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Off on a Comet
Proposed Remedy for New Ice Age or Global Melt-Down

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.

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The Earth in Water, photo composition by Elan Sun Star

 

This article is not intended, or expected, to persuade anyone at the present time. It is too far ahead of where most people are thinking at present. It does, however, represent a last-ditch insurance way of possibly mitigating the effects of runaway global warming after all other efforts and recourses have failed. It is within reach of our present technology.

Airing the idea now, and instilling it into public consciousness now, improves the chances that, in the coming more desperate times, someone in a leadership position will have seen the idea and advance it as their own solution to what is happening. I think this represents a problem we will definitely want solved, regardless of whose idea is recorded as having solved it.

I mentioned the "g.w." word—global warming—but I am not attempting with this article to prove or disprove that global warming is happening. Events and scientific measurements are eloquently taking care of that question. Nor am I attempting to prove or disprove that human pollution is behind the current trends as a significant contributing or even causal factor. What even the nay-sayers have had to acknowledge, however, is that, worldwide, climates are changing, whether the cycle is entirely natural or whether it is propelled by human pollution and destruction of the environment.

What no one has addressed in any meaningful way is that these accelerating shifts in climate are in process of starting to wreck world agriculture and that consequently we are looking at prospects of worldwide famine within a few years. Addressing that, however, is not the purpose of this article — I will for the time being refer you to Winsights No. 59, Feeding the World, as one potential contingency solution to that phase of the problem, as part of the case for our contingency planning now and for using our plethora of CPS methods to problem-solve now.

The particular idea featured in this present article is part of a proposed solution to global warming only if the collapse of the Greenland ice cap does not, as it interrupts the Gulf Stream, trigger a new ice age. In that instance, if it does not trigger a new ice age, we will be in the throes of a runaway global-warming avalanche taking us so far in the opposite direction from an ice age that we will have outstripped the Earth's ability to recover.

Soon, from that point, we would be in the situation that the greenhouse gases methane and CO2 are boiling out of the oceans instead of being sequestered by the seas — after which there is no apparent natural stopping point short of the conditions now prevailing on our sister planet Venus.

I think that by the time the greenhouse gases are boiling out of our oceans, our political leadership will no longer be in a state of total denial. That raises my hopes that if we can now disseminate the one main idea presented in this article, there is a chance that this idea might eventually emerge in time to affect the emergency. I seek to further improve chances by also pointing out a different use of much the same idea, one that we could be acting upon now for positive and commercial reasons.

O

The basic idea:

This concise, specific operation can be carried out even after everything else has fallen apart. The idea came out of a recent (2006) High Thinktank meeting of ours, suggested by the images reported by one of its members, Roberta Hoffman, during our signature problem-solving procedure. (See High Thinktank.)

Recent discussions have painted a picture of some pessimism as to whether our country or our civilization is going to do much that's useful on this question until too late. We have passed several "tipping points" already.

The impending collapse of the Greenland ice cap (which would inundate all our sea-side cities worse than New Orleans in summer 2005, with global sea levels rising by 23 feet) is about to take us much further into violent change of climates world-wide — at the expense of agriculture, as a much greater tipping point. By the time our political leadership leaves denial behind, we may already be verging on the far, far greater tipping point, where CO2 and methane will boil out of the oceans instead of being absorbed into and sequestered by the oceans.

Within several years of that particular tipping, Earth would be uninhabited and uninhabitable.

Having a solution which could, somehow, be played even at that late stage of events is huge, and it may make all the difference.

With conditions already that far advanced, with the greenhouse gases boiling up to compound the warming, world famine, drowned cities, mass migrations, civil order collapsing — there is still one card to be played, one way to intercept the inferno and re-cool the Earth toward more normal levels:


Find a comet, gently tow it into stable Lagrangian orbit between Earth and the Sun where we already maintain one solar observatory, and let the evaporating coma of the comet act as a sunshield to block part of the sun's heat and light.

We are already on the verge of being able to move asteroids around. The likeliest method would be to implant several ion-drive engines on the nucleus. Those engines have the highest reaction-mass yield of anything manageable and gentle that we have, and they'll run for years without refueling. These ion-drive engines are gentle — indeed, too gentle:  they haven't played much of a role in our space program because they can't lift their own weight. But over a period of months and years, they can cumulatively impart considerable change to even a massive object's orbit or trajectory.

