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Cloudy Coverup for Climate Change

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In an effort to wrap our collective heads around all the Causes that can Effect Climate Change, perhaps we could go up into Space to gain some seriously wide-angle perspectives on the subject, and then come back down to Earth with a more grounded view of what’s driving this change.

noc_strange_clouds_ISSThe first layer of atmosphere that we encounter upon re-entry is the Mesospehere, and it’s a frontier zone that’s only now being better explored for it’s peculiar properties. What’s driving this curiosity are visible signs of changes going on up there, which are impacting some wild theories about geo-engineering the skies, to counteract climate change down here.

More than 120 years after their discovery, Noctilucent Clouds (from the Latin words for “Night Shining”) remain a mysterious enigma that only appears up at the very edge of space – or about 75-85 kilometers (50 miles) straight up! This area is called the Mesosphere, and it’s not only very cold (-193F/-125C), but it’s also incredibly dry. Studies show that the mesosphere is about 100 MILLION times drier than the Sahara, so one of the questions that we find 80 kms above us is: just how do these eerie clouds form under such poor conditions? Just to contrast abit, the highest clouds that we normally see are called Cirrus, and form at only about 11 km (36,000feet) where it only gets down to about -40C.

NCLs over northern Europe  Credit: Pekka Parvianien.

So…Let’s consider what makes clouds to begin with? Basically ice crystals, or rain need to two things to form. A dust (1)particle that allows (2)water vapor to collect/condense around the particle in a process called “nucleation”. The theories on Noctilucent Clouds are that the dust required to form them at that altitude is either coming from space, or somehow coming up from the surface far, far below. Water vapor is also incredibly scarce at that altitude, which suggests theories that the water is actually coming from rocket exhaust. An even more fascinating theory suggests that oxidized Methane* is at the supply base for the components of water since atmospheric methane levels have been increasing since the 19th century, and have more than doubled in the past century! So we might be just seeing the early signs of some new form of climate change at work up there at the edge of space…

It bears mentioning, that these heretofore rather rare Noctilucent Cloud (NLC) formations have already been named (previously) as Polar Mesospheric Clouds (PMC’s), but this name has fallen into disuse since NCL’s are now becoming visible at MUCH lower latitudes, and can no longer be simply characterised as a “polar” phenomena anymore.

NCLs over Mt.Sabalan, 15,784ft extinct volcano in northwestern Iran  Credit: Siamak Sabet

Gary Thomas, is a professor at the University of Colorado who studies NLCs. He says “Noctilucent clouds are a relatively new phenomenon. They were first seen in 1885, about two years after the powerful eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia, which hurled immense plumes of ash as high as 80 kilometers into Earth’s atmosphere”.

Given the circumstances around their discovery, and their more recent spread to the South, Global warming is also implicated in the formation of these the beautiful yet mysterious clouds. The more interesting theories around this southern migration include the aforementioned Methane oxidization, and the proposal that since more heat is being reflected back in the lower atmosphere (by various Greenhouse effects) then the Mesosphere receives less radiated heat and is cooled even further, and thus rendering it more prone to ice crystal formation further south. Of course, where the traces of water vapor are even coming from also remains a compelling subject for further study.

Back in 2006, the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere satellite, or AIM for short, orbited Earth at an altitude of 342 miles (550 kilometers) for 2 years. “Although it’s a small satellite”, said Thomas at the time, “there are many sensors on board. AIM will take wide angle photos of NLCs, measure their temperatures and chemical abundances, monitor dusty aerosols, and count meteoroids raining down on Earth. For the first time we’ll be able to monitor all the crucial factors at once.”

AIM’s principal investigator Jim Russell, of Hampton University, told reporters that “other satellite missions have made measurements of these clouds, but they weren’t optimized and it was not their intent in the beginning. They provided information, but not enough to really address the fundamental question of why [the clouds] form and how they vary.”

Meanwhile, back in the Present, we can speculate that enough data was recovered by AIM over 2 years, to warrant a followup mission that’s scheduled to be launched any day now.

Scheduled to launch last Tuesday(15/09/09), the Charged Aerosol Release Experiment (CARE) is a project of the Naval Research Laboratory and the Department of Defense (DoD) Space Test Program. The module will launch aboard a NASA four-stage Black Brant XII suborbital sounding rocket. Using ground based instruments and the STP/NRL STPSat-1 spacecraft that is already in orbit, scientists will study an artificial noctilucent cloud formed by the exhaust particles of the rocket’s fourth stage.

