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Orbital Debris and a Slushy North Pole

Every year I update data for our Environment chapter in The World Almanac. It’s useful info but it isn’t always clear how the trends shown in the data can affect you in your daily life. This is especially true for tables showing increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. But every so often, the numbers and trends translate into real-world events. A couple pieces from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) on global warming caught my eye yesterday. The first unexpected. The other kinda scary.

In the “unanticipated consequences of carbon dioxide emissions” category, according to scientists, increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will, by 2017, result in a reduction in density in the Earth’s outer atmosphere, which will affect satellites, spacecraft, and debris (left over booster rockets, parts of spacecraft, etc.) in orbit. The debris is the big worry. Usually, friction in the upper atmosphere slows the orbiting junk so that it falls to Earth and burns up in the atmosphere. With a less dense upper atmosphere, there will be more junk floating around, which could be hazardous to orbiting satellites human-piloted craft.

The second and much more alarming bit of research hits a little closer to home (or in my case, office, which is only a few blocks from a tidal estuary, an area likely to be underwater in the event of a global deluge). According to NCAR scientists, by 2040, there will be no ice covering over the north pole during the summer unless there isn’t a significant and immediate reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. In addition, the wintertime thickness of the ice will be reduced from about 12 feet (what it is now), to only about 3 feet. That’s a pretty bold prediction and there are probably some holes in the analysis, which was done using computer models, but the scenario is still a worrisome one.

Here’s a link to the piece about atmospheric thickness.
And here's the link to the piece about the ice caps.


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