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Global Warming: What's Venus Got To Do With It?


An image of Venus taken on July 11, 2020, by an instrument on NASA's Parker Solar Probe.  Image credit: NASA

If worldwide lockdowns have offered us anything, it’s time ⌚. Time to think to ourselves. Time to discover something new. Time to realise the extent of our impact on the planet we call home 🌍. Recently, in addition to our escapades to replace single-use plastics and disposables that are polluting our atmosphere (and uglifying [if that’s a word] your home). We have been putting this time to good use - reading articles, listening to a host of podcasts from experts in the fields of climate and astrobiology, and watching Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (an essential watch if you weren’t already aware). In addition to exploring the biggest questions in our universe, the series delves deep into the complexities of what global warming is doing to our planet and shocked us with the realisation that this has all happened before… But before we get into that, let’s address the first smoking bullet of a question we posed in the title of this thought piece...

What's Venus Got To Do With It?

Once you have the information, it's surprisingly simple to connect the dots. Venus, the second closest planet from the Sun, is hot. Not like Glasgow on a warm day hot, not even like Bali on a warm day hot - it’s 370℃ degrees at surface level 🥵... But it wasn’t always that way. Billions of years ago, Venus could have been very much like our own beautiful planet - with water, land and able to sustain life. Now we know what you’re thinking, 'the Sun must’ve burned it up'. Perhaps surprisingly, its proximity to the Sun doesn't have as much to do with the heat it retains as you may think. It is in fact a very familiar adversary we are aware of here on Earth 🌍 that is responsible for the inhabitable conditions. From Space.com:

“It's believed that Venus may have been a temperate planet hosting liquid water for 2 to 3 billion years before a massive resurfacing event about 700 million years ago triggered a runaway greenhouse effect, which caused the planet's atmosphere to become incredibly dense and hot.”

In a few words, Venus is hot and lifeless because of its incredibly thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide (CO). Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, traps nearly all the heat that Venus receives from sunlight, causing the planet to heat uncontrollably. This, is the runaway greenhouse effect. And it is the process that, unrestricted, turned Venus into hell 👿.

What is the ‘Greenhouse Effect’ - and Why Do We Need It?

Illustration of how the greenhouse effect works - made by ReLove

The greenhouse effect is Earth’s respiration process; “the trapping of the Sun's warmth in a planet's lower atmosphere”. As we all know, our Sun sends its solar energy to us here on Earth ☀️ These rays reflect off of Earth’s surface, and the CO₂ in our atmosphere absorbs most of the heat, ensuring that it doesn’t just escape into space. This allows the majority of the Sun’s rays to bounce back to Earth, heating the planet, and keeping it from becoming a literal ball of snow 🥶. So, perhaps surprisingly given its nigh-demonic reputation, the greenhouse effect actually has positive consequences; consequences we could not maintain life without. Kept to natural levels, this natural effect would maintain a blissful balance of sun, rain and consistent climatic temperatures here on Earth. The problem lies with our reliance on (you guessed it) fossil fuels - and their subsequent impact on the release of unnatural carbon into our delicate atmosphere.

Which is where Venus ties into all of this.

A brief history of Venus’ hellish demise

Four and a half billion years ago, our Sun was smaller and dimmer, but with ageing, its habitable zone moved outward, encapsulating Venus. This is when things began to go haywire in a domino effect of epic proportions. Temperatures rose, evaporating oceans and dumping water vapor into the atmosphere which itself acted as a catalyst, trapping even more heat; emulating the process repeatedly 🔁. The lack of water meant its surface became ‘locked’ as tectonic movements, which help regulate the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, halted. This led to planet-wide volcanic events 🌋 which accelerated climate change and the release of carbon into the atmosphere. Since there were no oceans there was no way carbon could be stored as a mineral, like the White Cliffs of Dover here on Earth, resulting in a runaway greenhouse effect.

Today, as a result of its uncontrollably increasing heat, the clouds of Earth’s sister planet that were once fluffy with H₂O, are dense with sulfuric acid, highly reflective, and the rest of its atmosphere is so thick that “less than 3% of the Sun's light that reaches Venus actually makes it down to the surface”. In any normal circumstance, that minute percentage of sunlight would result in freezing temperatures at the surface - but Venus’ thick cloud cover and heat-trapping CO₂ layer keeps any warmth from escaping - with every little bit of sunlight that gets through only increasing the temperature further - endlessly.

So how does this affect Earth?

The runaway greenhouse effect that devastated Venus billions of years ago happened naturally, as outlined. But with our addiction to burning fossil fuels here on Earth, consequently adding unnatural amounts of CO² to our atmosphere, we are developing the first ever man-made runaway greenhouse effect...(and they call us the most intelligent animals of the kingdom 🤦‍♂️)

Instead of solar energy radiating off of our planet, with the majority staying in our atmosphere and a little escaping out to space, eventually all heat from the Sun will become trapped within our atmosphere, unable to escape through our self-inflicted, thickened carbon barrier. While the ability of solar rays to penetrate our carbon-thickened greenhouse barrier would be reduced, the Sun will keep shining, and every ray that gets through will only add to the surface heat 🔥.

