Szuhaj: The Impending Disaster

There’s a climate disaster looming, and almost no one is talking about it.

by Ben Szuhaj | 1/9/18 1:00am

With record lows in Hanover this week and snow as far south as Florida, it isn’t difficult to imagine that somebody, somewhere, is citing the abnormally frosty weather as evidence to deny climate change. We all know the argument: Snow means Earth isn’t getting warmer; it’s getting colder. Of course, weather is different from climate. The fact that one can easily observe weather, along with all its natural fluctuations, but not climate is one reason among many that explain why it can be so difficult to convince climate change deniers of our planet’s impending environmental decline.

Even if you did manage to get administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt, a vocal climate change denier, to sit down and look at the data, and even if he did accept the validity of the scientific method and all its rigorous processes of unbiased falsification, I doubt he would change his tune. That is because even though the evidence seems airtight, people like Pruitt, who received $215,574 in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry between 2010 and 2014 when he ran to be Oklahoma’s attorney general, either benefit from turning a blind eye to climate change or seem to believe that a warming Earth, insofar as it is only bad for coral reefs and polar bears, is not troublesome.

The area of our planet most in need of targeted aid to reverse man-made pollution is an area often not thought of as part of Earth at all: low Earth orbit. LEO is defined as the area of orbit around the Earth with an altitude of 1,200 miles or less. That may sound vast, but the Earth’s diameter is 7,900 miles. This space is where the majority of humanity’s nearly 2,000 operational satellites orbit. LEO is also where most of our space junk collects before falling out of orbit and burning up in the atmosphere, a natural process much like the decomposition of food in our landfills that takes a fixed amount of time; in this case, often a few decades or even a century. The problem is that LEO is becoming increasing cluttered, both with active satellites whose orbits we can track and adjust and with space junk, including an estimated 100 million pieces of shrapnel, whose locations are becoming increasingly difficult to track. Every so often, one of these rogue objects will collide with a satellite or some other object, smashing it into thousands of small pieces that add ammo to the cosmic shooting range within which we are becoming increasingly trapped.

It is becoming difficult to send objects into LEO with confidence that they will not be ripped apart by invisible ultra-high speed shrapnel. Scientists have a name for the scenario unfolding in our skies: the Kessler Syndrome. At some point, the number of objects in LEO will reach a saturation that will trigger collisions that occur with exponentially increasing frequency. We will then have to wait an indeterminate amount of time — a few years to a couple decades — for the natural cleaning process of orbital decay, when an object slows enough to fall out of orbit, to take effect. Only then will we be able to relaunch objects into space.

Meanwhile, the effects would be devastating. We would have no wireless phone, global position systems or internet. The modern economy as we know it would grind to a halt. Many businesses would likely fail. There would be massive unemployment, a scramble for resources and growing resentment between nations as governments blame one another for allowing the most significant human-made environmental disaster and technological setback in history to unfold. In this heated nationalistic landscape, wars would likely break out. These would not necessarily be wars in which the United States, technologically declawed without GPS or internet, would hold the upper hand.

I explore this all-too-likely scenario not for shock-value but to underscore the graveness of the fact that we cannot afford to neglect, mistreat or exploit our planet any longer. Even if you are someone who thinks that increasingly violent storms, prolonged drought, crop failure, rising seas and an irreversible loss of biodiversity are not issues worth your or your government’s time, the health and integrity of LEO is. If the Kessler Syndrome is allowed to develop unchecked, we will lose our satellites. In this scenario, there are no alternative facts. There is only the all-too-familiar disregard for the limits of our planet to deal with our garbage.

I am not saying that we should not launch satellites into orbit. The mindset that the natural world is a landscape for humanity to explore and utilize has led to many great discoveries and improvements in the quality of human life. But all too often, in the pursuit of the unknown or of profit, we exploit the Earth beyond what it can support. The pollution of LEO is deeply ironic: Space has always been thought of as the “final frontier,” representative of humanity’s capacity for wonder. Space has symbolized progress and rationality. Now, our pollution of space threatens to set us back.

The internationally agreed upon laws that govern the use of outer space do not go far enough to incentivize a conservation of space or deter an exploitation of it. According to the 1972 Liability Convention, nations are only liable for damage caused by their space debris if they act negligently in their space activities. Essentially, the law accepts that the production of space debris by “normal” modes of space exploration is unavoidable. Additionally, no law exists to address issues of salvage in outer space, so it is illegal for one nation to remove another nation’s space garbage. Thankfully, a number of companies and governmental agencies are already working on ways to remove space debris from orbit. While these ideas are promising, the laws governing the use of space must be updated if a coordinated international effort is fully to take flight.

Our handling of this problem will be a turning point in human history. Cleaning up space — and preventing a scenario in which we pollute our way into a celestial cage — could lead to a more cohesive humanity. If any meaningful action is to be taken, we must change the way we think about our planet: Not as an indestructible provider or absorber who can give and take as much as we want, but as a fragile, beautifully fined-tune home that can help us build and experience incredible things so long as we treat it with respect.