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​Blue crayon

Gadfly | July 29th, 2015

From black space to bright blue earth: a fragile thin line

Astronaut Sally Ride, our first woman in space, spent time looking at earth as the space shuttle hurtled around the earth, entranced by a bright day turning into a dark night in a single orbit: “I saw the blackness of space, and then the bright blue Earth. And then it looked as if someone had taken a royal blue crayon and traced along Earth’s horizon. And then I realized that the blue line, that really thin royal blue line, was Earth’s atmosphere, and that was all there was of it. And that’s so clear from that perspective how fragile our existence is.”

A 1972 Apollo 17 photo of Earth, known as “the blue marble,” was taken from 28,000 miles away, with white wispy clouds hiding some of the blues and greens of Earth. A better-quality photo was recently shot from a million miles away by a NASA satellite, the image revealing desert sand structures, river systems and fascinating cloud patterns. NASA’s Project DSCOVR is researching solar winds and their effect on telecommunications.

The June 1 New Yorker has an article called “Project Exodus,” which reported on the possibilities of colonizing Mars. Space is not kind to humans. We are not built for space travel. We are spending billions to see if we ever can travel to Mars.

The Kelly twins are currently involved in a yearlong study of how space affects humans. Both are astronauts, but Scott is on the International Space Station while brother Mark is in Houston. At the end of the year we will be able to better judge the difficulties of living in space, particularly in comparing Mark’s body to what happens to Scott’s body.

NASA historian Erik Conway is concerned about the desire to travel to distant planets and the amount of resources it will take. Critic John Huxhold agrees: “We should not supplant the real environmental imperative to preserve the earth with the fantasy of colonizing other planets. Eventually super-rich thrill seekers may get to spend a long weekend on the moon; anyone who does make it to Mars would represent an infinitesimal fraction of the earth’s population, since radiation there is severe and normal communication would be impossible … Making life on Mars ‘normal’ would be a monumental waste of resources, with minimal scientific returns … NASA should turn more of its attention to saving the earth rather than leaving it.” It will take humans a two-and-a-half year ride to get to Mars. Let’s get real.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth ...

Things are getting a little crowded. It’s expected we will add two billion more residents by 2050, making a total of nine million to feed, clothe and shelter. China is getting crowded, even with its former one-child-per-family policy. Some Chinese workers are commuting up to five hours per day. For 50 years the Chinese have tried to limit the size of the capital by restrictive residency permits.

The government is now planning to make Beijing into a super-city of 130 million people, six times the size of the New York City metro area, and covering 82,000 square miles. It will be the size of Kansas and contain a population larger than a third of the United States. It will also be the hub of a high-speed rail system that will connect all large Chinese cities within an hour’s commute of one another! Anyway, that’s the central government’s plan. The Chinese hope that speed will replace distance and that new infrastructure including subways, transit systems, roads and bridges will solve the commuting problem.

Remember how lawyers and others pay people to stay in lines for days to save them seats in the U.S. Supreme Court? Now, Chinese retired family members patiently wait in bus lines for hours to save seats for those employed in the family — who then ride buses for three hours to get to a job 25 miles away.

The environmental documentary “Revolution” was shown on Earth Day, revealing the Earth’s sickness and how the present generation can help save it. We have a gaggle of politicians in both parties who keep using the excuse, “I’m no scientist, but I believe humans are not adding anything to climate change.” They need to start paying attention to 98 percent of the climate scientists in the world, who say we are in serious trouble — because of our human activities.

The documentary took four years and visits to 15 countries. The filmmaker uses the Baobab tree on the island of Madagascar to make a point. The tree lives longer than 2,000 years on an island where 90 percent of the trees have been cut. The filmmaker says: “During the life span of just one tree we built engines, cured diseases, took to the sky, reached the moon and the bottom of the sea (took pictures of Pluto 3.7 billion miles from Earth — after a nine-year journey!), colonized almost every habitable place, celebrated arts, connected billions of people with technology, and increased our population from a few hundred million to seven billion!” Aren’t we terrific!

If we don’t change our practices, where will we be in 2050?

A New Yorker cartoon captures how climate change deniers feel about doing something about it. A naked Adam and Eve are in the Garden of Eden underneath the Tree of Knowledge, a large snake dangling from a branch. Adam is sitting in a Lazyboy, examining an ESPN magazine, beer in hand, watching a game on a large flat screen. Eve is leaning over Adam, an apple in hand. The caption? Adam says, “No thanks!” Well, I thought it was funny.

Recent studies show that 90 percent of the big fish are gone, 75 percent of the forests are gone, oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and phytoplankton — plants in the ocean responsible for producing at least half of the oxygen we breathe — are rapidly declining. Fresh water is getting scarce around the world — and grain stores have never been lower. Other than that we are in good shape!

