic sci-fi adventure, “The First Spaceship on Venus.“ A mysterious computer disk is found among the rubble. With anticipation rising on Earth, an international crew sets off to find out who sent it, and why. What they find is a treacherous, toxic world. No wonder the Venusians want to switch planets. It was now time to get serious about exploring our sister planet. NASA sent Mariner 2 to Venus in 1962, in the first-ever close planetary encounter. Its instruments showed that Venus is nothing at all like Earth. Rather, it’s extremely hot, with an atmosphere made up mostly of carbon dioxide. The data showed that Venus rotates very slowly, only once every 243 Earth days, and it goes in the opposite direction. American and Soviet scientists found out just how strange Venus is when they sent a series of landers down to take direct readings. Surface temperatures are almost 900 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt lead, with the air pressure 90 times higher than at sea level on Earth.

The air is so thick that it’s not a gas, but a “supercritical fluid.” Liquid CO2. On our planet, the only naturally occurring source is in the high-temperature, high-pressure environments of undersea volcanoes. The Soviet Venera landers sent back pictures showing that Venus is a vast garden of rock, with no water in sight. In fact, if you were to smooth out the surface of Venus, all the water in the atmosphere would be just 3 centimeters deep. Compare that to Earth, where the oceans would form a layer 3 kilometers deep. If you could land on Venus, you’d be treated to tranquil vistas and sunset skies, painted in orange hues. The winds are light, only a few miles per hour, but the air is so thick that a breeze would knock you over. Look up and you’d see fast-moving clouds, streaking around the planet at 300 kilometers per hour. These clouds form a dense high-altitude layer, from 45 to 66 kilometers above the surface. The clouds are so dense and reflective that Venus absorbs much less solar energy than Earth, even though it’s 30% closer to the Sun. These clouds curve around into a pair of immense planetary hurricanes as the air spirals down into the cooler polar regions.

Along the equator, they rise in powerful storms, unleashing bolts of lightning. Just like earth, these storms produce rain, only it’s acid rain that evaporates before it hits the ground. At higher elevations, a fine mist forms, not of water but of the rare metal tellurium, and iron pyrites, known as fool’s gold. It can form a metallic frost, like snowflakes in hell. Scientists have identified around 1700 major volcanic centers on Venus ranging from lava domes, and strange features called arachnoids or coronae, to giant volcanic summits. The planet is peppered with volcanoes, perhaps in the millions, distributed randomly on its surface. Venus is run through with huge cuts thousands of kilometers long that may well be lava channels. Our sister planet is a volcanic paradise, in a solar system shaped by volcanism. The largest mountain on Earth, Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano, measures 32,000 feet from sea floor to summit.

Rising almost three times higher is the mother of all volcanoes: Olympus Mons on Mars. Jupiter’s moon Io, is bleeding lava. It’s produced deep underground by the friction of rock on rock, caused by the gravitational pull of its mother planet. Then there’s Neptune’s moon Triton, with crystals of nitrogen ice shooting some 10 kilometers above the surface. Saturn’s moon Titan, with frozen liquid methane and ammonia oozing into lakes and swamps. On our planet, volcanoes commonly form at the margins of continents and oceans. Here, the vast slabs of rock that underlie the oceans push beneath those that bear the continents. Deep underground, magma mixes with water, and the rising pressure forces it up in explosive eruptions. On Venus, the scene is very different. In the high-density atmosphere, volcanoes are more likely to ooze and splatter, sending rivers of lava flowing down onto the lowlands. They resemble volcanoes that form at hot spots like the Hawaiian islands.

There, plumes of magma rise up from deep within the earth, releasing the pressure in a stream of eruptions. To see a typical large volcano on Venus, go to Sappas Mons, at 400 kilometers across and 1.5 kilometers high. The mountain was likely built through eruptions at its summit. But as magma reached up from below, it began to drain out through subsurface tubes or cracks that formed a web of channels leading onto the surrounding terrain. Is Venus, like Earth, still volcanically active? Finding the answer is a major goal of the Venus Express mission, launched in 2005 by the European Space Agency. Armed with a new generation of high-tech sensors, it peered through the clouds. Recording the infrared light given off by several large mountains, it found that the summits are brighter than the surrounding basins. That’s probably because they had not been subject to as much weathering in this corrosive environment.

