Toxic oceans, animals dissolving in the ocean, and lungs of the planet dying from droughts. Futuristic vision for a giant vacuum sucking in CO2: A conversation with NASA climate scientist, Dr. Joshua Fisher
Climate change is real, it affects all life on our planet and has already destroyed life of many living organisms and animals. Hot and toxic oceans, massive death of sea birds, and animals dissolving in the ocean including the ones with the potential to cure diseases. We need awareness from individuals of all backgrounds, artists, scientists, engineers, historians, entrepreneurs, inventors , and immediate action of the world leaders and policy makers to take your vision and skills and discover innovative ways to help fight climate change.
I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Joshua Fisher, a Climate Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), at a University of Oxford Alumni event in Los Angeles where he presented his research on climate change. His outstanding presentation inspired me to arrange an interview with him about this world changing phenomenon. Here are Dr. Fisher’s views on the history and causes, current severe impacts on life, potential future impacts, current technologies as well as futuristic technologies that can help adapt to and mitigate impacts of climate change, and actions from the individuals to the governmental levels that can help fight climate change.
Can you tell me a little about what you do at JPL?
I am a Climate Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). My specific focus is on land, though I work closely with the atmospheric and ocean scientists too. This means, I work on anything to do with ecosystems, forests, soils, water, droughts, carbon, and nutrients. I use satellites to observe what’s going on, models to predict responses and changes, and I lead field campaigns into places as remote as the Amazon and Arctic.
Actually, on one expedition into the Amazon, I brought along with me a group of artists (Cape Farewell) to interface with the science. I’m very much into the science–art connection—my mom is an artist and my dad is a scientist, so it’s in my blood. The objectives of ANTXplore align well with this.
What are the primary causes of climate change?
Earth’s climate has changed ever since the beginning of Earth. The temperature goes up and down, and up and down. There are minor squiggles in the major cycling. Every 100,000 years or so the Earth is a bit closer to the sun, making the Earth hotter, and every 100,000 years the Earth is a bit farther from the sun. This ‘eccentricity’ causes some of those ups and downs. Every 11 years or so the sun gets hotter, and every 11 years the sun gets cooler. That causes some more bumps and squiggles in the temperature history of the Earth. Sometimes the oceans absorb a lot of the heat for a while—but it’s only temporary because then they belch out that heat in giant storms. Sometimes there are enormous volcanoes that cause minor blips in the record. These are all the reasons that the Earth historically has had climate changes.
This has changed recently, however. Over the last 400,000 years the temperature of the Earth has gone up and down—but within historical bounds. Recently, we’ve gone outside those bounds. WAY outside those bounds. We are headed for a temperature on Earth not seen for hundreds of thousands of years. The temperature has shot up, in line with the explosive population growth of the past millennium, and also in line with the enormous rise in CO2 in the atmosphere.
Ever since we were cavepeople we’ve loved to burn stuff. Fire to keep us warm, cook our food; hotter fires to make our swords stronger, our cars faster. But, when we see that smoke rise to the sky, along with it is CO2. We have also been sending up CH4 and N2O, all potent greenhouse gases.
These greenhouse gases act as blankets on the planet—a good thing to have, otherwise we would be too cold. But, the more greenhouse gases we’ve been sending up, the more blankets we’ve been putting on the Earth, and we’re starting to over-heat.
What is happening to the Amazon rainforests and how is it impacting climate change?
The Amazon rainforest is often called the ‘Lungs of the Planet’. It breathes in the CO2 we breathe out, and it breathes out the oxygen we breathe in. The Amazon pump influences global weather and water and carbon cycling. It is home to the largest biodiversity on the planet.
All this heat we’re trapping is accelerating the water cycle. We’re getting more intense and frequent droughts and floods. Climate models are predicting the Amazon to dieback in the face of increasing droughts. This is very worrisome, to think of the lungs of the planet of dying back. But, these are just models—what do we actually see going on? In 2005, the biggest drought in the history of records hit the Amazon. We went in on the ground and found that the forest was indeed dying in this drought—reversing this carbon pump into an overall CO2 exporter: it was breathing (or, coughing) out more CO2 than it was breathing in! Okay, this is one drought. Models said there would be more droughts. Sure enough, 5 years later in 2010, an even bigger drought hit the Amazon. We’re starting to see these model predictions play out before our eyes.
How is climate change affecting life on Earth right now, plants, animals, bacteria, etc…?
Life is adaptable, but there are conditions more conducive to life, and conditions less conducive to life. The overall temperature of the Earth is something that life has seen before. But, this rate of change is happening so fast—much faster than has ever been seen before by any species today. Usually, life has time to adapt and evolve to catch up. In this case, it is struggling.
