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The End of Civilization As We Know It? Part 2

If an ice age is coming soon, how will our lives be affected? In my first blog post in this series, I described the latest scientific research that demonstrates how continued global warming will bring on the next ice age and approximately when we can expect its onset. In this post I will describe the consequences the onset of the next ice age will create for modern civilization. In the final post in this series I will briefly summarize our options for delaying the dawn of the next ice age and review what preparations we should make ahead of its arrival.

Ice Age Consequence #1: Too Much Ice

Right now, only about 10 percent of Earth’s surface is covered by ice. At the height of the last ice age, about 23 percent of Earth’s surface was covered by ice. Figure 1 shows the regions of the northern hemisphere that were covered by at least 3 kilometers’ thickness of ice. In the southern hemisphere, New Zealand, Tasmania, and the southern part of Chile were covered with similarly thick layers of ice.

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Figure 1: Maximum Extent of Thick Ice Cover of the Northern Hemisphere during the Last Ice Age. The turquoise-colored parts of the map indicate those regions covered by at least a 3-kilometer (2-mile) thickness of ice. Winter sea ice extended as far south as Mexico in the Pacific and North Carolina and Spain in the Atlantic. Image credit: John S. Schlee, United States Geological Survey and Hannes Grobe, Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research.

In addition to those parts of Earth covered by ice 3 kilometers thick, there were many other regions covered by tens or hundreds of meters of ice. For example, in North America ice cover sufficient to prevent agriculture and the building of cities and transportation arteries extended south to Southern California.

Ice Age Consequence #2: Too Little River Water Flow

Regions of the world not covered by ice fields also would suffer. People there would find the water flow from rivers that they depend on to grow food largely locked up in ice that is not melting.

Ice Age Consequence #3: Depletion of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

Growing food would be a huge challenge for another reason—the depletion of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The greater the percentage of Earth’s surface covered by ice, the less concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere.

This consequence occurs because greater ice coverage and lower global mean temperatures alter ocean currents. As a carbon isotope study revealed, these altered ocean currents remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transport it to the deep ocean where it remains stored until ice coverage recedes and global mean temperatures rise.1

During the last ice age, the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration dropped down to 180–190 parts per million.2 The minimum requirement for plants to make any food at all through photosynthesis is 150 parts per million at sea level, 167 parts per million at 3,000 feet elevation, 187 parts per million at 6,000 feet elevation, and 210 parts per million at 9,000 feet elevation.3 At levels of 150–500 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there is a direct correlation between that CO2 level in the atmosphere and the amount of food plants can produce through photosynthesis. Thus, it would be impossible to grow enough food to feed more than a billion humans under ice age conditions.

Ice Age Consequence #4: Extreme Climate Instability

It would be impossible to feed that many humans under ice age conditions for yet another reason. Only for the last 2.59 million years of Earth’s 4.566-billion-year history has there been an ice age cycle. Except for the past 0.009 million years, the ice age cycle has been characterized by extreme climate instability (see figure 2).

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Figure 2: Temperature Variability during the Last Ice Age. The blue and purple tracings portray the global mean temperature indicated by the GRIP and NGRIP Greenland ice cores, respectively. Image credit: Leland McInnes/Wikipedia Commons, CC-by-3.0.

This climate instability was characterized by unpredictable global mean temperature swings of up to 20°Fahrenheit (11°Celsius) on time scales of 2–3 centuries. Such radical climate instability explains why humans living during the last ice age were unable to launch and sustain any kind of large-scale civilization or sustain a large population.

Ice Age Consequence #5: Species Extinction

Because the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau are continuing to rise to higher elevations as a consequence of the ongoing tectonic collision between the Indian subcontinent and Asia, geophysicists confidently predict that the next ice age will be more catastrophic to life than the previous one. Specifically, they demonstrate that very likely the next ice age will result in even greater ice coverage, lower global mean temperatures, and lower atmospheric carbon dioxide levels than the previous ice age.

Most species of life presently on Earth, with appropriate human assistance, are capable of surviving these more dire consequences. However, many are not. The probable extinction of hundreds, if not thousands, of species of life will inevitably disturb ecosystems and eco-balances. Such disturbances will then impact human civilization.

Technological Fixes?

Today, we possess the technology to ameliorate some of the more dire consequences brought on by the next ice age. For example, we could build glass-enclosed greenhouses on top of the more stable ice fields. We could heat these greenhouses and, at appropriate time intervals, augment the carbon dioxide concentration inside them. Since soil would be in much shorter supply and difficult to transport, we could employ hydroponic technology to grow crops inside greenhouses. Since fresh liquid water also would be in short supply, we could use a variety of energy sources to melt the abundant ice. However, no matter how much technology we marshal toward food production, it is highly unlikely that we could produce as much food as we do today.