This means that they would have erupted sometime within the last few hundred thousand years. If these volcanoes are active now, it’s because they are part of a deeper process that shapes our planet as well. On Earth, the release of heat from radioactive decay deep in its mantle is what drives the motion of oceanic and continental plates. It’s dependent on erosion and other processes associated with water. With no water on Venus, the planet’s internal heat builds to extreme levels, then escapes in outbreaks of volcanism that may be global in scope. This may explain why fewer than a thousand impact craters have been found on Venus. Anything older than about 500 million years has literally been paved over. So why did Venus diverge so radically from Earth when it was born in same solar system and under similar circumstances? There is growing evidence, still circumstantial, that Venus may in fact have had a wetter, more Earth-like past.

One of the most startling findings of the early Venus missions was the presence of deuterium, a form of hydrogen, in Venus’ upper atmosphere. It forms when ultraviolet sunlight breaks apart water molecules. Additional evidence recently came to light. Venus Express trained its infrared sensors on the planet’s night side, to look at how the terrain emits the energy captured in the heat of the day. This picture is a composite of over a thousand individual images of Venus’ southern hemisphere. Higher elevation areas, shown in blue, emit less heat than the surrounding basins. That supports a hypothesis that these areas are made not of lava, but of granite. On Earth, granite forms in volcanoes when magma mixes with water. If there’s granite on Venus, then there may well have been water. If Earth and Venus emerged together as twin blue marbles, then at some point, the two worlds parted company.

Earth developed ways to moderate its climate, in part by removing carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from its atmos phere. Plants, for one, absorb CO2 and release oxygen in photosynthesis. One square kilometer of tropical jungle, for example, can take in several hundred tons of co2 in just a year. That’s nothing compared to the oceans. In a year’s time, according to one recent study, just one square kilometer of ocean can absorb 41 million tons of CO2. Earth takes in its own share of CO2. When rainfall interacts with rocks, a chemical reaction known as “weathering” converts atmospheric CO2 to carbonate compounds. Runoff from the land washes it into rivers and the seas, where they settle into ocean sediments. With little water and no oceans, Venus has no good way to remove CO2 from its atmosphere. Instead, with volcanic eruptions adding more and more CO2 to the atmosphere, it has trapped more and more of the sun’s heat in a runaway greenhouse effect. Venus is so hot that liquid water simply cannot survive on the surface. Nor, it seems, can it last in the upper atmosphere.

The culprit is the Sun. The outer reaches of its atmosphere, the corona, is made up of plasma heated to over a million degrees Celsius. From this region, the sun sends a steady stream of charged particles racing out into the solar system. The solar wind reaches its peak in the wake of great looping eruptions on the surface of the Sun, called coronal mass ejections. The blast wave sweeps by Venus, then heads out toward Earth. Our planet is fortified against the solar blast. Plumes of hot magma rise and fall in Earth’s core as it spins, generating a magnetic field that extends far out into space. It acts as a shield, deflecting the solar wind and causing it to flow past. It’s this protective bubble that Venus lacks. Venus Express found that these solar winds are steadily stripping off lighter molecules of hydrogen and oxygen.

They escape the planet on the night side, then ride solar breezes on out into space. All this may be due to Venus’ size, 80% that of Earth. This prevents the formation of a solid iron core, and with it the rising and falling plumes that generate a strong magnetic field. There may be another reason too, according to a theory about the planet’s early years. A young planet Venus encountered one or more planet-sized objects, in violent collisions. The force of these impacts slowed its rotation to a crawl, and reversed it, reducing the chances that a magnetic field could take hold. This theory may have a surprising bearing on Earth’s own history. Scientists believe the sun was not always as hot as it is. In fact, going back several billion years, it was cool enough that Earth should have been frozen over. Because it was not, this is known as the faint young sun paradox. Earth’s salvation may well be linked to Venus’ fate.

