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The Atmosphere is Cooling Dangerously Fast

The upper atmosphere is cooling too fast for comfort. Global warming is only one half of the impact of excessive CO2 emissions generated by cars, planes, trains, and industry. The other impact is rapid cooling of the upper atmosphere which may be of considerably more concern than global warming as it negatively impacts the ozone…

Written by

Robert Hunziker


Originally Published in

The upper atmosphere is cooling too fast for comfort.

Global warming is only one half of the impact of excessive CO2 emissions generated by cars, planes, trains, and industry. The other impact is rapid cooling of the upper atmosphere which may be of considerably more concern than global warming as it negatively impacts the ozone layer, which protects the planet from burning up. Hmm, this is important. 

Based upon a new study, atmospheric scientists are concerned about the impact of a rapidly cooling atmosphere: Benjamin D. Santer, et al, Exceptional Stratospheric Contribution to Human Fingerprints on Atmospheric Temperature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS Journal, May 8, 2023.

Greenhouse gases, especially CO2, impact the planet considerably more all-inclusively than realized. For example, ramifications of excessive CO2 are manifold, including what we already know as global warming but surprise, surprise, also too much atmospheric cooling which puts at dangerous risk: (1) orbiting satellites (2) the precious, all-important ozone layer and (3) tumultuous weather systems.

Excessive levels of carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) generated by humans pack a one-two-three punch, impacting Earth’s lithosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere. Greenhouse gases, like CO2, function like a regulator of the planet from the heights of the Exosphere at 400–6,214 miles up to down to the depths of Challenge Deep in the Pacific Ocean at 36,000 feet or seven miles below surface.

The problem of excessive cooling of the atmosphere is as serious as excessive global warming and maybe more so. In both instances, disrupted ecosystems negatively alter the major life forces of the planet, creating existential risks. 

The new findings about cooling in the Santer study are quantified in detail by satellite sensors. Thus, what climate models previously suspected about rapid atmospheric cooling is now confirmed. Moreover, scientists previously knew very little about the upper atmosphere, beyond climate modeling. 

Climate change is almost always thought about in terms of the lowest regions of the atmosphere. But physicists now warn that we need to rethink this assumption. Increases in the amount of CO2 are “manifest throughout the entire perceptible atmosphere,” says Martin Miynezak, an atmospheric physicist at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. They are “driving dramatic changes [that] scientists are just now beginning to grasp. Those changes in the wild blue yonder far above our heads could feed back to change our world below.” (Source: Fred Pearce, The Upper Atmosphere Is Cooling, Prompting New Climate Concerns, YaleEnvironment360, May 18, 2023)

It is now known that the rate of increase in concentration of CO2 at the top of the atmosphere is as great as at the bottom. But there’s a major difference in excessive CO2 levels — the heat emitted by CO2 at the top with thinner air escapes into outer space whilst the impact of CO2 trapping more and more heat at the lower levels actually impacts rapid cooling at the top.

For example, satellite data from 2002 to 2019 show the lower thermosphere cooled by 3.1°F (1.7°C). At current rates of emissions, scientists believe cooling could hit 13.5°F (7.5C) during the century. This would be three times faster than warming at ground level. According to the Santer study, the essence of the problem: “We are fundamentally changing the thermal structure of the planet… the results make me very worried,” Ibid.

The sky is falling is a result of this rapid cooling effect, meaning cooling causes the upper air to contract. The depth of the stratosphere has diminished by 1,300 feet over the past 40 years. This has been confirmed by Petr Pišoft, atmospheric physicist at Charles University in Prague by analyzing NASA data. Additionally, the mesosphere and lower thermosphere, above the stratosphere, contracted by 4,400 feet between 2002–2019.

Contraction of the atmosphere means it is less dense, which reduces drag on satellites in low orbit. In turn, this allows space junk to stick around longer and increases the risks of collisions. More than 5,000 satellites and the International Space Station are in orbit at this low altitude in competition with a lot of space junk. Cooling and contraction enhance risks of collisions.

Of much bigger concern, ozone molecules, which protect the planet from burning alive, are at risk because of excessive cooling of the upper atmosphere.

In the Arctic, upper atmospheric rapid cooling has worsened ozone loss, according to Peter von der Gathen of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Potsdam, Germany. Loss of ozone is a deadly danger signal. According to von der Gathen, current expectations that the ozone layer should be fully healed by mid-century are almost certainly overly optimistic. Moreover, the most vulnerable ozone regions are calculated to be densely populated areas including Central and Western Europe. “If we thought the thinning ozone layer was a 20th century worry, we may have to think again,” Ibid.

Upper atmospheric excessive cooling also impacts weather patterns at ground level. It’s responsible for sudden atmospheric warming, which brings big temperature swings, warming as much as 90°F in a few days. The excessive cooling dynamic causes blocking highs that can bring on weeks of extreme weather, intense rains (atmospheric bombs) summer droughts, or intense cold spells. 

In many respects, the studies of human impact on the planet via excessive levels of greenhouse gases are at an early stage. After all, it’s only over the past few decades that scientists have really focused on human-generated emissions impact on the planet. Yet one thing is crystal clear — the more scientists study, the more they discover vulnerabilities. 

It’s probably a fair suggestion that major governments of the world should collaborate by establishing an international joint effort to immediately take whatever steps are necessary to control, halt, and remove excessive greenhouse gases, assuming it is possible on such a large scale and hopefully soon enough! The integrity of the ozone layer should be all the leaders of the world need to know to limitlessly fund research and work programs, day & night, 24/7 year-round. What are the chances?

Robert Hunziker
Los Angeles