In my third blog post, I will discuss other possible technological fixes aimed at ameliorating the consequences the next ice age is bound to bring. I will also briefly summarize to what degree we can use technology to delay its onset and review the preparations we should undertake right now in anticipation of the arrival of the life-altering event.

Original article: The End of Civilization As We Know It? Part 2

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Unveiling a Mystery of Cosmic Dark Matter

The nature of cosmic dark matter, the exotic matter that makes up about 5/6 of all matter in the universe, ranks as one of the two biggest unsolved components of the biblically predicted big bang creation model. (The other big unsolved component is the nature of dark energy.) The exotic property of cosmic dark matter is that, unlike ordinary matter (matter comprised of protons, neutrons, and electrons), it does not interact or very weakly interacts with light. Now, a recent paper published in Nature by two Harvard University astrophysicists brings us one step closer to comprehending the nature of cosmic dark matter and thereby giving us yet more reasons to believe in the biblical description of the origin, history, and nature of the universe.

All the evidence that astronomers possess for the existence of cosmic dark matter relies on its gravitational pull on ordinary (or baryonic) matter. I offer an extensive review of this evidence in chapter 5 of the recently released book, The Creator and the Cosmos4th edition, and in a blog posted on January 22, 2018. The breadth of this evidence leaves no doubt that cosmic dark matter exists and that much more of it exists than baryonic matter.

However, astronomers are not satisfied. They want to know the origin and nature of cosmic dark matter. They also want to know in much more detail how cosmic dark matter influences the cosmic creation model and the design of the universe that is needed to explain the existence of life and of human beings in particular.

Nongravitational Evidence for Cosmic Dark Matter

More than two decades ago, theoretical physicist David Kaplan noted that a small degree of nongravitational coupling between cosmic dark matter and baryonic matter could explain the much greater abundance of cosmic dark matter compared to baryonic matter. Two years ago, a team of five astrophysicists showed that even a tiny degree of nongravitational coupling between cosmic dark matter and baryonic matter could resolve the small-scale discrepancies (properties of the innermost regions of cosmic dark matter halos and the population of dwarf galaxy satellites accompanying the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies) in the currently most successful cosmic creation model, the lambda cold dark matter cosmic creation model.

In a previous blog post, I explained how the EDGES (Experiment to Detect the Global EoR Signature) Collaboration used a sky-averaged radio spectrum to determine that 180 million years after the big bang creation event, the temperature of baryonic matter was less than half of its expected value. In that same blog I described how astrophysicist Rennan Barkana offered an explanation for how the universe’s baryonic matter cooled at that time. He showed that the cooling could be explained by scattering between baryonic particles (protons and neutrons) and cosmic dark matter particles.

Now, Harvard astrophysicists Julian Muñoz and Abraham Loeb provide an alternate explanation for the observed cooling of baryonic matter 180 million years after the cosmic creation event. Muñoz and Loeb show that (1) if a little less than one percent of cosmic dark matter particles possess a charge about a million times smaller than the charge of an electron; and (2) if the mass of most of the cosmic dark matter particles lies between 1–100 times the electron mass, “then the data from the EDGES experiment can be explained while remaining consistent with all the other observations.” They also demonstrated that serious inconsistencies arise if the entirety of cosmic dark matter particles possesses a mini-charge.

Muñoz and Loeb end their paper with suggestions on how observers and theoreticians can further probe (with existing technology) the nature of the nongravitational coupling between baryonic and cosmic dark matter. Their efforts and the ones they suggest are bound to yield more knowledge and understanding of the nature of 25.5 percent of the total composition of the universe. That progress promises to yield even more confirmation and understanding of the biblically predicted cosmic creation model.

Original article: Unveiling a Mystery of Cosmic Dark Matter

Hazy Early Earth: More Affirmation of Creation Day 4

When I first arrived in Pasadena for postdoctoral research at Caltech, the haze of Los Angeles smog was so thick that it was several weeks before I realized that a range of 6,000-foot high mountains lay just three miles to the north. Now, thanks to air pollution abatement, I see those mountains clearly every day.

A new research study published in Astrophysical Journal affirms that a haze was at least partly responsible for the pervasive translucent skies that shrouded Earth during the first part of its history.1 Genesis 1 and other biblical passages also describe the early atmosphere as hazy and clouded. The same study demonstrates through a series of experiments how Earth’s atmospheric haze lessened greatly.