The idea is that the Earth occupied an orbit closer to the Sun, allowing it to capture more heat. The gravity of two smaller planets with unstable orbits would have gradually pushed it out to its present orbit. The pair would eventually come together, merging to form the Venus we know. As dead as Venus is today, it has brought surprising dividends in the search for life. On its recent crossing between Earth and the Sun, astronomers were out in force. In remote locations where the viewing was optimal, such as the Svalbard islands north of Norway. The data gathered here would be added to that collected by solar telescopes on the ground and in space. To object for most was to experience a spectacle that will not occur again till the year 2117. It was also to capture sunlight passing through Venus’ atmosphere.

Today, the Kepler Space Telescope is searching for planets around distant stars by detecting dips in their light as a planet passes in front. Telescopes in the future may be able to analyze the light of the planet itself. If elements such as carbon or oxygen are detected, then these worlds may well be “Earth-like.” Venus provides a benchmark, and some valuable perspective. So what can we glean from the evolution of planet Venus? As we continue to scan the cosmic horizons, the story of Venus will stand as a stark reminder. It takes more than just the right size, composition, and distance from the parent star, for a planet to become truly Earth-like. No matter how promising a planet may be, there are myriad forces out there that can radically alter its course. For here was a world, Venus, poised perhaps on the brink of a glorious future.

But bad luck passed its way. Now, we can only imagine what might have become of Earth’s sister planet? 8.

Why I Left Greenpeace

In 1971 I helped found an environmental group in the basement of a Unitarian church in Vancouver, Canada. Fifteen years later, it had grown into an international powerhouse. We were making headlines every month. I was famous. And then I walked out the door. The mission, once noble, had become corrupted — political agendas and fear mongering trumped science and truth. Here’s how it happened. When I was studying for my PhD in ecology at the University of British Columbia, I joined a small activist group called the Don’t Make a Wave Committee. It was the height of the Cold War; the Vietnam War was raging. I became radicalized by these realities and by the emerging consciousness of the environment. The mission of the Don’t Make a Wave Committee was to launch an ocean-going campaign against US hydrogen bomb testing in Alaska, a symbol of our opposition to nuclear war. As one of our early meetings was breaking up, someone said, “Peace,” A reply came, “Why don’t we make it a green peace,” and a new movement was born. Green was for the environment and peace was for the people.

We named our boat “The Greenpeace” and I joined the 12-person crew for a voyage of protest. We didn’t stop that H-bomb test but it was the last hydrogen bomb the United States ever detonated. We had won a major victory. In 1975, Greenpeace took a sharp turn away from our anti-nuclear efforts and set out to Save the Whales, sailing the high seas to confront Russian and Japanese whalers. The footage we shot — young protesters positioned between harpoons and fleeing whales — was shown on TV around the world. Public donations poured in. By the early 1980s we were campaigning against toxic waste, air pollution, trophy hunting, and the live capture of orca whales. But I began to feel uncomfortable with the course my fellow directors were taking. I found myself the only one of six international directors with a formal science background. We were now tackling subjects that involved complex issues of toxicology, chemistry, and human health.

You don’t need a PhD in marine biology to know it’s a good thing to save whales from extinction. But when you’re analyzing which chemicals to ban, you need to know some science. And the first lesson of ecology is that we are all interconnected. Humans are part of nature, not separate from it. Many other species, disease agents and their carriers, for example, are our enemies and we have the moral obligation to protect human beings from these enemies. Biodiversity is not always our friend. I had noticed something else. As we grew into an international organization with over $100 million a year coming in, a big change in attitude had occurred. The “peace” in Greenpeace had faded away. Only the “green” part seemed to matter now. Humans, to use Greenpeace language, had become “the enemies of the Earth.” Putting an end to industrial growth and banning many useful technologies and chemicals became common themes of the movement. Science and logic no longer held sway.

Sensationalism, misinformation, and fear were what we used to promote our campaigns. The final straw came when my fellow directors decided that we had to work to ban the element chlorine worldwide. They named chlorine “The Devil’s Element,” as if it were evil. But this was absurd. Adding chlorine to drinking water was one of the biggest advances in the history of public health. And anyone with a basic knowledge of chemistry knew that many of our most effective pharmaceuticals had a chlorine component. Not only that, but if this anti-chlorine campaign succeeded it wouldn’t be our wealthy donors who would suffer. Wealthy individuals and countries always find a way around these follies. The ones who suffer are those in developing countries, people we’re presumably trying to help.

