April 16, 2017

Why to March for Science: We Live and Breath in our own Fish Tank.

Northern Lights, north of the American midwest,
fromthe International Space Station.
(NASA Space Observatory)
The aurora borealis, the northern lights, green here as viewed from the international space station (ISS). The large blob of yellow light, in the middle, comes from the Chicago metropolitan area. You can read more about this amazing photo at NASA's - Earth Observatory website, and see the same image with the locations of US cities indicated. (Can you also spot the lightning occurring?) Kind of reminds you of that Star Trek movie where Jean Luc and the gang go back in time and reverse the Borg take over of the Earth, where the "Borg Earth" looked pretty much like this photograph. We are everywhere.

The Northern Lights are pretty. I grew up in "lower" northern Alberta on a Canadian Air Force Base in Cold Lake. The atmosphere was a big part of my life then, as an Air Cadet I earned my glider pilot and then single-engine pilot licences at Rivers Manitoba and Edmonton Alberta. I graduated from Grand Centre High School in 1980, Alberta's 75th anniversary. We all got a commemorative Alberta-75th pin that year, I still have it. We lived just North-east of Edmonton near the Saskatchewan border, and south of Fort McMurray, where the oils sands are.

In the summer time, as the days became longer, we would play outside at 11-pm, with the Sun still well high above the horizon. It was not hard to get away from town lights and to be aware of the stars in the night sky. To actually look up and see the milky way when the summer sky finally darkened. Then, on days of solar activity, it happened: the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis. That name is derived from the ancient Greek goddess of dawn (Aurora) and god of wind (Borealis).  The first time I saw the Northern Lights was a warm summer night in our own front yard on that air base in Cold Lake, and as the Sun began to set, a greenish, sometimes blue, gigantic billowing curtain began to appear. Literally. A giant curtain. It formed the perfect image of a billowing curtain, as if it was being gently blown by wind entering an open window. Like a thin, transparent delicate drape of fabric, moving in waves as if it were hung from some unseen curtain rod. But this was was a massive curtain. The sense of something so large, feeling like a gigantic object draped over the world! Almost, for a moment, it was scary. My adrenalin surged. Then as we watched and marveled, it became apparent that there was nothing to fear from this phenomena. However, the real visual perception of such a gigantic drape across the heavens above, looking big enough to fall upon the Earth, was unnerving.

So as you look at that NASA ISS photo, above, realize that the solar wind is comprised of bursts of charged hydrogen atoms (protons) hitting the thinnest reaches of our atmosphere. They have already been slowed and deflected by the Earth's magnetic field. The thickness of the atmosphere in the photograph above is a bit distorted on the left of the picture, because of the way the view was assembled from many photographic multiple exposures. It actually appears thicker than it is. You can get an instant sense with your own eyes of two important facts:

1) The illusion we have, here on the ground, looking upwards to the sky, is that the air above us is a vast volume towering so high above us that we could never possibly harm it. Surely there is so much air, so much volume that we could hardly change our atmosphere? That conclusion is an illusion some politicians want you to keep believing.

2) The idea of an Earth covered in a Borg-like civilization, like a dense rash over our whole body, is not just fiction. Look careful at how the American mid-west is quite densely populated. Do you live in this photograph? I do, north of Detroit, Michigan. As our population doubling time decreases, that density of light will continue to fill in even more with human activity.

So, is this your Fish Tank? This is my Fish Tank. It is the Fish Tank that your kids and my kids will inherit from us. Maybe your kids are in college now or just married? This is the Fish Tank of your future grandchildren too. This is OUR Fish Tank, and just like the fish who are swimming around in your living room or your Kid's bedroom, this is the Fish Tank we must swim in. We swim here, we breathe here and yes, just like the real fish in the pet store, we pee here too. We add stuff, maybe not good stuff, to our atmosphere.

Look closely at this photograph. Just like your fish tank at home, there is some capacity of the Earth to filter some gasses and chemicals and convert them into other gasses and chemicals. A mixture of organisms (animals, bacteria, yeast, insects, plants.) drives much of this conversion. All can be fine in your fish tank, until the filter system gets overwhelmed. You have to keep changing that filter in your fish tank. You know what happens to your fish if the filter stops working, and you fail to notice soon enough to save your fish? By the time you smell the fish tank......…..dead fish.

Here in the United States, we have a movement that resists the idea of climate change being influenced by man. We have a new White House that has appointed a climate change denialist to be head of the EPA. Those of us who worry about pollution and environmental toxicity are painted as anti-God, or anti-American by this movement. But that is just a tactic that really has nothing at all to do with religion. As a man who was raised in a Christian tradition, and as a scientist, I truly believe that any self proclaimed Christian who reads their Bible and pays attention to it, cannot possibly ignore what they are taught right up front in first pages of the book of Genesis. Mankind is clearly given some responsibility to take care of the Earth. Mankind is also free to do what they choose, and that includes killing their brother or helping their brother. Man and woman also get the choice to take care of our Fish Tank or destroy its potential to give us a place to live and breathe.

If you imagine that that the Earth is represented by a basketball, the lower part of the atmosphere that contains 90% of our atmosphere's density (far below the Northern Lights) is only about the thickness of a bath towel laid over its surface. Physics has shown us decades ago that our planet's average temperature is 59° F. The Carbon Dioxide and Methane in our atmosphere is only about 0.1% (one tenth of 1 percent) of gases. Nitrogen, Oxygen and Argon form the rest. The funny thing is that if we took away that tiny tiny amount of Carbon Dioxide and Methane, down to Zero %, the average temperature of the Earth would be 0° F, yes ZERO degrees. 

Are you Christian, Jewish, Muslim? Do you follow another religion, or are you an atheist? Frankly, it does not matter to me if you are smart enough to think for yourself about the fish tank you share with me. If only 0.1% of Carbon Dioxide and Methane keep us 59 degrees warmer, it obviously does not take a lot more Carbon Dioxide to warm up the Earth another few degrees. That tiny increase is easily produced by human industrial activity. 

Sometimes, we can get a brief view of the Northern Lights way down here in south-east Michigan. It is rare, but it does happen. Should you ever drive north of the 50th parallel though, and should you ever look up and feel your heart almost stop in shock when you see that big green scary curtain billowing in the heavens above you, and your kids grab your arm to feel safe, remember this picture from NASA, taken by those science geeks. Remember how many humans are crawling around the surface of our planet, and think about the future of your own Children. Mostly, I encourage you to think for yourself. I cannot force you to make any conclusions about climate change, but I do know one thing. You and I are both peeing in the same Fish Tank today, and we both have to swim in it tomorrow.

So I will marching for science on April 22nd, Earth Day. There are marches in Washington DC and numerous other cities in the US and around the globe. Find one near you next Saturday, and let your politicians know that you want them making laws and policies guided by science and facts. 

Ken Mitton

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