It's probably the biggest selfie ever.
NASA created this giant selfie of Earth using selfies of individuals sent in from around the world. Can you spot yourself? It’s like the ultimate version of Where’s Waldo.
NASA created this giant selfie of Earth using selfies of individuals sent in from around the world. Can you spot yourself? It’s like the ultimate version of Where’s Waldo.
We’ve all seen the iconic Blue Marble photo of the earth from space, the image that launched a thousand nature essays, but Bill Nelson and Piers Sellers are among the few people who have enjoyed that perspective on the planet in the flesh. Nelson is now a U.S. Senator from Florida, Sellers is a top NASA science official, and this morning, at an Earth Day hearing in my Miami Beach neighborhood, I got to hear the two former astronauts reminisce about the view from 10 million feet.
Senator Nelson recalled the color contrasts in the Amazon that illuminated the growth of deforestation. “The earth looked so beautiful, so alive—and yet so fragile,” he said. “It made me want to be a better steward of what the good Lord gave us—and yet we continue to mess it up.” Dr. Sellers remembered catching a glimpse of the Florida peninsula between his boots during a spacewalk. When you go around the world in ninety minutes, he said, you realize it’s a very small world.
“My take-home impression was that we inhabit a very beautiful but delicate planet,” said Sellers, a meteorologist who is NASA’s deputy director for science and exploration. “And the dynamic engine of planet Earth is the climate system that allows all life here to prosper and grow, including us humans.”
Now that climate is changing, and as Nelson said at the start of the South Florida hearing: “This is Ground Zero.” Scientists have documented that the seas along the Florida coastline have risen five to eight inches over the last fifty years, and Biscayne Bay now floods the streets of my neighborhood just about every month at high tide. “It’s real. It’s happening here,” Nelson said. “Yet some of my colleagues in the Senate continue to deny it.”
It is real, and it’s already a problem in my low-lying part of the world. Saltwater intrusion is increasing in the freshwater Everglades, which is causing problems for farmers in southern Miami-Dade County, and will make the government’s $15 billion Everglades restoration project even more expensive. The Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that over the next fifty years, Miami-Dade’s beaches will need about 23 million cubic yards of new sand to deal with erosion. Mayor Philip Levine says Miami Beach alone plans to spend $400 million to upgrade drainage infrastructure to prepare for a warmer world. The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change’s “likely scenario” for 2010 includes seas rising as much as three feet; our county has $38 billion worth of property at three feet elevation or less. And while it’s too early to tie any particular storm to climate change, all the models predict more intense hurricanes coming through the Sunshine State. “The risk posed by coastal flooding is indisputably growing,” testified Megan Linkin, a natural hazards specialist at the reinsurance giant Swiss Re.
That’s incorrect. The risks posed by climate change, while real, are not at all indisputable. Lots of people, including most Republican politicians in Washington, still dispute them. As Senator Nelson said after the hearing, even Republican politicians in coastal areas—he cited Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—rarely acknowledge the danger their constituents face from rising seas. “That would not be a popular topic in a Republican primary,” Nelson said.
But as Dr. Sellers pointed out, the IPCC believes the main cause of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels. And as Senator Nelson pointed out, it will take government action—he mentioned the possibility of a carbon tax—to reduce the burning of fossil fuels. “Otherwise, the planet will continue to heat up,” Nelson said.
Unfortunately, there is no chance of Congress passing a carbon tax anytime in the foreseeable future. President Obama couldn’t even get a cap-and-trade program through Congress when Democrats controlled both houses. Global warming has no juice as a political issue; people don’t think it really affects their lives.
That’s why Nelson held a hearing here at global warming’s Ground Zero, to try to show that global warming is already affecting lives. It was worth a shot, I guess. South Florida isn’t as threatened as those vanishing Pacific islands, but it’s basically America’s canary in the coal mine. Maybe my neighborhood’s outrage over the monthly lake in our Whole Foods parking lot will help spark a broader movement for change.
I doubt it, though. I get the political instinct to boil issues down to How It Can Affect You, but climate change is so urgent and invisible that if Congress has to wait for it to affect most Americans in tangible ways before taking action, Congress will be too late. Burning rivers and disappearing eagles helped build support for laws like the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act; rising temperatures—all of the ten warmest years on record have occurred since 1998—and extreme events like Superstorm Sandy don’t seem to be having much of a political impact. President Obama has helped launch a clean energy revolution, and he will soon propose new regulations on carbon emissions, but the public has shown little interest in the issue.
