By Dr. Richard Koral, Leader
Summertime! And the livin’ could definitely be easier! Climate change could deliver something positive but, so far, it hasn’t. No one would mind a few palm trees in Brighton Beach. But instead, we’re seeing triple-digit temperatures in the northwest and monsoon rains here in the east. As I write this in July, there are almost 400 fires burning in California. Who could have imagined 113 degree temps—not in Death Valley—but in British Columbia?
Not since the Cuyahoga River in Ohio burst into flames in 1969 was there such a graphic demonstration of how we can undermine our own environment with unguided development. Shrinking glaciers, subsiding lands, and persistent droughts show that humans can impact the earth for better or for worse.
The urgency of the moment impels us to look for models to help us visualize the future, both the better and the worse, among possible outcomes for Earth. Hence, the next NASA space probes will try to see what happened to our neighbor Venus.
Venus, while appearing pretty in the evening sky, is Earth’s evil twin. It is about the same size as the Earth, is the same age, and was built with the same materials. So query, how did its atmosphere become all carbon dioxide? Why is it 900 degrees at the surface with crushing pressure? The clouds of sulfuric acid are so thick that it has been virtually impossible to see what the surface looks like. Does Venus model a possible future for our planet? Or does it reflect a fundamental difference in the two planets that makes it truly alien?
To better understand conditions on Venus, NASA is preparing to send two probes in the late 2020’s. One is called DAVINCI+, short for “Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging plus.” It will enter the atmosphere and measure its composition while taking pictures on the way down. The other is called VERITAS, which is short for “Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy.” That one will orbit the planet and study its geology, tectonics, and gravity variations.
It would certainly be instructive if the ruins of past civilizations are detected. But the likelihood is that no sign of life, even microbial life, will be found. On Earth, we measure the carbon dioxide levels in the parts per million, while on Venus it comprises 97% of their atmosphere. It is hoped that such an extreme example of a runaway greenhouse effect can serve to trigger the imagination of those still unconvinced of the work we must do to preserve an Earth that sustains us.
By the time VERITAS and DAVINCI+ beam back their findings in the 2030’s, our CO2 emissions must already be cut by half and we should have bought electric cars to replace our gas guzzlers. Until then, we’ll still have to exercise the discipline to take charge of our future and reduce, reuse, and recycle. Who would want to be a Venutian?