But if we continue what we are now doing to the Earth and its environs, by 2050, when we have those nine billion souls, we might not have any fisheries, coral reefs, rainforests, have rapidly declining oxygen regeneration — and wars among those nine billion fighting over what remains.

We have reached this crisis through scientific ignorance, a lack of imagination, governmental indifference, and the constant lobbying of the biggest corporations in the world trying to separate the middle-class from its last dollar.

Is the world worth fighting for? What if we focused on restoring ecosystems, capturing carbon from the atmosphere by good farming practices, energized the power of the sun which is capable of supplying all of our power, reforested the land, and filled the restored rivers, lakes, and oceans with life? What if we concentrated on saving the Earth instead of economic growth destroying it?

We have Washington evangelistic and conservative politicians who say God will never let us destroy His home. Maybe He won’t, but to this point He has exhibited only Divine Neglect. We have a majority political party which believes there is no profit, no monetary gain in saving the world. It is interested only in lowering taxes, limiting imagination and planning next quarter’s profits — and the 2016 election. They seem to be saying, “To hell with the next generation.” We can’t last very long with this attitude.

How climate change threatens a culture and a way of life

The English newspaper The Guardian is getting to be my main source of world news. It seems our major newspapers are selective about publishing news that might offend our huge corporations.

This London-based paper went to Point Hope, Alaska, 700 miles north of Anchorage, to cover how climate change is affecting the culture and way of life of 900 Inupiat villagers who live on the permafrost near the Chukchi Sea, the water and ice which provides them with the fat and flesh of the bowhead whale. The yearly calendar is dominated by the seasons of fishing, hunting, and gathering of other food. The village has two stores, one school, a restaurant that serves pizza, burgers, and occasional Chinese. Alcohol is banned, though a gallon of milk runs $12, a pound of hamburger about the same.

Villagers eat a lot of whale. A bowhead whale is 60 feet long, weighs about 75 tons, and supplies thousands of pounds of dense protein of “Native Soul” food. In olden times they could always harpoon a number of whales each year and store the flesh in permafrost “freezers” carved out of the ground.

In order to harvest and cut up the whales there must be ice thick and strong enough so the villagers can pull the harpooned whale onto the ice. But now the ice is unstable because of warmer temperatures. Alaska had its hottest year on record in 2014. Temperatures have been rising in the Point Hope area since the 1980s, with summer temps near record highs. In the winter of 2015 Point Hope had no snow, so villagers could not use snowmobiles to hunt walrus. They survived because they killed three whales and found ice just thick enough to pull them out of the water. But now they have another problem. The permafrost is no longer permanent. It is melting and destroying their freezers which are filled with whale meat.

Permafrost is also loaded with methane gas — which is released when it melts. Methane gas then becomes part of atmospheric gases which force climate change. It also rains so often they can’t dry meat and fish outside.

Other evidence of climate change from around the world

A 111-degree heat wave in Karachi, Pakistan, a city of 20 million, combined with power outages, killed over 1,150 in less than a month. Hospitals were so filled with heat victims nurses could hardly walk through the halls.

India, another developing country ill-prepared to cope with extreme temperature changes, suffered heat deaths of over 2,500 in the previous month.

The country of Vanuatu, a nation of 267,000 people composed of 65 islands in the South Pacific, recently suffered extensive damage from a Category Five cyclone named Pam. Over 90 percent of the homes on the islands were damaged. The Pacific Ocean is warmer today than in previous years and threatens to destroy many island chains.

Las Vegas is spending $1.5 billion to build a 3-mile-long pipeline so it can tap into Lake Mead at the 800-foot level to get colder and cleaner water than it is now getting at the 1,050-foot level. Lake Mead is now at its record low of 1,074.99 feet, indicating that Colorado River users are beginning to drain it dry. The West is in a 15-year drought that has no signs of ending.

Federal scientists just reported that June of 2015 was the hottest month on record globally. Extremes of temperature bring on extreme storms.

Hundreds of starving sea lion pups are stranded on California beaches because the warming of the oceans forces adult sea lions to hunt further from shores away from their pups. Over 35,000 walruses in the Chukchi Sea have been forced to dry land because much of their offshore ice has disappeared in the warmer Alaska weather.

Glamorous Miami Beach is gradually losing out to a 10-inch rise of the Atlantic. Salt water bubbles up through building foundations, forcing sewage up through cracks in roads and sidewalks. Ground-floor garages can no longer hold cars because of seepage — and the salt water quickly destroys nice paint jobs.

We currently have 4.2 million Americans who live at an elevation of four feet or less. Almost 2.4 million of them live in South Florida. Hurricane storm surges are often over ten feet. Welcome to climate change.

When will the Best Congress Money Can Buy act save Earth? Stephen Hawking has started a $100 million project to determine if intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe. Maybe we should spend that money to see if there is some on Earth, particularly in Washington.



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