Ultimately, the local argument against climate change—it might flood your neighborhood—seems a lot less compelling than the global argument, the Blue Marble argument. This is a nice earth. It’s our home. It’s the only planet with ice cream and the Everglades and the NBA playoffs. We should try not to mess it up.
“Spaceflight allows one to stand back, or float, and literally take in the big picture,” Dr. Sellers said in his testimony. It’s a perspective we sometimes overlook back here on Earth. Otherwise, we might decide to stop broiling it.
I had the chance to see the Grand Canyon last week for the first time, and I can tell you this: it is really big. So big, in fact, that I led my partner on an endless walk along the rim, searching for the entrance a trail that would take us some of the way down the canyon. It turned out that I misread the map scale just a tiny bit. I think she may have forgiven me by now.
Of course, there’s more to the Grand Canyon than its sheer size: Its exposed rock reveals some 2 billion years of Earth’s geologic history, a span of time that is unfathomable by human beings (our species Homo sapiens is about 0.00005% as old as the oldest rock found in the Canyon). And even that time period covers less than half of the Earth’s age. Our planet is ancient, and the only constant over the course of its 4.54 billion-year history has been change—albeit change on a scale that almost always unfolds far too slow for us to realize it. If the Earth seems as solid as the ground beneath our feet, that’s only because we haven’t been around long enough to see just how unstable it really is.
That’s something to keep in mind as we celebrate the 45th Earth Day. Human civilization has flourished over the past ten thousand or so years largely because our species has been fortunate enough to arise during a Goldilocks (not too warm, not too cold) climatic period known as the Holocene. It’s an age that has proven ideal for agriculture and other activities that now support a human population of 7 billion-plus. But it hasn’t always been this way, as a new study that was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates.
A team led by Yale University scientists used a new method to determine temperatures in the Earth’s past, measuring concentrations of rare isotopes in ancient fossil shells found in Antarctica. The researchers found that during the Eocene epoch—about 40 to 50 million years ago—temperatures in parts of Antarctica reached as high as 63 F (17 C), with an average of 14 C (57 F). That’s far above the mean annual temperature of Antarctica’s interior today, which registers at a frosty -70 F (-57 C), and closer to the kinds of temperatures you’d see in today’s San Francisco. Seawater around parts of Antarctica was even warmer, a balmy 72 F (22 C)—or about the same temperature as the tropical seas around Florida today.
If there were people living 40 million years ago—there weren’t, FYI—they could have been snorkeling off the coast of Antarctica’s Ross Island.
Why? Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere during the Eocene were much, much higher, perhaps as high as 2,000 ppm or more. Even though human beings have been pouring carbon into the atmosphere by the gigaton for decades, that’s still far higher than current levels, which stand at a little above 400 ppm. But even that increase has helped global temperatures rise by about 1.53 F (0.85 C) since 1880, and despite 45 Earth Days since the first in 1970, global carbon emissions just keep on growing, reaching a record 36 billion metric tons in 2013.
As Brad Plumer puts it over at Vox, our chances of keeping global temperature increase below 3.6 F (2 C)—a figure governments around the world have adopted as a climate change red line—seem vanishingly small:
If you look at the current rapid rise in global greenhouse-gas emissions, we’re on pace to blow past the 2°C limit by mid-century — and hit 4°C or more by the end. That’s well above anything once deemed “dangerous.” Getting back on track for 2°C would, at this point, entail the sort of drastic emissions cuts usually associated with economic calamities, like the collapse of the Soviet Union or the 2008 financial crisis. And we’d have to repeat those cuts for decades.
Needless to say, that’s unlikely. Barring some major political or technological revolution, our Earth will likely change more in the decades to come than it has for the entire lifespan of human civilization—and that change almost certainly won’t be for the better. As the PNAS study shows, the climate we think of as stable—the “long summer” of humanity—has been drastically different over the course of Earth’s deep past. The Earth will change. The question for the Earth Days to come is whether we can change, too.
Young people are facing two enormous problems: income inequality fueled by the rising cost of college, and the fact that they’re entering adulthood and will be raising their families on a planet with a climate that is growing less stable and more dangerous all the time. There’s a way to begin addressing both of these problems at once. It’s not cheap, but it’s not as expensive as rebuilding New York City, and it’s much better for the economy.
Think of it as the G.I. Bill, but for a different kind of war. Students who study environmental science, engineering, or design in college and then spend five post-grad years fighting climate change could have their tuition paid by the U.S. Government. The plan could even share the name of the 1944 bill that educated millions of post-war Americans: G.I., for Green Innovation.