From first spotting of a comet targeted for the process, it would be a project of several years to gradually bend down the orbit to where it would almost coincide with the Earth's and delicately bring it to the location of our Soho solar observatory, which now stably orbits between us and the sun. We could park the comet there as a sunshade for years, until the comet finally evaporates or until we no longer need it and can kick it away. (Or convert what's left of its core into industrial materials.)

It would be a contained scientific project, within the means of any of the major space-faring nations to perform. By the time we need it, it might be within the range of any of dozens of private aerospace firms to perform.

It is a specific, limited project that can be carried out by special teams even when everything else has become a complete mess.

It is our long-term life insurance, a final recourse that can still save this planet from the brink of total ruin.

We can't afford to let things get that far, but history — and a look around at how we are currently responding — suggests that we will let it get that far. Even with the comet solution in place and working, our climate will be so radically disturbed that 90% or more of land-based agriculture would be gone for decades, if not offset by the oceanic fish farms we propose in the article, Feeding the World. That means that 90% to 95% of all the human beings living on this planet would die of famine and of related diseases. With this solution, not all of them need to die. (No one has to die if we start dealing with this global-warming situation now and begin some contingency planning to mitigate what's happening.) So it is a major plus that a potential solution exists so that some of us may live even if we let our world get to such an extreme point.

O

A rather large point of doubt:

Even as we continue blithely the behaviors which got us into this trouble in the first place, we ironically are looking at a very large point of doubt about what's coming. Are we looking at prospects of a heat avalanche resulting from the current and pending runaway instabilities, or, of all things, are we looking instead at another ice age?

The reason for the doubt is our system of ocean currents, the Gulf Stream being part of that. When an ice cap collapses — as we've seen so often in the Northern Hemisphere the past few million years — it can interrupt this multi-ocean "conveyor belt." Suddenly, snowblitzes hit northern lands now kept moderate by the warm side of this conveyor belt, and glaciers accumulate. All of a sudden, all the things which are causing extreme runaway thawing in our North, by making the Earth absorb more solar radiation, go into reverse and make the Earth instead reflect away more and more of that radiation.

The last time Greenland had begun to thaw out, around 900 A.D., was enough interruption to the Gulf Stream that we went through "the Little Ice Age," emerging only in the early Twentieth Century. Long the subject of intense scientific investigation, much of the mechanism of this latest "Ice Cycle" is now pretty well understood. What we are facing, then, is this unsettling spray of divergent possibilities:

  1. The collapse of the Greenland ice cap will render a milder oceanic climate almost everywhere from the seas having risen, after which the amount of C02 we've poured into the atmosphere will continue pushing us into greater heat everywhere until the Earth boils dry. This is the scenario for which we badly need to use a comet as sunshield, a last-ditch way to keep the Earth habitable and interrupt the heat avalanche.

  2. The collapse of the Greenland ice cap will trigger some glaciation in northern lands while heat continues to build in others. We may get a degree or so Fahrenheit relief in global averages for a few years, buying us time to make necessary adjustments before the heat avalanche resumes. The proposed comet could buy us some further time there, and even save us if we fail to make good use of the time made available.

  3. The collapse of the Greenland ice cap will collapse the ocean conveyor belt for decades, triggering a severe new ice age which, like the last major one, took thousands of years to recover from. For this outcome, we definitely would not need the comet sunshade I'm suggesting in this article.
O

Considerations:

How can one advocate a course of action amidst so many contrary possibilities and unknowns? Well, we already heedlessly cast our lot with the practices and policies which led to the present problem, long before we knew a fraction of what we know now. The die having been cast, we are now having to deal, willy nilly, with the consequences. We are in for the ride:  but we still have some chance to influence the direction of this ride.

We don't know which of these three scenarios will play out — we only know that the Greenland ice cap is recapitulating geologic history in the northern hemisphere and is well into the runaway collapse of the ice caps in our north.

Once the collapse happens — possibly within the next six to ten years, when ocean levels jump 23 feet, our cities drown, our climate goes into chaos, our agriculture fails, our economy mostly fails, and people go into panic — our available options will be considerably reduced. So it would be well to undertake the minimum of action now that will later let us move a comet into position even after panic and disorder rule the field.

In two out of the three types of scenario, we will need the comet — one scenario needs it more immediately, the other would need it eventually. In either case, it would probably have to be with thinking and technology developed before the collapse, because little research and development is likely to have much chance to happen after that collapse. Simple prudence argues that we go ahead to develop the means to pursue this option.