This process is already happening. The copious amounts of unnatural CO₂ we are entering into our atmosphere every year, without respite, is already destabilizing our perfect balance. That is why we are seeing our polar regions melt (which coincidentally could also result in catastrophic amounts of carbon entering our atmosphere from carbon sinks of centuries old ice). Not because of some imagined change in solar output, volcanic activity or natural cycles that many cite as alternative modes of thinking for the climate change we are seeing all around us. While these are all valid explanations for alterations in climate (as exemplified by Venus), they are inaccurate depictions of our role in all of this. Global warming has happened before but over the course of tens of thousands of years - not literally in front of our eyes. That is no coincidence - where volcanoes 🌋 pump out around 500 million tonnes of carbon per year; our vehicles, civilisations and industries are pumping out 30 BILLION tonnes of carbon per year 🏭. Avoiding this fact is denying the truth.

Venus couldn’t do anything about its demise, and one day, millions of years from now, our vulnerable Earth will inevitably fall to the same fiery fate, as our Sun’s habitable zone continues to move outward. However - right now, we are accelerating the greenhouse effect so that it will become runaway not in millions of years, but in mere hundreds.

If We Don’t Act, What Will Happen?

With an increase of just a few degrees ℃, the polar ice caps will be first to go - as they have already begun to - destroying life in polar regions 🐻‍❄️. But that isn’t what will set the apocalypse in motion. The apocalypse will begin when surface ice (ice atop land, such as Antarctica + Greenland), melts. Our polar ice caps are floating lands of ice - therefore, when they melt, it will not cause any rise in sea levels (mind boggling I know, check out Neil Degrasse Tysons ‘ice in a glass’ explanation of this 🤯). Conversely, when surface ice melts, it will melt into the ocean, from land, causing sea levels to rise - drastically. Within a few years, coastal cities around the world will sink. Sea levels will eventually rise over 200 foot (visually, this would be about the elbow of the Statue of Liberty 🗽).

After that comes the really scary part.

Like with the dinosaurs 🦖, we will be treated to not one, not two, but three extinction level events: 

🌊 The drastic rise of sea levels across the world will decimate human populations, directly and indirectly from the havoc wreaked upon transportation of foods, medicines and supplies. Mass species extinction will occur.

🌪️ After which, the combination of our warming planet and the huge influx of water from surface ice melting, will drastically alter ocean currents creating further climate disruptions with extreme weather events and widespread natural disasters aplenty.

These first two phases will begin to occur within yours and your kids lifetime.

🌡️ Lastly, like Venus, our atmosphere will have become so thick with carbon that no heat can escape. Everything on Earth will be subject to temperatures upward of 300 degrees ℃ - rates at which even the most versatile species wouldn’t survive. Certainly not us multicellular, tissue-based organisms.


That is, if we don’t do something about it.

What Can We Do?

Utopian vision of the future from Cosmos (2014)

Unite. As a species, we must use our trademark ‘intelligence’ as sentient beings, stop politically positioning climate change as some sort of bargaining chip with voters and recognise it for the self-inflicted extinction level event it will become. We must think well beyond our own lifespans and adapt our short-term thinking to consider the future of the human race. We must elevate our fight to eliminate fossil fuels and stop sabotaging our only soldiers in the fight against global warming - our trees 🌳. More than that, we must immediately make positive changes that will not just reduce further destruction, but turnabout the destruction we have already caused. By replacing our energy providers; switching our vehicles; eliminating plastics (a derivative of fossil fuels) and eradicating disposables, we can in their place build a more caring, thoughtful future with trees central to our cities; renewable energy central to our daily lives; and waste a thing of the past. In the [slightly paraphrased] words of Dr Tyson: “There are no scientific obstacles to protecting our world…it all depends on what we truly value and if we can summon the will to act”. A utopian perspective? Perhaps. But what’s wrong with that? We’ll leave that for another article, another day…

How to conclude?..

We are right now seeing levels of CO₂ not seen for 3 million years; levels 40% higher today than at the start of the industrial revolution. In the words of Dr Tyson in his spectacular Cosmos series: “We are exhaling carbon faster than Earth can absorb it.” If we continue in this vein, it is a scientific certainty that we will alter the chemical balance of Earth - and with it, destabilize our climate and extinguish life. This is a story of two planets, both decisively linked to carbon. On one, it is already trapped entirely as a gas in the atmosphere, barricading heat from escaping to space. On the other, there's still time to stop it from going that way.

Our planet has been warning us for a while now of our overbearing influence. If we heed its warning and make definitive changes to move toward a renewable future, we can still have a brighter tomorrow. A tomorrow in which we rely solely on natural forces to maintain the greenhouse effect that stabilises our atmosphere. A tomorrow that will save our Earth for the generations after us. If we do not, in record time, we too will fall subject to the fiery fate that has befallen Venus, and we too, will one day soon become a planet of the past.

Set off on your mission to help save the world 🦸‍♀️🦸‍♂️, one eco-swap at a time with our plastic-free alternatives 💚

References

...are hyperlinked throughout this article. Our main source of inspiration and fact comes from Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey series - particularly episode 12 for its relevance to climate change! We implore you all to check it out (it's on Disney+ 😎) - it may just convince you of the wonder of our planet if you weren’t already 🌍

 

It has been our intention with this article to recontextualise what is happening on our planet in terms of what has already happened to our planetary sister, Venus. We sincerely hope portraying it in this way made for an intellectually stimulating, and thought-provoking read. As ever, it is not our intention to scaremonger - but reality can be scary sometimes, and we would never want to gloss over that either. Simply, we want to help spread knowledge that will equip more of you to fight the global catastrophe we are facing. If we unite, we can and will win this battle. Peace

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