Climate Change

2/8 Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change

2.The Whimsies of The Invisible World Spring 1979

There was a brown velvet love seat in the living room of James and Anniek Hansen, under a bright window looking out on Morningside Park in Manhattan, that nobody ever sat in. Erik, their 2-year-old son, was forbidden to go near it. The ceiling above the couch sagged ominously, as if pregnant with some alien life form, and the bulge grew with each passing week. Jim promised Anniek that he would fix it, which was only fair, because it had been on his insistence that they gave up the prospect of a prewar apartment in Spuyten Duyvil overlooking the Hudson and moved from Riverdale to this two-story walk-up with crumbling walls, police-siren lullabies and gravid ceiling. Jim had resented the 45-minute commute to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan and complained that such a gross waste of his time would soon be unsustainable, once the Pioneer spacecraft reached Venus and began to beam back data. But even after the Hansens moved within a few blocks of the institute, Jim couldn’t make time for the ceiling, and after four months it finally burst, releasing a confetti of browned pipes and splintered wood.

Jim repeated his vow to fix the ceiling as soon as he had a moment free from work. Anniek held him to his word, though it required her to live with a hole in her ceiling until Thanksgiving — seven months of plaster dust powdering the love seat.

Another promise Jim made to Anniek: He would make it home for dinner every night by 7 p.m. By 8:30, however, he was back at his calculations. Anniek did not begrudge him his deep commitment to his work; it was one of the things she loved about him. Still, it baffled her that the subject of his obsession should be the atmospheric conditions of a planet more than 24 million miles away. It baffled Jim, too. His voyage to Venus from Denison, Iowa, the fifth child of a diner waitress and an itinerant farmer turned bartender, had been a series of bizarre twists of fate over which he claimed no agency. It was just something that happened to him.

Hansen figured he was the only scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration who, as a child, did not dream of outer space. He dreamed only of baseball. On clear nights, his transistor radio picked up the broadcast of the Kansas City Blues, the New York Yankees’ AAA affiliate. Every morning, he cut out the box scores, pasted them into a notebook and tallied statistics. Hansen found comfort in numbers and equations. He majored in math and physics at the University of Iowa, but he never would have taken an interest in celestial matters were it not for the unlikely coincidence of two events during the year he graduated: the eruption of a volcano in Bali and a total eclipse of the moon.

On the night of Dec. 30, 1963 — whipping wind, 12 degrees below zero — Hansen accompanied his astronomy professor to a cornfield far from town. They set a telescope in an old corncrib and, between 2 and 8 in the morning, made continuous photoelectric recordings of the eclipse, pausing only when the extension cord froze and when they dashed to the car for a few minutes to avoid frostbite.

During an eclipse, the moon resembles a tangerine or, if the eclipse is total, a drop of blood. But this night, the moon vanished altogether. Hansen made the mystery the subject of his master’s thesis, concluding that the moon had been obscured by the dust erupted into the atmosphere by Mount Agung, on the other side of the planet from his corncrib, six months earlier. The discovery led to his fascination with the influence of invisible particles on the visible world. You could not make sense of the visible world until you understood the whimsies of the invisible one.

One of the leading authorities on the invisible world happened to be teaching then at Iowa: James Van Allen made the first major discovery of the space age, identifying the two doughnut-shaped regions of convulsing particles that circle Earth, now known as the Van Allen belts. At Van Allen’s prodding, Hansen turned from the moon to Venus. Why, he tried to determine, was its surface so hot? In 1967, a Soviet satellite beamed back the answer: The planet’s atmosphere was mainly carbon dioxide. Though once it may have had habitable temperatures, it was believed to have succumbed to a runaway greenhouse effect: As the sun grew brighter, Venus’s ocean began to evaporate, thickening the atmosphere, which forced yet greater evaporation — a self-perpetuating cycle that finally boiled off the ocean entirely and heated the planet’s surface to more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit. At the other extreme, Mars’s thin atmosphere had insufficient carbon dioxide to trap much heat at all, leaving it about 900 degrees colder. Earth lay in the middle, its Goldilocks greenhouse effect just strong enough to support life.

Anniek expected Jim’s professional life to resume some semblance of normality once the data from Venus had been collected and analyzed. But shortly after Pioneer entered Venus’s atmosphere, Hansen came home from the office in an uncharacteristic fervor — with an apology. The prospect of two or three more years of intense work had sprung up before him. NASA was expanding its study of Earth’s atmospheric conditions. Hansen had already done some work on Earth’s atmosphere for Jule Charney at the Goddard Institute, helping to develop computerized weather models. Now Hansen would have an opportunity to apply to Earth the lessons he had learned from Venus.

Jule Charney, the father of modern meteorology. From the M.I.T. Museum

We want to learn more about Earth’s climate, Jim told Anniek — and how humanity can influence it. He would use giant new supercomputers to map the planet’s atmosphere. They would create Mirror Worlds: parallel realities that mimicked our own. These digital simulacra, technically called “general circulation models,” combined the mathematical formulas that governed the behavior of the sea, land and sky into a single computer model. Unlike the real world, they could be sped forward to reveal the future.

Anniek’s disappointment — another several years of distraction, stress, time spent apart from family — was tempered, if only slightly, by the high strain of Jim’s enthusiasm. She thought she understood it. Does this mean, she asked, that you’ll able to predict weather more accurately?

Yes, Jim said. Something like that.

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