What Genesis 1 Says About Earth’s Atmosphere

I was taught the steps of the scientific method in every grade of my public school education in Canada. When I began to seriously investigate the world’s major holy books at age 17, I applied the scientific method—which I’d been taught throughout my school years—to test the reliability of the texts.

When I finally picked up the Bible, I was stunned to discover that right there on the first page it meticulously followed the scientific method. Many years later I discovered why. As I explain in Appendix A of my book Navigating Genesis,2 the scientific method has its origin in the pages of the Bible and the theology of the Reformation.

Step 1 of the scientific method is establishing the frame of reference. Genesis 1:2 explicitly states that the creation account’s frame of reference is the viewpoint of an observer on Earth’s watery surface (see figure 1): “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” of “the surface of the deep.”

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Figure 1: Frame of Reference for the Genesis Creation Days. 

From this viewpoint “darkness was over the surface of the deep” (Genesis 1:2, NIV) because God “made the clouds its [the sea’s] garment and wrapped it [the sea] in thick darkness” (Job 38:9, NIV). So, even though God had already created the “heavens” (Genesis 1:1, NIV), including our Sun and Moon, light did not yet reach Earth’s surface. On creation day 1, when God said, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3, NIV), he transformed Earth’s atmosphere from opaque to translucent. The atmosphere remained overcast (much like on a rainy day), but light could finally reach the planet surface.

Later on creation day 4, when God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky. . . . They will serve as signs for seasons and for days and years” (Genesis 1:14, CSB), he transformed Earth’s atmosphere from translucent to at least occasionally be transparent. This would allow the animals God created on creation days 5 and 6 to see the positions of the Sun, Moon, and stars in the expanse of the sky and use those positions to regulate their biological clocks.

What Science Now Says About Earth’s Early Atmosphere

As I document in my book Improbable Planet, the history of Earth’s atmosphere is one of gradually declining amounts of methane and carbon dioxide.3 Since methane and carbon dioxide are powerful greenhouse gases, this gradual decline is crucial for compensating for the ongoing brightening of the Sun.

The quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and perhaps that of methane also, correlates with the degree of cloud cover. More carbon dioxide and more methane mean more clouds. Thus, much greater quantities of these greenhouse gases in early Earth’s atmosphere alone likely made the sky completely translucent from the viewpoint of an observer on Earth’s surface.

The new Astrophysical Journal study was performed by a team of scientists from a variety of fields. They uncovered another cause of early Earth’s atmospheric translucency—the lack of oxygen. The team performed laboratory experiments on gas mixtures of molecular nitrogen, carbon dioxide, methane, and molecular oxygen designed to mimic the composition of Earth’s atmosphere during its first 4 billion years. They noted that oxygen concentrations greater than 20 parts per million “resulted in a decrease in aerosol production rate with increasing O2concentration.”4 That is, the less oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere, the denser the atmospheric haze will be.

As figure 2 reveals, the oxygen content in Earth’s atmosphere did not get high enough to prevent a pervasive haze until 580 million years ago, just before the first appearance of animals. Also, as the team noted in their paper, atmospheric hazes serve as cloud condensation nuclei.5 Therefore, the denser the atmospheric haze the thicker will be the cloud cover.

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Figure 2: Oxygen in Earth’s Atmosphere as a Percentage of Total Atmosphere. 

It does not take much haze to obscure the Sun, Moon, and stars from animals on Earth’s surface sufficiently that they cease to be useful to regulate their biological clocks. Even today, with the atmospheric oxygen level at 210,000 parts per million, there are cities in Asia where even on a cloudless night it is not possible to see any stars and the Moon is visible only when it is at the full phase and situated near the zenith.

The combination of denser haze and greater cloud cover previous to 580 million years ago means that whereas the light would penetrate to Earth’s surface, it would not be possible for surface-dwelling creatures to discern with sufficient accuracy and frequency the positions of the Sun, Moon, and stars in the sky. This circumstance poses no problems for life previous to 580 million years ago since such life (microbes, algae, fungi, bryophytes) do not require knowledge of the positions of the Sun, Moon, and stars.

The new research study affirms the creation chronology in Genesis 1: Earth’s atmosphere transitioned from translucent to frequently transparent on creation day 4, just before God created Earth’s first animals on creation day 5. The study provides yet more evidence that the more we learn about nature and its record the more we accumulate sound reasons to believe that the Bible is the authoritative, inspired, inerrant Word of God.