Environmental science suffers from a chronic brain drought, and the reasons aren’t hard to understand: green careers don’t have a big payoff like business or engineering and they don’t set students on as secure a professional path as do, say, law and medicine. In 2012, over ten times as many students in the U.S. graduated with business degrees (almost 367,000) as with degrees that involved agriculture or natural resources (under 31,000.) Degrees in health and psychology (over 272,000) were nine times as common as green majors. Overall, environmental science is the 60th most popular college major in today’s working population, behind anthropology (#55) and music (#37,) according to a Georgetown University study of college majors and the workforce. Environmental Engineering fared even worse, finishing at #144, behind zoology (#119) and cosmetology (#115.)
Jeffrey Koseff, one of the Faculty Directors of Stanford’s prestigious Woods Institute for the Environment, said most of the students who study environmental issues are motivated by “altruism,” and a “long-term sense of social responsibility.” Those are qualities that don’t exactly translate into a big following on campus.
And no wonder, considering the amount of debt students are juggling. According to numbers recently released by the Federal Reserve of New York, student loan debt rose 300% between 2003 and 2013, to a nationwide total of $1.2 trillion, and rose 10% last year alone. People under 30 were in $322 billion dollars of student debt as of 2012. Graduating with bills like that doesn’t exactly motivate you to prioritize the welfare of the world over making money. But something’s got to give. Terrifying reports released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) earlier this year warned that unless we take swift and decisive action, rising sea levels, melting ice, and greenhouse gas emissions will raise the planet’s temperature to a point that threatens to destroy the world’s food supply and flood coastal communities like New York, Los Angeles, and Miami.
“To take climate change seriously, it means we need to mobilize at a scale we cannot imagine,” said David Orr, who once taught environmental science at Oberlin College and is now in charge of its Oberlin Project, which aims to build an example of a sustainable economy in the Rust Belt. “We need a World War II-level mobilization to equip a generation with the intellectual and practical skills to fight the biggest civilizational crisis ever.”
Of course, a deluge of environmental scientists isn’t necessarily going to solve climate change. “Science by itself isn’t going to dig us out of the problem we’re in,” said Darron Collins, President of the College of the Atlantic, a small college in Maine that focuses on Human Ecology. “We pretty much know what the issues are, and we know a lot of what it takes to reverse it, but when you get down to it, it’s also going to take a very serious amount of behavior change on our own part.”
Collins is right, but if education shapes behavior, then mass education shapes civilization, and a civilization shift is what we need right now. A generation steeped in environmental science would be more likely to recycle, more likely to buy sustainable products, and more likely to elect lawmakers to pass climate change legislation. Even environmental graduates who don’t go into into the green sector would become better stewards of the planet. Imagine if the CEO of General Motors or the R&D director of General Electric had environmental science degrees. “No matter what they wind up doing, a degree in human ecology is a step towards a more ecologically sustainable planet,” Collins said.
Certainly there’s the question of whether there would be enough environmental science jobs even for the share of graduates who do want to go into the field. “Jobs in the government and nonprofit sectors are not increasing as quickly as one would like,” said Buzz Thompson, a co-director of the Stanford program with Koseff. A green G.I. Bill would thus have to coordinate its efforts with government-backed groups like the Peace Corps and NGOs like the Gates Foundation so that graduates could travel around the world, taking on such challenges as providing clean water to rural villages and low-emission or no-emission vehicles to congested cities.
But it stands to reason too that investing in young problem-solvers would likely yield creative, sustainable solutions in the private sector—generating both jobs and economic stimulus. “Whether it be green technology companies or consulting firms, there’s a real opportunity for students to be truly pioneering entrepreneurs and come up with these new, efficient, sensible solutions to environmental issues,” Thompson said. “But it’s hard to start a business if you’re loaded with debt.”
Yes, this kind of initiative is a heavy lift, perhaps even politically impossible, especially with the current Congress. But part of the reason there is so much inertia around climate change is that the problem seems too big to solve. But sooner or later the planet will make the decision for us, whether we want it to or not. Allocating some extra money to environmental education today is a whole lot easier than relocating Florida tomorrow. The problems aren’t going away. Doesn’t it make sense to motivate our best minds to solve them?
If you’d like to get in the Earth Day spirit, head over to the Google homepage for an animated celebration of the planet’s coolest creatures.
Some of the animals featured in today’s Doodle include the puffer fish, the veiled chameleon, the moon jellyfish and the Japanese macaque. You can search Google to read up on each animal, or share your favorite on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.
Here are some of the lovely creatures:
Americans are becoming more divided in their opinion on impact of global warming and humanity’s role in the phenomenon, as the number of global warming skeptics has roughly doubled over the past 10 years to encompass one in four of the population.