Again, the Mesosphere exists between 30-50 miles up, and is a poorly understood layer of our sky, since it exists above the Stratosphere where highest airplanes can fly, but below the Thermosphere were the lowest spacecraft can orbit, and is therefore only explorable using sub-orbital ‘sounding rockets’. Curiously the NASA write-up on this project states that the rocket dust will be emitted at 173 miles, and then observed by the Spatial Heterodyne Imager for Mesospheric Radicals (SHIMMER) module that is aboard the STPSat-1 satellite.

As we wait for results of these experiments to trickle down into specialty publications, we can indulge ourselves in abit of theory, as to what the purpose of this mission actually is, since the official news release is entirely blank about what is actually driving this research project.

Obviously the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), and the Department of Defense (DoD) are not using their budgets on some errand of philanthropic mercy for the rest of Humanity. Although it would be nice to think that this is all about studying obscure factors in Climate Change, the truth is likely far more complex. The NRL has a long history in space exploration going back to early work with V2 rockets, and they have a clear and vested interest in atmospheric, solar, and astro physics. They are obviously looking for signs of something very ‘big’ going on out there, at a very ‘small’ level.

Some have speculated that the DoD is concerned about how trackable the vapor trails or diffused radar reflections will appear from some (as yet) unseen Hypersonic Bomber that will fly well above the Stratosphere. Or perhaps someone just wants to prove that the NLC’c are simply the result of rocket propulsion and not pollution. Crazier ideas suggest that this is a pre-emptive study of counter-measures against diabolical Eco-Warfare nightmares from the Future.

Most importantly, this mission could indeed be the first step in a very slippery slope of Geo (uhm) ECO-Engineering in the upper atmosphere. An area of endeavor that (as yet) has nothing even remotely close to proper international regulation and enforcement systems in place. At least, to manage the possibly disastrous effects of trifling with nature on a level never before even widely imagined, let alone actually undertaken. Does anybody still beleive that God gave us dominion over the Earth to do as we’d please?

We should also be reminded us that the UN already has (toothless) measures in place against Climate Modification, that were apparently spurred by U.S. attempts to seed torrential rains over the HoChiMinh (supply) Trail during the Vietnam (erm) conflict. I would be tempted to remind us all of the UN’s (in)ability to curb the use of simple machetes used in Rwandan genocide, and to pray for a much stronger international voice and body to protect us from any threats of Eco-Warfare in the future. Perhaps though, like the nuclear threats of yore, this will all just be a matter of developing first strike capability and creating another effective deterrence. Phew…That was a theoretically close call!

Realistically, we should all just be concerned that if the mesosphere can indeed be seeded to form clouds and reflect sunlight, and thus somehow abate global warming, that this might also have a cooling effect on the fight against ecological destruction right here on the surface as well. After all…If we can just correct against climate change that high up in the atmosphere, why solve the problem at its source down here on the ground?

This Pseudo-Sci-Fi concept is what’s currently being referred to as Geo-Engineering, although I think the term ECO-Engineering is abit more accurate, and it sounds sounds abit nicer… Doesn’t it?

Feel free to click for a quick backgrounder on some other GEO/ECO-Engineering potentials.

Meanwhile back in our current Reality….You can follow news on any future launches from the Wallops facility in Virginia, via http://twitter.com/NASA_Wallops

Or better yet, just Follow Me (on Twitter) for any new takes, and interpreted updates with an easy clik…


One of the first ground sightings of noctilucent clouds over Budapest, Hungary  June 15/07  Credit: Veres Viktor/NASA

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  1. Ryan
    17/02/2010 at 5:01 PM

    Very cool concept to literally remove ourselves from the Earth to be able to step back and take a look at the ‘big picture’ from space to determine environmental factors which affect the atmosphere above us. Only from there we can look in the microscope to see what’s happening here on ground level.

  2. 23/08/2010 at 4:17 PM

    Here’s another phenemenon that’s being studied in the Mesosphere:

    Polar Mesospheric Summer Echoes

    Which have also been tied into research using HAARP arrays:

    ! ! !

    Check out a phenemenon attributed to recent phenemenon (allegedy) traced back to a HAARP installation:


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