Scientists: Mars Rover Can Help Us Better Understand Climate Change on Earth

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

NASA’s rover, Curiosity, made a successful landing on Mars earlier this week. Some scientists say the car-sized rover, the most high-tech ever designed by the space agency, could have a lot to tell us about our own climate.

As Mother Jones reports, scientists have made great strides in predicting what will happen to our climate, but we only have one climate to test hypotheses on. The rover will give scientists a chance to test their assumptions. “You learn about how to understand an atmosphere by seeing different atmospheres,” said Mark Lemmon, a planetary scientist from Texas A&M University who is part of Curiosity’s climate team. “And the more we know about Mars’ atmosphere, the better we can really understand our own.”

While Curiosity sends back readings about the cold temperatures on the red planet, Earth is heating up.  NOAA confirmed what many of us have felt (literally):  July was the hottest month in 118 years of recordkeeping. One NASA scientist links the increasing number of unusually hot summers to climate change in a new study. The findings have received mixed reviews: some said it was a smart way of understanding the magnitude of heat extremes, while others criticized the study’s statistical analyses. Another study by Harvard researchers suggests the vapors from powerful storms could be depleting the ozone layer, which could lead to an increase in the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching the Earth’s surface.

This is around the time the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee came off a three-year hiatus to discuss the state of climate science, with neither side budging on the issues. Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp reflected on the disagreements in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “It is time for conservatives to compete with liberals to devise the best, most cost-effective climate solutions. Solving this challenge will require all of us.” Meanwhile, in a New York Times op-ed physicist and long-time climate-change skeptic Richard Muller recounted his recent “total turnaround” on climate change following intensive research by his Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project. Muller is now convinced not only that global warming is real, but also that humans are the cause. “Call me a converted skeptic,” he said.

Global Energy Demand Sees Increase

Global energy demand grew by more than 3 percent in 2011, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The way energy is consumed and produced must change, but no single solution exists, argued IEA Deputy Executive Director Richard Jones in the documentary Switch. “There is no one magic bullet,” Jones said. “There is no one technology you need, because the world is different in different places.”

The Obama administration is expediting seven proposed renewable energy projects on public lands expected to produce power for 1.5 million homes from wind and solar in Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming and California. Federal permitting could be completed as early as December. Many more renewable energy projects are in the works for power-thirsty military bases after the Pentagon and the U.S. Department of Interior inked a deal earlier this week. The plan is designed to ensure energy for bases if the commercial grid were interrupted, and proposes the use of a mix of offshore wind generation for coastal bases with other solar, geothermal and biomass projects.

In the Arctic, Shell has scaled back plans for drilling as the start of production efforts approaches. Lingering sea ice delayed the start of the company’s original four-month drilling plan, initially projected to begin July 1.

Drought Threatens Food Surplus

The worst drought in more than half a century—now affecting 63 percent of the U.S.—has some analysts predicting the U.S. will deliver the smallest corn crop in five years—keeping prices at record highs. Nearly 80 percent of the country’s corn crop and more than 11 percent of the soybean crop have been affected. Both are major exports for the U.S. Global food reserves continue to decline, raising food-import cost forecasts to a near-record $1.24 trillion.

The drought’s effect on crop and livestock production has prompted President Barack Obama to seek aid for the Midwest. “Congress needs to pass a farm bill that will not only provide important disaster relief tools, but also make necessary reforms and give farmers the certainty they deserve,” said Obama.

In Georgia, one farmer is taking a different approach to keeping his crops healthy despite the drought. Farmer Glenn Cox is relying on new technology that uses sensors encased in PVC pipes to gather moisture and temperature readings from different soil depths and locations in his corn and peanut fields. Antennas fitted to the pipes transmit data to his computer for monitoring—taking the guess work out of when and where to water.

Elsewhere, other measures are being taken to better cope with drought conditions—including introducing to cattle breeds in Iowa genes from hardier breeds more accustomed to drought.

Climate’s Impact on Marine Life

Ocean acidification—caused when greenhouse gas emissions dissolve in the ocean to form acid—is not only making it harder for sea creatures to grow their shells, but it could also be disrupting the marine food chain, according to a new study. Polar regions may be most affected, making it difficult for clams and sea urchins to extract enough calcium carbonate to grow their shells and skeletons.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.