Not Doomed Yet: Two New Worlds

Humans discovered two new planets this week—one, remade by their efforts; the other, for light years away.

The late 1940s brought a “Great Acceleration” of fossil-fuel burning—some of it driven by surging car ownership, below—that heralded the beginning of the Anthropocene. (AP)

This is ‘Not Doomed Yet,’ The Atlantic’s newsletter about global warming. It lives here in the Science section; you can also get it in your inbox:

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A dense, important week in planetary science. Two projects that have worked to minor attention for years arrived at important conclusions:

First: the Anthropocene, a span of geological time marked by humanity’s manipulation of the Earth system, began in the 1950s, a working group appointed by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) has ruled. The group voted that the post-WWII “great acceleration” in industrial CO₂ combustion—combined with the introduction of synthetic plutonium deposited by atomic-weapons explosions—justified the declaration of a new geological epoch, just as the end of the last Ice Age did roughly 10,000 years earlier.

Members of the working group and other scientists will now hunt for an ideal version of this transition in the world’s lake beds and rock record.

Despite the wide use of the term “anthropocene,” the ICS hasn’t formally endorsed the name yet. The ICS will vote on adopting the working group’s plan next year. Some of its members worry that if they fail to adopt the name, they will face a round of tut-tutting press: “I feel like a lighthouse with a huge tsunami wave coming at it,” the chair of the ICS told Paul Voosen, of Science.

Second: Astronomers have located the nearest alien world to ours, a tidally locked rocky planet in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri B, only four light years away. The planet’s discovery is a crowning triumph of the search for expolanets, as Rebecca Boyle writes in a barnstorming story for this very publication:

No one will ever find a closer alien world than this. This is it. No other faint, cool stars lurk in the abyss between the Alpha Centauri system and our solar system. In a way, the first discovery of a possibly habitable planet in our backyard is also a final discovery. In the hunt for our cosmic neighbors, this planet is as good as it gets.

* * *

In the week beginning August 14, 2016, the Mauna Loa Observatory recorded an average atmospheric carbon level of 401.85 parts per million. At this time last year, atmospheric levels stood at 399.10 ppm. Ten years ago, Mauna Loa measured atmospheric CO₂ at 380.83 ppm. Levels of 350 ppm or lower are considered safe.

In much of the Northern Hemisphere, this is the final week of meteorological summer. The temperate Southern Hemisphere—in the continents, that means South America, South Africa, and much of Australia—will lapse into meteorological spring next week as well.

A new paper in Nature proposes that global warming in the Northern Hemisphere began in the 1830s—much earlier than previously thought—and that it was also caused by anthropogenic carbon emissions.

The American pioneer of the global campaign to eradicate small pox has died. I didn’t know that the USSR pushed WHO to embark on the global eradication campaign, nor that the small pox campaign didn’t work by vaccinating everyone but, rather, by vaccinating only people who had contact with small pox patients and the people who had contact with them. Small pox is still the only disease successfully eradicated from general circulation.

In U.S. politics, the Bakken pipeline, a 1,712-mile project that would funnel oil from oil fields in North Dakota to a river port in Illinois, was approved by the federal government. And more than 1,000 protesters—many from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose reservation straddles land otherwise in North and South Dakota—succeeded in halting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would pass beneath the Missouri River.

Bernie Sanders announced that restricting fracking and ensuring climate justice would be policy focuses of his new political group, Our Revolution.

In U.S. policy, President Obama has declared that a privately preserved area near Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, is a national monument. It is likely the last large expanse of preserved land on the East Coast that will receive national protection. (Why isn’t it a national park? A president can summarily declare a national monument into existence via executive authority, but would require Congressional approval for a national park.)

In energy news, international coal prices have risen through the summer, especially in the Pacific region, on the back of renewed demand from China. Yet some analysts argue that the American coal industry is permanently wounded: “From its peak in 2008, U.S. coal production has declined by 500 million tons per year – that’s 3,000 fewer pounds of coal per year for each man, woman and child in the United States.”

What does the global oil drought look like? In Nigeria, according to the Financial Times, it means that states are canceling the mass weddings they would have previously subsidized:

During the boom years when oil prices were above $100 per barrel, Kano’s state government sponsored several mass weddings for nearly 2,500 couples. The state paid the requisite dowry for the families of the grooms and provided a raft of household items for the brides’ families. … The programme was popular. In the predominantly Muslim state, marriage is seen as critical to maintaining the moral fabric of society.

Does half the world’s population live in a city? Do two-thirds? We don’t actually know (despite the off-cited claim otherwise), and we might never really know, writes Alexandra Lange. “Forced to stop using a readymade, attention-grabbing number as justification should force everyone to think harder about why cities are at the center of our design discourse. Why should everything good flow to the center?”