Original article: Hazy Early Earth: More Affirmation of Creation Day 4

Kepler Helps Reveal Answers to Big Questions about the Cosmos

“But wait, there’s more!”

This infamous phrase preceded the offer of yet another “great” benefit if you bought a Ginsu knife set or a Popeil Pocket Fisherman. Infomercial producers seemed to know that they needed to provide some unexpected bonus for people to watch the whole sales pitch. And this phrase played on our desire to get something more. Not to be outdone, NASA just declared its own “but wait!”

After launching in 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope operated well for the next four years before two of the reaction wheels broke, bringing the initial mission plans to an end. However, in that span it collected data leading to the discovery of thousands of exoplanets. Additionally, about 30 of those exoplanets were found to orbit in the habitable zone around their host star. After the second reaction wheel broke, NASA retasked the telescope to look at different regions of space as it continued to search for exoplanets, as well as asteroids, comets, and even supernovae. With the new task, they also renamed the mission K2. From 2014 till now, K2 discovered a few hundred additional exoplanets. While impressive in its own right, Kepler still has “more” to offer.

An initial search for supernovae by monitoring 100 galaxies turned up nothing. However, analysis of a different set of galaxies revealed 6 supernovae. And Kepler collected data on the supernovae every thirty minutes instead of the typical every day or two by most other telescopes. Armed with these results, a team of scientists was awarded more time to search for more supernovae and they found more than a dozen additional supernovae—with more data to analyze.

The importance of the K2 supernovae data rests in the detail and coverage it provides. Specifically, the K2 data gives information about the time period right after the star explodes and it will help astronomers understand the mechanism that triggers the explosion better. Thus far, it appears that multiple trigger mechanisms may exist which might help explain some discrepancies in measurements of the expansion rate of the universe from different methods. One source of discrepancies appears to stem from a difference in behavior of nearby versus distant supernova. This is an issue that K2 could truly help explain, which would lead to greater insight into the nature of dark energy, the composition of normal and dark matter, as well as other important questions related to the beginning and expansion of the universe. In other words, the insights gained will help address some of the big questions in science.

Unlike infomercials, the results from the Kepler telescope don’t need hype or emotional appeals. This remarkable instrument has already given scientists a treasure trove of exoplanets to study and now its supernova data promises to lend insight into the basic structure of the universe. There really is more!

Original article: Kepler Reveals Answers to Big Questions About the Cosmos

Is Replicating Self-Healing Life Possible?

A few weeks ago, I highlighted scientific advances of a “self-aware” cyberslug. Not to be outdone, scientists have now developed materials that automatically make mechanical and electrical repairs to themselves when damaged. Does this mean that replicating life in all its glory is just around the corner?

The Innovation

Scientists and engineers would like to find materials with the good electrical properties of metals and the good mechanical properties of polymers. During high school, I had the opportunity to work on an extensive research project addressing this problem. I tested a number of specific polymers to see if any had good electrical properties and if those electrical properties could be improved without sacrificing the favorable mechanical properties. I found some polymers with reasonable electrical properties, but the electrical gains usually came at the expense of mechanical flexibility.

Where my research looked for existing polymers with good electrical properties, another group developed a completely new material: a rubber containing suspended metal droplets.This material exhibits good electrical and mechanical properties, plus it comes with an added benefit. When the material is cut, ripped, or punctured, the suspended metal droplets rupture and reroute the electrical connection around the damage. See the video below for a remarkable demonstration of this “healing” power.

The Implications

This may seem obvious, but virtually all life has the capacity to repair or heal itself. Cut yourself and the skin regrows over the wound. Break a bone and new material fuses the splintered pieces. So how does this new “healing” material measure up to what we see in life? While it is a remarkable technical achievement, the new material can’t begin to compete with what life does with apparent ease.

First, the material doesn’t actually heal the punctures, rips, and cuts. It simply reroutes the electrical signals around the damage. Second, the mechanical degradation from the damage diminishes the structural integrity of the material. Third, while the material maintains electrical conductivity when damaged, its resistance will change with the amount of damage. In this study, the researchers demonstrated that these simple circuits continue operating normally. However, the function of most circuits changes depending on resistance of the electrical components, and these circuits would start behaving differently when damaged.

This new material shows that humanity continues to make amazing strides in our quest to mimic nature. The failure to live up to life’s standards doesn’t negate the remarkable accomplishment of the researchers. The fact that life repeatedly exhibits better designs and outpaces our technological advancements simply demonstrates the incredible Mind responsible for all life on Earth.

Original article: Is Replicating Self-Healing Life Possible?