Earth sits between two worlds that have been devastated by past climate catastrophes. In the effort to combat global warming, our neighbors- Mars and Venus (image)- provide valuable insights into the way climate catastrophes affect planets.
Data gathered from European Space Agency’s Venus Express and Express is invaluable to climate scientists modeling Earth’s climate to predict its future. The climate of our two neighbors is in stark contrast to Earth with Venus a cloudy inferno and Mars is a frigid desert.
“It seems that both and Venus started out much more like Earth," says David Grinspoon, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and one of the Venus Express interdisciplinary scientists. "They both hold priceless climate information for Earth."
The more scientists look at those equations, the more they realize just how complicated Earth’s climate system is. Grinspoon puts the predicament like this: “In fifty or a hundred years, we will know whether today’s climate models were right but if they are wrong, by then it will be too late.”
The atmosphere of Venus is much thicker than Earth’s. Nevertheless, current climate models can reproduce its present temperature structure well. Now planetary scientists want to turn the clock back to understand why and how Venus changed from its former Earth-like conditions into the inferno of today.
Climate scientists believe that the planet experienced a runaway greenhouse effect as the Sun gradually heated up. Astronomers believe that the young Sun was dimmer than the present-day Sun by 30 percent. Over the last 4 thousand million years, it has gradually brightened. During this increase, Venus’s surface water evaporated and entered the atmosphere.
“Water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas and it caused the planet to heat-up even more. This is turn caused more water to evaporate and led to a powerful positive feedback response known as the runaway greenhouse effect,” says Grinspoon.
As Earth warms in response to man-made pollution, it risks the same fate. Reconstructing the climate of the past on Venus can give scientists a better understanding of how close our planet is to such a catastrophe. However, determining when Venus passed the point of no return is not easy. That’s where ESA’s Venus Express comes in.
The spacecraft is in orbit around Venus collecting data that will help unlock the planet’s past. Venus is losing gas from its atmosphere, so Venus Express is measuring the rate of this loss and the composition of the gas being lost. It also watches the movement of clouds in the planet’s atmosphere. This reveals the way Venus responds to the absorption of sunlight, because the energy from the Sun provides the power that allows the atmosphere to move.
Understanding Mars’ past is equally important. ESA’s Express is investigating the fate of the Red Planet. Smaller than the Earth, is thought to have lost its atmosphere to space. When Martian volcanoes became extinct, so did the planet’s means of replenishing its atmosphere turning it into an almost-airless desert.
“What happened on these two worlds is very different but either would be equally disastrous for Earth. We are banking on our ability to accurately predict Earth’s future climate,” says Grinspoon.
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