For example, Greenpeace has opposed the adoption of Golden Rice, a genetically modified variety of rice that contains beta carotene. Golden Rice has the potential to prevent the death of two million of the world’s poorest children every year. But that doesn’t matter to the Greenpeace crowd. GMO’s are bad. So Golden Rice must be bad. Apparently millions of children dying isn’t. This kind of rigid, backward thinking is usually attributed to the “unenlightened” and “the anti-scientific.” But I’ve discovered, from the inside out, that it can infect any organization, even those with names as noble sounding… as Greenpeace. I’m Patrick Moore for Prager University..

It’s so Cold, there can’t be Global Warming

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold tow opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald Meanwhile we’ve got this updated Fox news global warming alert, it is still cold, in fact it is getting colder, much colder, environmentalists telling me DUHHH “because it’s winter”…IT IS FREEZING! We’ve heard a lot of talk lately from deniers that cold temperatures are proof that there is no such thing as global waming. It looks like it will be an annual event for me to remind people that winter still follows summer. So, before we get started, a little review. It was a cool summer, right? Chicago, New York, places like that, so, how can it be global warming? This is how. Look at the context. These blue dots over North America represent below average temperatures for the summer, June, July, August, what we call climatological summer.

But look at the context, they’re lost in a sea of red dots, across much of the rest of the globe, just a couple other blue dots here and there, those red dots are above average temperatures. What that translates to in terms of a ranking, for this summer and for august, globally, second warmest on record, period of record going back a little more than a century. June through august globally, the third warmest on record, the oceans, which had cooled for a couple years, now recovered with a vengeance, August the warmest on record, June through August, also the warmest on record, and in the southern hemisphere, August was the warmest on record. The warm summer was followed up by a very warm november, globally, including abnormally warm temperatures in north america. Ironically, unseasonal warmth set the stage for dramatic winter weather, when temperatures did drop in december.

Let’s talk about why we’re seeing such a huge and significant lake effect event. The Great Lakes themselves, the water temperature there is still some 3 or 4 degrees warmer than it should normally be this time of year, because of a very mild November. Now again, its very cold air right now, its about 17 degrees, the cold air is coming over these warm lakes, picking up all this moisture, and dumping inch after inch of snow down wind, and, people, waking up on your friday, dealing with perhaps 2 to 4 feet of snow. People love to talk about the weather, and a series of strong storms and cold temperatures in December and early january sparked a lot of discussion. What scientists are telling us is that an important circulation pattern, the arctic oscillation, is in it’s negative phase. Normally, in the positive phase, the arctic oscillation produces strong winds around the arctic that keep cold air bottled up. When the oscillation is in its negative phase, cold air spills out of the arctic, and flows into north america and eurasia. Paradoxically, while temperate zones feel an arctic chill, the arctic itself becomes warmer than usual, exactly the effect that has been observed over the last several weeks.

The UK meteorological office produced this map, and described the observations. “Canada, North Africa, the mediterranean, and south-west Asia have all seen temperatures above normal, in many places by more than 5° C, and in parts of northern Canada, by more than 10° C.” When we look at the graph of the monthly arctic oscillation index, we can see that the current one is the strongest negative since the 1970s, which is why many people were surprised by the blasts of cold air, that are expected under these conditions. One effect was on air circulation over western europe, which normally flows from the west over the atlantic, delivering warmer air. Under the negative arctic oscillation, the warmer winds are blocked, and most of of the air flow is cold arctic winds, leading to snow and cold in many european countries. This diagram from NOAA shows the pattern of warmth in the arctic and unusual cold in mid latitudes around the northern hemisphere.

Dr Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data center, told reuter’s news agency: “It’s very warm over the Arctic, with air temperatures locally at 10 to 15 degrees F (5.6 to 8.4 degrees C) warmer than they should be in certain areas,” This map from NASA also shows the pattern, which was well illustrated in a BBC report with graphics from the UK Met office. This MET office maps show’s today’s temperatures around the northern hemisphere. There’s cold air over us, but warmer air elsewhere. Look further south and east, there’s an unusually warm band of air there. Then, further east, and over China, another very cold pocket. But just as the arctic was unseasonably warm, other areas of the globe also were not feeling the cold. While much of the Northern Hemisphere suffers from one of the hardest winters in years, the thermometer is shooting way up, down under. On Monday, Melbourne was melting with highs soaring to 110 degrees fahrenheit, monday night, Melbourne sweltered through its hottest night since 1902, the temperatures topping 34 degrees Celsius, or 93 degrees fahrenheit.

