5 things you might not know about the sky

A herd of wildebeest at sunset in Botswana.

Sky is the air we breathe, the atmosphere that makes Earth livable and the weather that makes it possible to grow food — and it’s under threat from humanity. (© Rod Mast)

If you could drive your car straight up at highway speed, you’d leave the Earth’s atmosphere and enter space in just over an hour.

This thin, delicate band surrounding our planet makes life on Earth possible, yet the health of the atmosphere is being upended by fossil-fuel emissions — with increasingly perilous results. Earth’s atmosphere has more carbon in it now than it has had for 300 million years — with major implications for global climate.

Conservation International (CI) is giving voice to our beleaguered atmosphere with “Sky,” the latest film in the “Nature Is Speaking” series. Voiced by actress Joan Chen, the video calls attention to the state of our skies.

Here are a few things you might not know about the sky.

1. Could Earth become more like Venus? Let’s not find out.

Earth is the only planet in the solar system with an atmosphere that can sustain life as we know it. But it could have been very different — as evidenced by Venus. Superficially the closest planet to Earth in terms of size and proximity to the sun, the atmospheres of early Earth and Venus were not drastically different, yet today Earth is hospitable to life and Venus is a highly pressurized hotbox with an average daily temperature of around 460 degrees Celsius (860 degrees Fahrenheit). Scientists believe that the sun may have “cooked off” Venus’ water vapor, leaving only carbon dioxide — while the slightly cooler Earth retained its water (while hosting living organisms that consumed carbon and produced oxygen), enough to tip the scales to an atmosphere beneficial for life.

Now, humans are upsetting that delicate balance by pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an unprecedented pace, particularly over the last 50 years. The last time there was this was carbon in the atmosphere, humans didn’t exist. These C02 levels are causing severe weather fluctuations, longer periods of drought and flooding, and more frequent and intense storms. While it’s unlikely that our planet could ever see an atmosphere like Venus, the history of our planetary neighbor is a cautionary tale to humans: Take care of your air.

Baobab trees in Madagascar.

Technologies being proposed to combat climate change include “artificial trees” that would perform the same carbon-capturing duties as real trees. (© Art Wolfe/ www.artwolfe.com)

2. Some scientists want to use giant space mirrors to fight climate change but not everyone thinks this is a good idea.

Revolutionary climate engineering technologies might be the missing piece to the puzzle that can help us meet the climate goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. By the time the agreement goes into effect in 2020, the planet’s warming may have outpaced the plan to manage it. This has led some scientists to propose new — and sometimes polarizing — technologies, like artificial “trees” that would perform the same carbon-capturing duties as real trees. Another idea is solar radiation management technology, a type of climate engineering that reflects sunlight (and heat) back into space, thereby reducing the temperature on Earth.

Climate engineering technologies like this are meant to replace the services the atmosphere — and nature — provide for free. Yet, as their detractors point out, their benefits are limited. For example, giant space mirrors don’t address dangerous impacts of a warming climate, such as ocean acidification — only the warming itself.

Further Reading:

3. You’re not imagining it it is getting harder to breathe.

You can thank climate change: The duration of seasons and more erratic weather patterns are causing plants to release more pollen into the air earlier and for longer periods. If you’re one of the lucky people who doesn’t currently suffer from seasonal allergies, that might change soon. The longer you’re exposed to an allergen (such as pollen floating around for an extended period), the more likely you are to develop sensitivity to it.

Although for most people allergies are a seasonal annoyance, air quality causes damaging health effects for millions around the world. Asthma rates have soared in the past decade due to air pollution and higher temperatures; today about 235 million people suffer from it worldwide, and over 80% of asthma deaths occur in low- and lower-middle income countries. Overall, the World Health Organization estimates that 3.7 million people die each year due to air pollution.

Mount Bisoke, Rwanda

Volcanic eruptions can have both warming and cooling effects on the climate. (© Rod Mast)

4. The eruption of one volcano can change the global temperature.

When volcanoes erupt, they spew particles and gases into the air, which have different effects. Ash and sulfur dioxide cause a cooling effect by reflecting sunlight away from the planet, while carbon dioxide causes warming by contributing to the greenhouse effect (trapping heat energy).

Some scientists believe that the Earth has maintained a relatively even climate for so long due to the heating and cooling caused by volcanic eruptions, going so far as to say climate change would be worse if not for the cooling episodes provided by certain eruptions. The effects are considerable: After Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, average global temperatures dropped about a degree Fahrenheit for two years; the 1815 eruption of Tambora in Indonesia brought a dip in temperatures that caused crop failures in North America and Europe.


