What On Earth Is Going On?

By Lee Cropp

It has become apparent to me, and all other right-thinking intelligent people, that the human race has been endowed with a character weakness that has the potential to be fatal sometime in the near, or distant, future. This frailty is our prehistoric drive to argue about anything, regardless of the potential for a disastrous outcome while we wrangle, or if either side, or both, have adequate data and evaluation to support their position. As my paternal grandfather used to say, people will argue over how to put a small fire out, even if it’s heading for the hay mow.

For the past couple decades or so, there has been constant bickering within the Industrialized World, in general, and the United States, in particular, over what mankind is doing to our world and environment. On one side, led by Vice President Al Gore, are the bunny and tree huggers, who believe that mankind can be potentially destructive to the world. They believe with great fervor not only should we very slowly introduce new items and techniques to the world, like genetic-altered plants, but we should go back and throughly evaluate what we have already done, even at the risk of slowing or reducing jobs. Their battle cry is to save the earth irregardless and let big government do it.

On the other side, led by Rush Limbaugh, are the greedy, despoiling capitalists, whose only goal is to make a profit regardless how much they ruin the environment for the present and future generations. They want to provide jobs and income for everybody and worry about the affects to the environment later. In other words, if the ozone layer is gone and everybody has skin cancer, that is just a risk men and women have to take to provide jobs and profits. Only each individual under a free enterprise system can make the correct choices affecting them, not big government.

Both sides can print books of good data and deliver hours of well grounded, knowledgeable speeches supporting their positions. But there is a problemÐthe information represents a minute portion of the data and knowledge needed to reach a valid position. Available data, at best, covers a few hundred years and a small spot on the Earth; what is needed is data from near the beginning, a few billion years or 6,000 years, depending on your beliefs, and encompassing the whole Earth. While very little can be done to obtain data from the near and distant past, short of creating H. G. Wells’ Time Machine; near-earth space provides an excellent platform for mankind to obtain data on the Earth as a single entity. This is vital, for the intent of English poet, John Donne’s, statement, ÒThat no man is an island,Ó can not be more apropos than for the Earth’s environment. For example, El Ni–o, a periodic warming in the Pacific ocean, brings gully-washing rains to California and throat- parching droughts to Australia.

Using the unique perspective of near Earth space, NASA and germane scientists and just people are taking the pulse of planet Earth as a single, global environment. They are investigating how and why the environment changes, as well as how do human beings contribute to these changes. The overall program is named Mission to Planet Earth. Data from the program will be distributed to professional scientists and technicians, plus just concerned ordinary people. From this data, they will be able to distill knowledge about what their actions are doing to our environment. They will be able to ask, ÒWhat on Earth is going on?Ó and get a valid answer.

From shifting weather patterns, to ozone depletion, and rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we have increased our environmental data and knowledge a hundredfold. But there is so much to learn about the what and why the changes are created. Equally important is learning what we are doing to create the environmental problems, should we stop, or could we? Or maybe we are not doing anything and should quit worrying. By the way, speaking of shifting weather patterns, when was the last time you had a normal spring, summer, fall, or winter.

To provide this data NASA is following a three-prong approach. First the Agency is continuing to gather data from and launching essentially single purpose satellites; e.g., weather, ozone, etc.; developing a series of new, unique spacecraft and systems to study the planet as an entity, and develop comprehensive and easy-to- use data and information system. The importance of this latter system can not be over emphasised. If the intended users; scientists, students, state and local officials, and you and me; can’t find even the best and most accurate data in the world, that information as useless as a defeated politician the day after election.

The Mission to Planet Earth Program also conducts a variety of investigations using aircraft-borne instruments to sample the atmosphere directly or to observe the Earth’s surface. In addition, the Program sponsors research each year by numerous ground teams whose work in the field verifies and refines the accuracy of satellite data.

NASA’s efforts in obtaining environmental data for our world goes back to 1959 when Vanguard II returned the first photograph from space of Earth’s cloud cover. A year later the first weather satellite was launched. As they improved over the years, weather satellite severe-storm warning capabilities protected lives and property was well as providing better environmental data. In the 1970’s a satellite provided scientists with the ability to track very precisely the movements of the Earth’s surface, increasing our understanding of earthquakes and other geological activity. Other satellites launched in the 70’s and 80’s opened the way for measuring variations in the Earth’s temperature, global monitoring of the oceans, mapping and observing the Earth’s ozone layer, and studying how the Earth absorbs and reflects the Sun’s energy. In 1991 a satellite began studying the chemistry and physics of the atmosphere, leading to a comprehensive data set with conclusive evidence that human-made chemicals are responsible for the annual Antarctic ozone hole. Other satellite data collected in the early 90’s allowed scientists to accurately predict the strengthening of the ongoing El Ni–o. By 1994 data indicated that the Earth’s average global sea level had risen in the two previous years.

Today, some of the satellites mentioned above continue to provide data. For example, a French-U.S. satellite continues to study ocean circulation and the role it plays in regulating climate change. In the immediate future, a Japanese satellite will carry NASA instruments to study sea-surface winds and ozone levels. In 1997 a Japanese satellite will measure the amount of rain that falls in the tropics and how that affects climate. In 1998, NASA will launch the first satellite in the Earth Observing System series. Earth Observing System launches will continue through the first decade of the 21th century.

NASA is not attempting to do this critical effort alone. Within the Federal government Mission to Planet Earth is a part of the Global Change Research Program, which coordinates the environmental research of 11 cabinet departments and agencies. Also through Mission to Planet Earth, NASA funds research at dozens of universities across the country and collaborates with international partners such as Germany, Canada, and Russia.

Although focused primarily on basic research, the Mission to Planet Earth Program has already produced numerous applications to everyday life. Data from one satellite is being used to develop techniques to track the loss of coastal marshes along the Chesapeake Bay, which may have implications for the areas fishing and tourist industries. The first Total Ozone Measuring System provided part of the scientific underpinning for treaties banning the use of ozone-depleting chemicals. In 1994 data from another satellite provided final confirmation that the Antarctic ozone hole that develops each October is caused by human-made chlorine compounds.

This program could conceivably mean a Planet Earth that remains a clean pleasant nest for us and our descendents rather than a place were allergies are as deadly as heart attacks and chronic asthma is commonplace, yet funding, at the present time, is just adequate. While that is unsettling, there is an aspect that is even more disquieting; a group of Republican House Members not only want to cut the budget but delete it completely. This leaves me with two thoughts to close with: what are they and their contributors afraid will be discovered and could they be sent to an island with no environmental regulations and a lot of pollution, like rivers that burn and smog that disables.