O

Needing the comet even now — but not as a sunshade:

We need now, for a wide variety of reasons and not merely for moving comets, to develop further some of the various types of ion-drive reaction motors, enabling us to move large masses into different orbits over prolonged periods of time. We need in any case for such engines to be gentle, since some of the masses we'd be moving around come apart easily. (We need also for that reason to develop better technology for landing such motors on asteroids and comets, and securing them to those objects properly positioned and controlled.)

There is one way we need a comet now — not as a sunshade but as a source of water, on the moon, in support of what will be our developing bases and industries there. Chances are that the traces of water ice we've been discovering around the lunar south pole will be well short of meeting our needs there. Water from a comet, nudged into a convenient orbit around Earth, will provide a lot of fuel for future deep space missions, fuel that doesn't have to be lifted up out of Earth's gravity well.

Later, if we determine that there is indeed no current life on Mars, we can divert and dump several comets onto Mars as a quick part of making that world Earthlike to support a human population and civilization.

The main thing in any of these cases is the same as if we end up needing a comet as sunshade for the Earth.

  • We need to finish developing long-service, gentle-reaction motors such as the ion-drive engines.
  • We need their gentleness, combined with their long operation before needing refueling, to move large masses about in space without those masses coming apart in the handling.
  • We need to very completely work out the orbital mechanics involved, especially when moving large masses near the Earth.
  • We can use the same means to deflect asteroids when they threaten to get too close to us.
  • We get a long further step on the industry and wealth which the development of abundant resources in space can bring us.
  • We improve greatly the chances that humanity will continue, even that our civilization will continue, that all our struggles and travails here on Earth won't have been in vain and our hard-learned lessons for nought — the chances that there will be a future and a human future.
O

What can you do now?

The comet idea is way too far ahead of where most people are thinking, even those who are thinking. This definitely will not be the most popularly received thing I've ever said. I don't expect anyone to dare go about arguing on its behalf. But even laughing about the idea with others at least spreads the idea toward the all-too-likely time when we will need it.

I think that is about as much as I can presently ask for, in today's climate. I hope I can ask for that much. Thank you.

O

Postscript:   We make these following observations, on October 10, 2009, in response to a most encouraging report published in New Scientist:

"Rocket company tests world's most powerful ion engine"
by David Shiga, 05 October 2009"

A major, much more powerful, new ion drive engine is being developed which can propel human missions to Mars in as little as 39 days, compared to the six months or more required with conventional rockets. One 200-watt engine of this type has already been test-fired. Another is slated to be installed on the International Space Station within five years to help it maintain its orbit against atmospheric drag - which could be very important if the sun goes into its next solar maximum and stirs up our upper atmosphere again.

Ion engines are of special interest in space development because they can run almost forever with little fuel, requiring, however, abundant energy, which is abundant in space. They work in a vacuum. They are not powerful enough to lift their own weight against the full pull of Earth's gravity, but once in orbit their mission capacity is huge compared with that of other currently available forms of propulsion. Earlier, weaker ion drives have been used successfully in the later stages of various distant space missions throughout much of the solar system.

A point of interest here is that it brings much closer the achievement of what we've proposed in the present article and in A New Basis for Solutions dealing with climate change. The main, positive purpose for such a proposal is to fully and effectively launch the new Space-based Industrial Age to bring comprehensive prosperity to every corner of the Earth and its varied inhabitants while protecting what now survives of the terrestrial environment. Accomplish this by attaching such ion engines and their controls to the nucleus of a water-rich comet and nudging it into a stable, trailing LaGrangian orbit following Earth around the sun. Millions of tons of potential rocket fuel that doesn't have to be lifted against Earth's gravity well, plus limitless solar energy, opens to us the resources of the entire solar system.

The second, contingency, purpose for such a proposal is in the last-ditch instance of runaway global warming - which could happen in five years if the already-started methane blow accelerates and initiates a fourteen-degree thermal spike like that which happened in the world's worst mass extinction ever, at the end of the Permian - where potentially risky global engineering may be required for our survival. In this instance a comet could be nudged into stable LaGrangian orbit between Earth and the sun to act as a diffuse sunshade. The coma of a comet being diffuse and spread out, and thus not affecting one area of the Earth much more than another, this seems to be among the geo-engineering methods which are least disruptive to what remains of Earth's climate patterns.

We used to think we had more time than this - and if the sun unexpectedly continues in its current solar minimum, we do - but we need to work these things out and develop on standby, at least, the relevant technologies. Emergence of this new generation of ion rockets is profoundly encouraging.

O

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Win Wenger


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