We traversed the Andean cloud-forests to determine if Amazonian species were moving up-slope to escape the heat. We found that they indeed were, at rates faster than ever imagined, like a bat out of Hell. The scary thing was that they were not moving fast enough to keep up with the hyper-accelerated rate of climate change.
In the cold North, where there happens to be a lot more land, the warming temperatures are making it more conducive to life. We are seeing a greening of the northern hemisphere. This helps to draw down more CO2. But, the heat is also accelerating the decomposition of old, frozen plant material, which send CO2 back up to the atmosphere. It’s also thawing back permafrost in the Arctic, under which is trapped millennia worth of carbon that is coming out as CH4—a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.
What else is happening? Well, a lot of that CO2 we’re sending up is dissolving into the ocean, making the water more like acidic carbonated soda water—not good for your teeth. Any life with a shell, which is made out of similar stuff as is your teeth, is getting hit. Animals are already dissolving in the ocean. This is kind of a big deal because, for example, scientists recently discovered a potential anti-HIV protein in corals, which we’re losing.
If things remain the way they are, what are your predictions about the impacts on future life on the planet?
Life will be fine under climate change. Cockroaches will thrive in the destruction. But, we care about us, not cockroaches. What’s going to happen to people? If you think about human evolution, we (Homo Sapiens) emerged around 200,000 BCE after a lengthy process of evolution—our brains grew in size and complexity, and we built and used tools. But, civilization didn’t take off until 10,000 BCE during the Neolithic Age, or the Agricultural Revolution. This begs the question, what happened between 200,000 and 10,000 BCE? Why didn’t we make civilization 50,000 years ago? Well, the climate was so unstable that every time you had the beginning of a culture they had to move. Then, came a period of 10,000 years of stable climate. The perfect conditions for agriculture.
Civilizations in Persia, China, India start at the same time, around 6,000 years ago. They all developed writing, religion, and built cities because the climate was stable.
We live not only in a precious place in the universe with the rare conditions for life, but also in a precious time in history where human life can thrive. We are currently on our way out of that stability. We cannot simply pick up civilization and move with an erratic climate.
What can everyday people do now to fight climate change and mitigate impacts?
We need action from the individual to the governmental levels. How do we get this done?
- Speak Up.
- Challenge denial and fake “science”.
- Use social and traditional media to get the word out (call TV/radio stations, write to Editors)
- Understand consumer choices in terms of environmental impact and energy use—choose options that reduce energy use.
- Make sure your political leaders know this matters to you—calls and emails
- More subsidies for environmental options such as solar panels, plug-in cars, renewable energy sources to phase out coal/oil.
- Fewer subsidies on oil/coal.
- Empowerment and education of women, especially in developing countries. Statistics show that population growth is more steady and less explosive when women are more educated and protected with greater rights and freedoms.
Do you see drones and smart robotic systems as potential technologies that could help fight climate change? If so what are some of the applications?
We’re using drones and robots at NASA to help adapt to climate change. We can use them to closely monitor agricultural fields and to identify when and where crops need water and nutrients.
Many people consider geoengineering solutions to fight climate change. These fall along 2 lines: solar radiation management (space mirrors, paint roofs white, spray aerosols everywhere) or CO2 removal (giant sky vacuums, ocean iron fertilization). Geoengineering is largely untested because they are huge and costly options, with potential very disastrous side effects.
What technological tools are currently used to study and fight climate change?
From an observational standpoint, that’s where NASA shines. We’re developing the technology to monitor the health of the planet.
The technology needed to reduce carbon emissions is simple and already developed. This ranges from solar panels, windmills, geothermal, and tidal energy generation to mass transit. Germany is already putting solar panels on every townhouse, boathouse, and outhouse in their country, and they don’t get a lot of sunlight. China is the leading producer of solar panels. The US is lagging far behind. We are continuing to send money to the Middle East for oil, a lot of that money is going to terrorists, and we’re spending even more money on Defense to protect our oil interests. We don’t have to do that.
If we had no limits in technological capabilities in an imaginary world, what are some technologies that would be on your wish list to help fight climate change and reduce impacts?
If there were no limits, then some of the costly geoengineering ideas could work. We could indeed imagine a giant vacuum sucking in CO2, and alongside it would be the technology to store that CO2 somewhere where it could not escape. All without requiring energy, money, or safety concerns. There’s no indication that could ever happen, but it looks good on paper.
Anything else you would like to add?
Check out skepticalscience.com , to tackle any climate denier talking points you may come across.