Most people think of global warming as a process where the planet sets new warming records year after year. A clearer picture comes in a new study from the National Center for Atmospheric research, described here by senior scientist Gerald Meehl. But what we noticed is in the last 10 or 20 years there’s been this ratio of about 2 to 1, for every 2 record high maximum temperatures, there’s only been about one record low minimum temperature set, on average over the US. We looked at a model simulation going off into the future, and in this model simulation we had a scenario where we are increasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases going off into the twenty first century. And as the climate continued to warm, this ratio continued to grow. In other words, you kept having more and more record high maximum temperatures, fewer and fewer record low minimum temperatures. So by the mid twenty first century, this ratio, which is now about 2 to 1, was about 20 to one, by the end of the century, with this continued warming, this continued change in the distribution of records, the ratio is about 50 to 1.

One of the messages of this study is, you still get cold days. Even at the end of the twenty first century, in the model simulation, when the climate’s warmed up by 3° or 4° Centigrade on average across the US, you’re still setting record low minimum temperatures on a few days every year. So, people always get very alarmed if there’s a cold snap in the winter, and they say, “what’s happened to global warming? We’re freezing out here.” And you say, well, that’s just the weather. In the northeast we’re talking temperatures well above average, Boston heading up to 43, warm in New York at 44, DC, we’re in the 50s, that’s about 10 degrees above average. And no cold in the midwest either, we are well above average here, friday temperatures 20 degrees above average in Bismark, at 39 degrees, we’ll be warm in Kansas City, in Denver will be mild, and in Great Falls, Montana, about 20 degrees above average, the warmth hangs on on saturday, all across the midwest.

When I look out at the world from a limited perspective, my senses tell me that the earth is flat. For thousands of years, most human beings probably believed that this was so. But in a technological, scientific world, our perception is greatly expanded, and we have a much larger view of the world and our place in it. We need to understand the larger perspective about our changing climate as well. Sophisticated instruments and advanced science show us details that our senses could never see, and recent satellite measurements show, that in fact, on january 13th, global temperatures were the warmest for a january day in the satellite record. And this week, NASA released data showing that 2009, was the second hottest year in the instrumental record. We’ll be looking more at this new data in coming weeks and months. The science of global climate is vital for us to understand if we are to pass along to our children a planet that is liveable, diverse, and abundant.

It’s the most important task this generation will undertake, and you can keep track of our progress right here, on climate denial crock of the week..

The Crazy Plan to Capture and Store CO2 Under the Ocean

CO2 is created by every living thing on the planet, but also by burning fossil fuels, which is causing global warming… So, what if we just trapped it all under the ocean? That'd work, right? Howdy oxygenators, Trace here for DNews. Every breath you take, you'll be exhaling CO2. In fact, each exhale contains 100 times more CO2 than was inhaled, totalling about 2 lbs of CO2 per day, per person. Carbon Dioxide is odorless, colorless, highly toxic; and apparently tastes "pungent" and acidic. Because Earth is a relatively closed system, so carbon never leaves. It gets burned and then trapped and then breathed and reused all over the planet again and again. Most of us probably connect CO2 with breathing. While we only release pounds per day, industry releases tons, and if we don't capture it, the CO2 will continue to exacerbate the greenhouse effect.

In 2014 we were projected to release 37 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the air, which is more than the planet can absorb. This is getting serious. So, scientists are working on ways to filter and trap this ubiquitous gas. In the 1930s, researchers figured out if you bubble air through a solution of a derivative of ammonia called amine, the CO2 will be plucked out, "scrubbing" the air clean. We've since developed a bunch of other ways to capture it, but in 2014 MIT developed a super-efficient process using electrochemistry — electricity plus chemistry — it's awesome. The researchers used amines to pick up CO2, just like in the 1930s, but they added a modern twist. When you bubble polluted air through an amine solution those guys naturally want to cling to CO2. They love it. But then, electricity throws copper ions into the mix.

