Environmental Issues

What has Astronomy got to do with the Environment?  Well everything.   Life on Earth has evolved over billions of years and that evolution has been governed by the Sun and it's position in the Universe.   Astronomy is fundamental to our understanding of how this evolution has taken place and how it will develop in the future.  Will the increase in CO2 and Methane in our atmosphere eventually lead to an unacceptably warm world like Venus or will it, as is now being suggested by some, alleviate the effects of a long overdue Ice Age?


The Sun is absolutely essential to all life on earth, from the smallest microbe to the largest mammal.  Without a better understanding of how the Sun has behaved in the past, is behaving now and will behave in the future, we have little hope of doing anything to properly control our destiny.  This is truer now than it has ever been with our increasing reliance on technology.  What, for instance, is the likelihood of a Solar SuperStorm like that experienced in 1859 which created absolute chaos in the nascent Telegraph technology of the time?  Have we the time to prepare for such an event? Fortunately the recent evidence suggests that we may have but the study of the Solar Cycles is and will be crucial in all of this.


There would appear to be many Solar Cycles, the most familiar one being the 11 year SunSpot one.  The current cycle has not behaved according to the predictions of NASA and various Climate institutions, though some individuals got it right.  The SunSpot maximum should have happened this year, or be happening now or around the beginning of next year - noone expected to  predict exactly when as the cycle is quite variable.  But for most of last year and this the Sun has behaved more like it was at a Solar Minimum rather than a Maximum.  And quite a few scientists are now predicting that SunSpots may all but disappear during the next 30 years or so in a similar manner to the period between about 1645 to 1720.  This is referred to as the Maunder Minimum when the Northern Hemisphere experienced the Little Ice Age - and there is increasing evidence to suggest that this was a world-wide phenomenon.


But it is not only in these more obvious ways in which an understanding of Astronomy affects life on Earth.  Within the Solar System knowing how the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune can affect the rotation of the Sun itself could be important in our understanding of Solar Cycles and their effect on the Earth's Climate.  And looking beyond the Solar System to our very own Milky Way Galaxy the position of the Sun in that could be important in understanding Climate Cycles.  Are there dust clouds out there which regularly interfere with our Sun in it's 26,000 year journey around the Galaxy and hence our climate?  Does that position of the Sun have an effect on the Earth's Obliquity of the Ecliptic, currently around 23.5 degrees?  Alter that a little  and the Climate could flip either way as well as affecting the very Continents themselves by the movement of theTectonic Plates.


Of course, at the very smallest microscopic level the amount of sunlight, or more specifically the amount and type of radiation  reaching the Earth has an enormous influence on plant life both on land and in the sea.  And once that plant life suffers, so does everything which depends on it, including us.  Mankinds history can be charted by the Climatic Cycles which have so often influenced the rise and fall of Empires, through famines, wars and land degradation.


Even Dark Skies are an Environmental Issue. Their lack affects not only what Astronomers can or cannot see through their Telescopes but the very fabric of life in so many ways.  Thus our bright lights attract and kill so many insects thereby severely affecting Bats by reducing their food supply.  And they can and do adversely affect the circadian rythyms of many creatures, including us humans.   Fortunately, mainly due to the economic crisis, countries like France are taking steps to reduce their electricity usage and have passed legislation which curtails the use of street and office lights after certain times of night.  And despite some of the scare stories suggesting that switching off lights increases crime rates - it doesn't - more and more councils in the UK are starting to both switch off and replace existing lights with more efficient and better orientated ones.  


There are many important Environmental Issues facing all of us today, and I make no apologies for the capitalisation of those words.  Whatever your beliefs are, without a proper understanding of Real Science we have little chance of making Real Progress and having truly Rational debates.  Understanding Astronomy and educating our youngsters about the subject and how it affects the Environment and our lives is fundamental to all of this.