Name one place in the solar system that’s the closest thing to hell and you’ll say Venus. A runaway greenhouse effect makes Venus hotter than an oven, with surface temperatures of 850 degrees (450 C). Its atmospheric pressure is powerful enough to crush cars. And if all that isn’t enough to kill you, its atmosphere has a parting gift – it’s doused in sulfuric acid to flay the flesh from your bones.
In the past, Venus was regarded as an exotic sister, maybe even a vacation spot for travelers of the future. Thanks to the discoveries of Carl Sagan and others, Venus was less a warm getaway than a trip into an acidic volcano. If there’s one place in the solar system you won’t like and don’t want to go to, it’s Venus.
But what if Venus comes to you instead?
It’s coming. Earth will be like Venus sooner than you might imagine.
To find out why, we’ll have to go back to the beginning of the solar system.
In the beginning, when the planets were forming, there were a lot of big ass impacts. Earth itself was probably hit by an object the size of Mars. Such an impact is nearly inconceivable in the mind’s eye. The plumes of fire must have towered. The planet would have been a molten cauldron. Yet, this apocalyptic impact would prove to be the price paid for future paradise. A new world would form from the old.
First, this impact, sometimes called the Orpheus Earth collision or the giant impact theory, is likely to have been responsible for the current rotation of Earth. This stable rotation doesn’t just give us our 24 hour day, it also creates the strong magnetic field that surrounds Earth, keeping the atmosphere intact and preventing it from being blown into space by the solar wind. The “Orpheus Earth collision” also formed the moon out of the debris from the impact. The moon isn’t just a pretty thing to look at at night, sometimes when you’re out with a lady. It’s crucial to your ability to live. The moon stabilizes Earth’s tilt, keeping the planet angled at around 23 degrees and giving us our seasons, in turn allowing for a stable, predictable environment conducive to life.
Combine those things with Earth’s perfect distance from the sun, which burns at the perfect temperature, and its perfect mass to hold onto an atmosphere, and you get a golden opportunity for life.
But Venus has a similar mass. It too, is even postulated to have experienced a “giant impact.” In its past, when the sun was fainter, Venus was probably like Earth, with an ocean. Why did it go so wrong?
- Not like Earth, Venus had an impact that was so big that it slowed the planet’s rotation to a near standstill. A day on Venus is longer than the time it takes the planet to orbit the sum.
- This in turn, made it impossible for the planet to produce a magnetic field. It turns too slowly.
- The lack of a magnetic field made the planet’s atmosphere vulnerable to the solar wind.
- Venus was too close to the sun, which boiled away Venus’ oceans, which were then blown to space by the solar wind. (Note that it’s also possible that the giant impact boiled away the oceans instead.)
- With the ocean gone, CO2 was really the only element in its atmosphere. With the sun warming and its closeness to the star, this led to a runaway greenhouse effect on Venus. The rest is history.
Meanwhile, Earth was far enough away, had a mild greenhouse effect, and had the magnetic field to give us the blue planet we know and love today. To our eyes, there is no object more beautiful in the entire universe than Earth.
But it won’t look that way forever. The future of Earth is to be like Venus, only worse.
Even though we now know better, we still like to think of the universe as stable and unchanging. But we know that isn’t the case. So let’s fast forward to the future – far, by our sense of time – near by astronomical time.
In about a billion years from now, the sun will be 10% brighter in the sky than it is today. Doesn’t sound like a lot? A little goes a long way.
You see, unlike people, stars get hotter as they age. In a billion years, it’s thought by most that the sun will be too hot for Earth to continue as a blue, life-bearing world. First, the oceans will boil away. The runaway greenhouse effect will then take hold, as water vapor is a greenhouse gas too, added on top of the greenhouse gases already here.
You can see where this is going.
Venus, because it has no magnetic field, had all its water vapor blown away into space by the solar wind. Earth, on the other hand, has one, and what helped it in the past will hurt it in the far future. The magnetic field will deflect the solar wind and keep the water vapor right on Earth. Add that to the other greenhouse gases in runaway mode and in the future, you get a planet that’s even hotter than Venus, hot enough to melt the very ground you’re walking on.
This is a future that doesn’t bode well, does it?
Fortune gives and fortune takes in turn. It gave Earth some time, Venus less. In the future it will make the sister planets twins again.
Unless we can somehow…
- Reduce the atmospheric pressure in the far future to reduce the greenhouse effect.
- Move Earth further away from the sun as it grows hotter.
Both of these things are possible, theoretically.
But what the future of Earth and Venus reminds me of is this – you only have a limited time to flourish. Even the most beautiful of paradises and the greatest of things and times don’t last for ever. Unless extraordinary circumstances happen, Earth only has a limited time to glow blue, and so you in turn only have a limited time to glow with it in your life force. You are part of a rare thing in the universe. But the universe won’t let that thing last forever, and not you either.
You owe it to yourself to take your day in the sun and beautify your life and the Earth that gave it to you. How you want to do that is your choice to make.
But you can get started now by reading Stumped, because the secrets of persuasion inside will help you to do it.