If you're an amine, copper ions are way more enticing than CO2, so they drop the toxic gas like a bad habit and pick up the copper. At that point the lonely CO2 floats out of the system! Yay! Afterward, the copper is pulled away from the amines who have to run through that process again and again. I sort of feel bad for the hard-workin' little guys, you know? But back to the CO2. So now that we've filtered it, then what? Well, because industry faces such strict penalties for releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, they've created Carbon Capture and Storage technologies. Essentially, most companies take the filtered CO2, cool it until the gas becomes a liquid, and then transport it somewhere for storage. There are two major ways to do this, one is straightforward, and one just seems crazy. The straightforward one is called geologic carbon sequestration. In the States, the US Geological Survey has identified 36 regions around the country where the CO2 could be injected into porous areas of rock between 3,000 and 15,000 feet underground (914-4600M).

And hopefully, there it will stay. The second CRAZY one, is similar, but it's oceanic carbon sequestration. In liquid form, CO2 is denser than water. So theoretically, if we just, pumped it under the ocean, the water above it would hold it down there like a weighted blanket. A 2013 study in Geophysical Research Letters looked at the viability of pumping liquid CO2 to the bottom of the ocean, and determined it would form a lake of liquid carbon dioxide. Yep. A lake. The high-pressure, cold world of the deep sea would hold it in stasis for perhaps 1,000 years. I know what you're thinking, and yes, both of the ideas have their dangers. For example in geologic sequestration the pressure of the rock above should keep the CO2 liquid and it should stay there. Should. But if the CO2 finds its way out of the rock… global disaster. In the undersea example, the implications are also dangerous. CO2 is toxic, remember, so it could drastically increase ocean acidity, and deep sea life might not survive. Plus, if it DID leak out… global catastrophe again. Look, there's no real, permanent solution to CO2 problems except maybe venting it into space somehow… or simply stopping the release of so much carbon.

Pollution doesn't just hurt the planet, it can also hurt YOU. Check out how in this video! And if you're down to listen to my weird voice, come subscribe to my podcast! On each episode we take 45 minutes to dig into a topic all the way to the brass tacks. Here's a taste Every time we talk about this stuff, I just want to never use fossil fuels again. What about you? Ever feel guilty about your carbon footprint? Tell me about it….

Understanding Climate Change – How Greenhouse Gases Warm the Earth

Our atmosphere contains a number of different gases. It's mostly made up of nitrogen (about 78%) and oxygen, about 21%. But it also contains a number of gases known as greenhouse gases. These include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, and chlorofluorocarbons, which are usually man-made. They're called greenhouse gases because the properties of these gases allow them to retain heat leading to a warming of our atmosphere. Let's take a closer look at how this happens. Our sun produces light, which is composed of small particles called photons. These photons pass through the atmosphere and collide with the surface of the planet. If the surface of the planet is lightly colored, such as areas that are covered by ice or snow, the photons may be reflected back into space. However, if the surface is darker, such as forests or oceans, the photons are absorbed.

When this happens, some of the photons' energy is converted to heat, which radiates away from the surface. You experience this effect when you wear darker clothing outside. The dark fabric absorbs photons from the sun's rays, usually resulting in heat. This heat from photons, also called infrared radiation, radiates from the surface into the atmosphere. Most of this heat moves through the atmosphere and is lost into space. However, some of the heat interacts with greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide water vapor, and methane. These molecules absorb the infrared energy and slowly release it back into the atmosphere over time. It's important to realize that greenhouse gases play an essential role in the maintenance of our planet's temperature, helping it to stay within the limits that allow life to flourish. Normally, these gases are needed at very small concentrations, often in the magnitude of parts per million. In fact, if our atmosphere had fewer greenhouse gases, the majority of the water on the planet would exist as ice. However, human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, and modern agricultural practices, have resulted in an increase in the concentration of some types of greenhouse gases – most notably carbon dioxide and methane.