The portion of Americans with mixed opinions about global warming has declined from 49 percent in 2001 to 36 percent today, according to a Gallup poll released on Earth Day Tuesday. Over the same period the number of people who are concerned about global warming and see mankind as its cause has held fairly steady at 39 percent, while the number of people who say they’re “solidly skeptical” of global warming has rocketed from 12 percent in 2001 to 25 percent today.
Women are significantly more likely than men to be concerned about the impact of global warming and humanity’s role in causing it. The age group 30 to 49 is most likely to be concerned about the phenomenon, while younger people aged 18 to 29 are less divided on the issue, least likely to be skeptical and most likely to have mixed views on the matter.
Education is not a good predictor of whether or not a person is concerned about global warming, with about 30% having some college and 30% no college in both groups. Education is a good predictor of whether one falls into the “mixed middle” on global warming, however: nearly half of that group has no more than a high school diploma and less than 25% finished college.
Mars is nice and Jupiter has a big red spot, but there’s no more gorgeous planet in the known galaxy than Earth. On a day when we tend focus on the threats to the Earth—which are many—we should also take time to celebrate the varied beauty found throughout our home. Google+ collected photos from around the world tagged with #MyBeautifulEarth, and TIME editors culled through the images to find the very best. The pictures that appear below are visual reminders of the Earth’s diversity, from fathomless oceans to glowing volcanoes to alpine glaciers. The only constants are color—and overwhelming beauty. This planet is a never-ending feast for the eyes, which is one more reason why we should try to take care of it, on Earth Day and every day.
Monday night is a great night to watch the annual Lyrid Meteor shower, which will peak between April 21 and 22—just in time for Earth Day.
The annual April shower— named after the constellation its nearest, Lyra— will peak at around 20 meteors per minute according to NASA, giving viewers watching either on NASA’s live stream or out in the wilderness a glimpse of the falling meteors streaming, glowing tails.
NASA recommends outdoor viewers settle in dark, clear-skied locations far away from city lights. The best viewing will be between midnight and dawn local time, which gives you plenty of time to head someplace dark. If you can’t make it outdoors (or you’re stuck on a well-lit city block) check out NASA’s live stream, which will air starting at 8:30 pm ET. Either way, don’t forget to look up!
Here’s a peak at the 2012 shower, so you can see what’s in store:
Earth doesn’t do ugly. There’s virtually no place you can live on the planet that at some point can’t knock you out with its flat-out gorgeousness—and we’re not just talking rainforests and coral reefs here. Badlands are anything but bad when you appreciate their raw, rugged beauty; the same is true of tundras and deserts and sprawling plains—fruited or not. The odds are at least one of these bowl-you-over vistas is located in your part of the world.
OK, so prove it. To honor Earth day 2014, Google+ and Time want to see your best picture of your beautiful Earth, which you can share with the straight-up hashtag #MyBeautifulEarth. Google+ will feature your images on a page of all of that local loveliness from now through April 22, which can be seen and savored in real time, as the page grows. Time’s photo editors will cull through the submissions, and the best of them will appear here on TIME.com on Earth Day. Earth being what it is—and people being what we are—it’s almost certain that at some point you’ve looked around yourself and wished that everybody could see the mesa or glacier or mountain or river or coastline or canyon or valley or bay just outside your window. On April 22, 2014, they could.
To share your photo, go to plus.google.com and click on “Share what’s new” in the Share box at the top of your stream, or open the Google+ app on your phone, and click the blue camera icon. Add a description for your photo, and include the hashtag #mybeautifulearth. Add your photo to your post, then add “Public” in the “To:” box. Click Share, and you’ve shared your part of the planet with the world.
Researchers warn that climate change will cause irreversible damage to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef by 2030 unless immediate action is taken.
“This is not a hunch or alarmist rhetoric by green activists,” said University of Queensland reef researcher Ove Hoegh-Guldberg in the report, presented Thursday ahead of this month’s Earth Hour global climate change campaign. “It is the conclusion of the world’s most qualified coral reef experts.”
According to Hoegh-Guldberg, scientific consensus is that a two-degree increase in average global temperature relative to pre-industrial levels would spell the end for coral reefs. “But if the current trajectory of carbon pollution levels continues unchecked,” he says, “the world is on track for at least three degrees of warming.”
One of the most biodiverse places on the planet, the Great Barrier Reef is already at risk of having its status downgraded by UNESCO to “world heritage in danger.” The more than 2,000-km-long underwater expanse will be the focus of Australia’s Earth Day, April 29.