Cooling Of the Upper Atmosphere Is More Than Just Moving Junk Around

Higher levels of carbon dioxide in the highest reaches of Earth’s atmosphere aren’t just affecting the weather—they are apparently impacting the movement of objects orbiting the planet, such as satellites and space junk.

While higher levels of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide are indicted for causing warmer climates, the actually tend to have a cooling effect on the atmosphere in the parts of the atmosphere closest to outer space. In atmospheric levels closer to us, carbon dioxide traps heat from the sun. Higher, however, carbon dioxide collides with oxygen atoms, which makes the carbon dioxide molecules exude heat. At thirty miles above the Earth’s surface, the density of these molecules is too thin to recapture the lost heat. Consequently, the highest heights of the atmosphere are cooling down.

These changes impact the movement of space, since cooling the outer

space station and earth
From NASA, a photo from the International Space Station flying over planet Earth.

most atmosphere makes it contract and exert less drag on things like satellites and space junk. If you are currently thinking, “well, why do I care about any of this?” —and I’ll admit that I initially did—consider the fact increased drag is blamed for the crash of Skylab, the first U.S. space station. Increased solar activity contributed to the drag in that particular case, but you can connect the dots. There are without a doubt greater implications here than just the stirring up of unwanted debris in outer space.

Physicist John Emmert of the Naval Research Laboratory is studying these effects. The goal of his research, he says, is to try to determine what impact upper atmospheric climate change could have on our lives. That the change is happening is not up for discussion—Emmert’s team found recently that “that concentrations of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, which they collectively dubbed COx, rose significantly over the past eight years.” Damage to the atmosphere is found as high as sixty miles above our planet’s surface, when we once thought greenhouse gas damage was confined to the troposphere. These outermost atmospheric sections are so high up that scientists have referred to them facetiously as the “ignorosphere.

Coy names or not, the extent to which we are damaging our atmosphere is nothing short of scary. Even if we don’t fully understand the implications of these changes, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that alterations of this magnitude cannot be a good thing. Atmospheric change is a global problem. I think it’s troubling that there’s less of a cooperative worldwide effort to understand the causes of these effects and to minimize the production of greenhouse gasses by everyone. I think it’s easy to trivialize the magnitude of what’s going on when one is referring to space junk. If temperature changes could make a space station crash, though, I think we should definitely put a little more thought into the issue.