This graph shows the progressive increase in carbon dioxide concentrations over the past five decades. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now over 400 parts per million, which represents a greater than 20% increase since the 1960s. This increase in carbon dioxide concentrations, as well as other greenhouse gases such as methane, is directly related to an observed increase in global temperatures as shown on the graph here. This process is called global warming. As the planet warms, it causes changes in regional climates. This is commonly referred to as climate change. Scientists have already documented numerous cases where climate change is altering weather patterns, producing areas of severe storms, flooding, and droughts. At the current rate of greenhouse gas increase, it's projected that the average global temperature may increase by another 3.6 degrees F by 2100.

However, the exact amount of warming that will occur in the coming century depends largely on the energy choices we make now and in the coming years. Particularly since those choices directly influence how fast we put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere..

The Fern That Cooled the Planet

Let’s talk about climate change, and I don’t mean the kind that’s happening right now. I mean the massive shift in climate that happened about 50 million years back, when Earth went from toasty warm to ice age. And that huge change may have mostly been caused by … a fern. Alright, so Earth was really hot 50 million years ago. I’m talking like, total greenhouse planet, lots of CO2 in the air, palm trees and alligators living near the poles. That kind of hot. Then something happened. The planet started to slowly cool, and all those poor gators had to relocate as the poles eventually formed ice caps, and the climate eventually shifted into cycles of hundred-thousand-year ice ages with shorter breaks in between them. In 2004, an Arctic Coring Expedition started poking around the North Pole looking for clues about what might have tipped the scales toward that global cooling so long ago.

When they pulled up sediment core samples from under the Arctic Ocean, they found a series of sediment layers that reached back nearly 80 million years. And sure enough, the scientists noticed something unusual right around the 50 million year mark. A column of tiny fossilized ferns that was almost 10 meters deep. That was …. surprising. The ferns were a type of Azolla, a genus of dime-sized, moss-like aquatic ferns that grow floating on the surface of water. Specifically though, fresh water. But if these ferns grow in fresh water, what were they doing in the arctic ocean? Well, you gotta keep in mind that the Earth’s geography was very different back then. The Arctic ocean was essentially landlocked, and researchers think that runoff from rivers formed a layer of fresh water over the saltwater. Which made it a cozy, nutrient-rich environment that Azolla ferns would have loved. Like, really loved.

The little plant flourished for nearly a million years, erupting in blooms that covered millions of square kilometers. Eventually, though, shifting landmasses reopened a connection to other oceans, causing a deadly influx of saltwater. That’s when the Azolla died and sank to the bottom of the ocean, forming the layers of sediment that we’d pull up millions of years later. But what does all this have to do with Earth cooling down? Well, as you probably know, long-term climate cycles have a lot to do with the atmospheric tug of war between various gases. Extra carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases, for example, can trap heat and warm the planet. And Azolla may have helped remove a lot of those gases in a few ways. First, there’s the fern’s relationship with a type of cyanobacteria called Anabaena The bacteria pass between ferns through their reproductive spores, and live within their leaves. Anabaena is great at taking in nitrogen from the atmosphere, and using it to provide the fern with fertilizer. This fertilizing process is so effective that under the right conditions, Azolla can double its mass in just a couple of days. It also would have helped absorb lots and lots of nitrogen from the atmosphere.

There’s also the fact that Azolla, like all photosynthesizing plants, is really good at eating up carbon dioxide. In fact, researchers estimate that over the course of those million years or so, Azolla blooms might have gobbled up about half of all atmospheric CO2 — reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from an estimated 2500 – 3500 parts per million down to like 1500 parts per million, and kicking off a cooling trend in the climate. When the Arctic eventually opened up again, those huge blooms sank deep into the ocean, where a lack of oxygen kept them from decaying, effectively keeping all of that carbon dioxide locked up, and out of the atmosphere. Azolla is still around today, and there are at least six known living species, and there’s enough of the stuff that it’s considered a weed in some places. It can be used as fertilizer, food for livestock, and has shown some promise in wastewater treatment. There’s also a crowdfunded research project that’s currently working on expanding our knowledge of the plant’s evolution and ecology by sequencing the Azolla genome.

Because the question on a lot of minds right now is… can Azolla help cool the planet again? With more research, we might just find out. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow, which was brought to you by our patrons on Patreon. If you want to help support this show, you can go to patreon.com/scishow. And don’t forget to go to youtube.com/scishow and subscribe!.