Without the sky, you wouldn’t be here. Support CI’s efforts to help the world mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts.

5. Seeing through clouds = a win for science

The ability to scan Earth via satellite — known as “remote sensing” — has expanded considerably our understanding of climate, forests, farming and more. But for years, scientists in tropical regions were hampered by cloud cover, which obscured views from satellites and made precise monitoring and mapping of land difficult.

A relatively new open-source data platform that relies on old technology — radar — has changed all that, penetrating all weather conditions and returning high-resolution images and data.

For scientific organizations such as Conservation International, this tool is helping to illuminate land-cover change. With this technology, researchers are better able to observe when forests are cleared for farms and other uses in places such as Indonesia and Peru. Combined with optical satellite data (think Google Earth), scientists are able to get the full picture of what’s happening on the ground, then use the findings to inform conservation efforts and policy decisions.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer at Conservation International.

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  2. Fred Brodsky says

    Our decision makers who deny that human activities have no effect on our environment are the greatest damager to our future healthy existence. With politicians spending the majority of their time fund raising as the result of our Supreme Court and current political system, it is no wonder that so little progress is made on the significant problems that continue to face us. Term limits would help with increasing productive time, but electing intelligent politicians and holding them accountable for managing the country’s business will help more.

    1. Charley says

      Informative information! I was actually wondering what was being done about the Global warming subject really. I do think that trees can be grown at accelerated rates just by using constant sunshine and simulation in a lab setting or maybe human seed fermentation but who knows. I am kinda getting the possible issues with the mirror concept too.

  3. Jeanette says

    Will it take energy to run the artificial trees and for sure you do not want the carbon machines; they will come with a reverse switch, guaranteed. I can’t believe CI actually endorses climate engineering. How much CO2 do you think the planes doing those chemtrails everyday cause? Plus the particulates in the air. It is adding to the problem. It is comprised of mostly nanotech aluminum, silver and barium and other things too. Aluminum in antiperspirant and insides of soda cans was dangerous remember? Now pure aluminum, broken into nano size pieces is now wonderful for us? It is not only pollen, CO2 but also the chemtrails on top of everything else. “Bandaids never seem to solve problems but create even more. Experts talk about this and say that at a certain point that the top 1%, gov’t will not be able to come up with enough solutions, fast enough and everybody will fall through their fingers like sand. They are sociopathic and will do ANYTHING for a dollar. We need “We the People” running things; the common sense of the country. Run for office.

    I have some suggestions; oh I forgot they are honest and tell the truth and don’t make any Wall Streeter money. Wahoo! My favorite kind! Think about everything you buy and use. EVERYTHING took energy to make/produce. Buy base foods; not manufactured food and drink. Plant trees, grow plants in your home, grow a garden. Try not to cut down trees, etc. Don’t fertilize (energy intense), just to cut bushes and trees. As soon as you cut them the CO2 starts coming out. Don’t drive so much; combine trips. Bust up old asphalt and cement, less heat, more exposure for the ground to absorb rain, have soil life, absorb CO2, even a weed shades the ground, takes in CO2, retains moisture in the plant and ground, wildlife would appreciate it too. There are many, many ways to reduce CO2. It’s in our hands, I think, the smart ones.

  4. Stack Hawk says

    Thanks for enlightening me with some new info about the atmosphere. I, too, would like more info on what is actually being done in some of the areas discussed. And as for mirrors, you would spend a fortune to accomplish very little I would expect. There must be a better way…

  5. Zafar M. Khalid says

    By those [winds] sent forth in gusts
    And the winds that blow violently
    And [by] the winds that spread [clouds]
    And those [angels] who bring criterion
    And those [angels] who deliver a message
    As justification or warning,
    Indeed, what you are promised is to occur.
    Al-Qur’aan 77:1-7

  6. Vivek K. Uppal says

    Hi All,
    I am a citizen of India and would like to start being more sincere about the Environmental efforts. Where do I start from or what should what should I look forward to do something about it. I want to start from scratch and involve everyone who I can. Give me some ideas will appreciate it

  7. Crystal says

    Will Earth become like Venus? Perhaps. But, not today. I won’t live to see it and neither will you. AND humans won’t be the cause of it completely. Even is we weren’t here, the climate would change anyway. I think the Adam & Eve story has got people too confused.

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