The key weapon in a climate scientist’s arsenal is the climate model, a computer programme that uses the equations of physics to investigate the way in which Earth’s atmosphere works. The programme helps predict how the atmosphere might change in the future.
“To members of the public it must seem like climate models are crystal balls, but they are actually just complex equations” says David Grinspoon, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and one of Venus Express’s interdisciplinary scientists.
The more scientists look at those equations, the more they realise just how complicated Earth’s climate system is. Grinspoon puts the predicament like this: “In fifty or a hundred years, we will know whether today’s climate models were right but if they are wrong, by then it will be too late.”
To help increase confidence in the computer models, Grinspoon believes that scientists should look at our neighbouring planets. “It seems that both Mars and Venus started out much more like Earth and then changed. They both hold priceless climate information for Earth,” says Grinspoon.
The atmosphere of Venus is much thicker than Earth’s. Nevertheless, current climate models can reproduce its present temperature structure well. Now planetary scientists want to turn the clock back to understand why and how Venus changed from its former Earth-like conditions into the inferno of today.
They believe that the planet experienced a runaway greenhouse effect as the Sun gradually heated up. Astronomers believe that the young Sun was dimmer than the present-day Sun by 30 percent. Over the last 4 thousand million years, it has gradually brightened. During this increase, Venus’s surface water evaporated and entered the atmosphere.
“Water vapour is a powerful greenhouse gas and it caused the planet to heat-up even more. This is turn caused more water to evaporate and led to a powerful positive feedback response known as the runaway greenhouse effect,” says Grinspoon.
As Earth warms in response to manmade pollution, it risks the same fate. Reconstructing the climate of the past on Venus can give scientists a better understanding of how close our planet is to such a catastrophe. However, determining when Venus passed the point of no return is not easy. That’s where ESA’s Venus Express comes in.
The spacecraft is in orbit around Venus collecting data that will help unlock the planet’s past. Venus is losing gas from its atmosphere, so Venus Express is measuring the rate of this loss and the composition of the gas being lost. It also watches the movement of clouds in the planet’s atmosphere. This reveals the way Venus responds to the absorption of sunlight, because the energy from the Sun provides the power that allows the atmosphere to move.
In addition, Venus Express is charting the amount and location of sulphur dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere. Sulphur dioxide is a greenhouse gas and is released by volcanoes on Venus.
“Understanding all of this will help us pin down when Venus lost its water,” says Grinspoon. That knowledge can feed into the interpretation of climate models on the Earth because although both planets seem very different now, the same laws of physics govern both worlds.
Understanding Mars’ past is equally important. ESA’s Mars Express is currently investigating the fate of the Red Planet. Smaller than the Earth, Mars is thought to have lost its atmosphere to space. When Martian volcanoes became extinct, so did the planet’s means of replenishing its atmosphere turning it into an almost-airless desert.
“What happened on these two worlds is very different but either would be equally disastrous for Earth. We are banking on our ability to accurately predict Earth’s future climate,” says Grinspoon. Anything that can shed light on our own future is valuable. That is why the study of our neighbouring worlds is vital.
So, when planetary scientists talk of exploring other worlds, they are also increasing their ability to understand our own planet.
Håkan Svedhem | alfa
NASA examines newly formed Tropical Depression 3W in 3-D
26.04.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Early organic carbon got deep burial in mantle
25.04.2017 | Rice University
More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.
Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...
Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.
"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...
The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.
Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...
The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...
Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.
Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...
20.04.2017 | Event News
18.04.2017 | Event News
03.04.2017 | Event News
26.04.2017 | Materials Sciences
26.04.2017 | Agricultural and Forestry Science
26.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy