Trump’s NASA Nominee Wants To Study Climate Change On Mars But Not On Earth
Climate change denying Rep. Jim Bridenstine thinks the sun is responsible for global warming across the solar system. He’s wrong.
For scientists, this has been a very long and painful year, and looking at a potential new NASA chief who isn’t a scientist, denies global warming, and wants to shut down any research into our environment at the agency, it looks like next year is shaping up to be a horror show as well. It probably isn’t exactly reassuring that the nominee in question, Rep. Jim Bridenstine, seems to have embraced the notion that the sun is behind climate change we see on Earth and we should study what it does to other planets, singling out Mars in a questionnaire meant to move his confirmation forward.
Considering that Bridenstine once famously demanded that Obama apologize for “wasting” money on global warming research instead of using it towards weather forecasting, his sudden interest in studying climate on alien worlds would seem rather frivolous until you consider why he’d want to blame the sun for doing more to Mars than depleting its atmosphere as its core cooled, its magnetic field weakened, and the planet slowly dried out. (One wonders how he will respond if asked why he believes that global warming stopped over the last decade on Earth, which it absolutely didn’t, but not Mars, especially if our home star is the culprit in both cases.)
While we should definitely study the effects the sun has on the rest of the solar system, we should not be doing it to the detriment of our home world. The problem with his answer is that blaming the sun is an old denialist tactic deployed against science bloggers back in the 00’s, when the talking points said NASA was seeing climate change on Mars, Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto, meaning that fossil fuels belching greenhouse gases couldn’t be the cause of warming on Earth. Of course, greenhouse gases and a warming sun aren’t mutually exclusive causes and tackling our part would help to cope with a more active, hotter sun, so as arguments go, it was a really bad one.
But that said, the notion that our solar system is warming, not just Earth, is contradicted by reams of data we’ve been collecting for decades and keep on gathering today. Bridenstine’s attempt to placate lawmakers sure to ask him why he wants us to stop studying global warming and climate change brings back the specter of this ridiculous denialist claim and it should be nipped in the bud as quickly as possible, otherwise next thing you know, social media will be flooded with right-wing pundits once again smugly asking what kind of SUVs are being driven on Mars to raise its temperature too.
First and foremost, before we get into the details, let’s make sure we keep this little fact in mind. Earth is not a typical planet by any means. Its climate and weather patterns probably have very little in common with those of other planets, and different orbits, atmospheres, and temperatures have to be taken into account when talking about whether a planet is warming or cooling. Just because we can broadly classify them — even if we can’t quite seem to agree on what to do with dwarf planets like Pluto and Sedna — doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a huge difference between two worlds in the same category.
Look at Venus and Earth for example. From a planetary science standpoint, they’re twins, both in the habitable zone. Alien astronomers who see them in their telescopes would jump for joy until they figured out that that one of the potentially habitable planets is a volcanic inferno while the other is covered with oceans and supported life for billions of years. It’s the same mistake we have to try and avoid while searching for exoplanets on a daily basis.
This is why saying that we observed climate change on Jupiter is either a lie or a profound lack of understanding just how different gas giants are from any rocky world we know of. They actually radiate more heat than they take from the Sun, with Jupiter giving off 1.6 times the energy it gets, Saturn emanating 2.3 times more heat, and Neptune’s producing 2.6 times the warmth that hits it from our star. This means that weather and climate on gas giants are driven internally, generated by the rapid movement of different density gases around metals and dust under enormous pressure, radiating heat and sound.
Instead of a delicate balance between frozen poles and glaciers, clouds, and 100,000 year long orbital cycles, they have storm belts pushed by winds that can clock in at 1,500 mph since there are no mountains to slow them down or even a solid surface to generate drag. Combined with their scorching innards, any climate change on these worlds has to involve an internal rearrangement of gas belts, not more or less heat from the sun, and there are laws of physics which stand in the way of this. There are seasonal variations, but we’ve yet to see any actual sign of climate change or anomalous warming outside of one computer model based on incomplete data tracking Jovian storms.
Climate change deniers had briefly latched onto this model and when told it was inaccurate questioned our confidence in models for Earth, seemingly not aware that since we live here, we actually know more about it than an alien gas ball cloaked in a radioactive shroud some 365 million miles away. And the same scenario played out for Neptune, which we know even less about since it’s 2.7 billion miles away and was visited by only one spacecraft. With that in mind, let’s move on to the less exotic worlds supposedly experiencing global warming due to the Sun’s heat, worlds where that’s actually plausible.
But there too we find a problem with the data used to make the claim. Pluto is getting warmer, but the dwarf planet is getting closer to the Sun in a far more elliptical orbit than any other planet in the solar system, and that orbit lasts a smidgen over 248 years. That means any observations indicating that Pluto is heating up are far more likely to be seasonal changes based on its orbital path than abnormal solar influence. Considering this claim was made before New Horizons made it to this tiny rock, it should be considered suspect from the get-go because we didn’t even know what its surface looked like until July of 2015 so there was no way to be sure they were detailed enough to make any far-reaching conclusions about what’s happening to it.
And all this brings us to the question of global warming on Mars that NASA should apparently investigate post haste. Of all the planets, Mars is one of the most similar to ours. In fact, there are environments in the Arctic and South America that come extremely close to replicating Martian deserts, which is why NASA tests its Mars rovers there. We have machines on the surface, we take constant observations from an orbiting research satellite, we should be knowledgeable enough to see if the red planet is getting hotter. But quite tellingly, the original claim relied on seeing ice melt in a single place over a period of several decades and left it at that.
It’s true that Mars is getting slightly balmier, but it’s also true that its climate change is clearly caused by the same variations in its orbit that cause ice ages on Earth. Its glaciers are receding over thousands of years, much like the slow and natural process we saw on Earth almost 12,000 years ago, and which took the next 5,000 years to play out. By comparison, we’re now looking at a rise in temperature on a scale comparable to the one between the middle of the last ice age and its end within just 150 years. So if anything, researching Martian and terrestrial climate change side by side would show the extent of our negative influence on Earth by comparing natural warming to an artificial one.
And there’s another twist to the theory that the Sun is heating up the solar system. It’s something that’s physically impossible for another billion years or so. Stars burn their fuel throughout their lives so they actually start out hot and get colder as they age. Eventually, a star like our sun will expand as its preparing to die and as its outer layers draw closer, all its planets will get a lot hotter even though the sun itself will have a cooler surface temperature. Until then, orbit, not heat, will influence how much warming is natural for a planet and anything beyond that has to come down to atmospheric composition and ecosystems. In other words, the denialists who want us to blame the sun for both terrestrial and alien global warming don’t know how stars work.
But if you were to chalk it all up to the sun, you could discard green energy and environmental regulations, allow your donors to pollute and belch all the greenhouse gases they want into the atmosphere, and when confronted over the rising temperatures, stronger hurricanes, and toxic seafood, you could do a shrug and say “well, other planets are warming too, what do you want me to do about the sun?” It’s a convenient excuse for those more worried about how to make as much as possible now and either don’t really care what they leave for their descendants or would rather not think about it. And that is exactly the kind of person who selected Bridenstine to lead NASA, and the same kind of people would vote to confirm him to a post he’s not qualified to have.