Monday, December 14, 2015

A Tale of Two Planets - our Doomsday prediction and the way out.

We have heard about climate change, global warming, green house effect etc.. but among the general noise of work, advertisements, entertainment, gossip etc they also fade away as any other topic would. In todays well connected, busy and distracting world, nothing can maintain the scope or be in the center of attention for more than a week.

There are other philosophical questions/thoughts as well about who we are and what our goals, purpose are but they too have no chance keeping up with the changing, dynamic, eventful busy world. Human mind has this weakness.. even if it manages to identify what is the essence, most important issues and priorities (once in a blue moon that is).. it cant stay focused on those priorities for much long. If we finally manages to have a long term focus on something, they are usually the less important things like jobs, careers, profits etc.

How dare we say things like careers are less important ? Well, they are less important because there are simply more important things than them, whether we like that or not. However important they may be, once in a blue moon realizations don't have much more of a chance than a snow flake in hell to compete (in terms of grabbing and sustaining the attention and focus of our minds) against day to day issues, matters like economies and careers, gossip, news, hobbies. So we fall back to maintain the status quo and life goes on as usual....

However, there are those rare times when u hear a story..... stories are powerful. A proper story connects with you and your beliefs and values in a way that the message get sinks in like no other. These stories change the world.  Some of Ted Talks have done that for few people, so I have heard. Some of powerful speeches from influential people have done that for some others. It could be Martin Luther Kings 'I have a dream', or Mahathma Gandhi or Steve jobs 'connecting the dots' to some. For most of us, we probably haven't heard the story meant for us, not yet!

This is about such a story... I heard a part of it first from 'Cosmos' TV series from Neil de Grass Tyson

I later read the essence of it in the form of a quote from Elon Musk

See whether this is the one which was waiting for you!

Story goes like this....

Venus and Earth are sister planets, in that they are very similar to each other. They are close, about the same distance to the sun, similar sizes with hard surfaces and an atmosphere. Similarities were much numerous several hundreds of millions of years ago.

Like its sister Earth, Venus also was a beautiful planet. It had its own nice blue oceans of liquid water. It was a heavenly planet, conditions were very close to that of bearing life. However, there were violent volcanic actions on Venus which continuously put billions of tons of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon Dioxide levels in the air contributed to Green House effect where the sun light could come through the CO2 layer into the planet but can not get out of it, and hence it traps suns energy, raising temperatures higher and higher. much like how the high temperatures are maintained inside green houses.

When green house effect reaches certain level it becomes like a chain reaction, leading into rapid temperature rises, we call it a runaway green house effect. This is exactly what happens to the Venus, rising temperatures made the sea water evaporate into atmosphere and then leaked away slowly into the space. Venus never saw water again, and the beautiful blue oceans were no more. Meanwhile temperatures rose even faster... Fast forward to few hundreds of millions of years to the present day and we see Venus today is a much hotter planet than even Mercury (which, as you know is much closer to the sun). With high temperatures Venus has a high atmospheric pressure as well. It's dry, hot and very inhospitable to life. A hell, in short....

This was the natural path which was set for its sister as well. Earth also has high volcanic activity those days and writing was on the wall basically. However, a nice twist of things happened here on earth. A thing called trees appeared!

Trees had this habit of taking Carbon Dioxide out of the atmosphere, releasing Oxygen back and storing Carbon in its bodies. Rapid expansion of Trees meant slowly Oxygen levels in the atmosphere rose while Carbon levels were kept in check.

Of course the body of tree eventually die, decompose and Carbon Dioxide (via the activity of micro organisms) will go back into atmosphere. However, this decomposing process is much slower compared to expansion of trees, by the time one decompose, several more tress would grow into take more Carbon Dioxide out.  More importantly, large parts of Trees and Animal bodies got trapped beneath the earth surface and got stored as hydrocarbons. Since this was below the surface these carbon stores were there for millions of years. This made the carbon cycle to break and atmospheric carbon levels never grew into threatening levels capable of creating a green house effect.

Therefore, success of life as we know it on planet Earth is very much indebted to the fact that carbon being stored below earth surface (due to the activity of trees) without getting it into the atmosphere.

Without this storage, earth too would have very well followed its close sisters path.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what we have been reversing in past few decades. In our moment of madness and greed, we are digging up buried carbon, bringing them back up to the surface and burn them into the atmosphere! Currently we add as much as 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year!

Now to the dangerous runway green house effect.. this is the chain reaction when one thing leads to more of the same, until the cycle becomes unbreakable and too late to stop. We are seeing signs of it even now.. increased temperatures mean less ice in polar caps, less ice means less sun light reflected back into space, means further increases in temperatures. Methane (an even more dangerous green house gas than carbon dioxide) buried in the bottom of sea bed get released when sea water reach certain high temperatures, Methane trapped in perma frost get released when those areas in siberia get defrosted... etc. Once these actions reach a certain tipping point, there is no way back and it will be too late to reverse..

Imagine Venus... a hot, boiling, barren hell which was once a beautiful planet with a blue ocean.

Elon Musk has summarized this as follows.

"Burning Fossil Fuels Is the Dumbest Experiment in History, By Far."

Changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere and oceans by adding enormous amounts of CO2 that have been buried since the Precambrian Era is a crazy experiment indeed.

Once we see fossil fuels in this angle, we can never go back and see it as a precious resource or as 'black gold' anymore. The most important and possibly the only real use we can get from Fossil Fuels is to keep them safely buried under the ground, never to be dug up ever again! 

The greatest challenge in our generation is to battle climate change. That is to reduce and stop carbon emissions. In other words, to get away from fossil fuels! This is the most glorious battle field there ever can be in our generation, where heroes will be made and villains will be defined.