Why can't we do anything about the weather?

It’s hard to fathom that the warmth you feel (or don’t feel) today was created at a time when Neanderthals were still around. Yet that is not the real mystery. . .

We’re all still reeling from the Met Office’s warning that we may be facing a decade of miserable summers. Perhaps it will help to recall that we don’t know everything about the sun. That burning ball of gas in the sky remains something of a mystery, and not just for its refusal to shine with any consistency over the UK.
 
The centre of the sun is fairly straightforward. Atoms of hydrogen fuse, forming atoms of helium and releasing energy that powers more fusion. That ongoing chain reaction, burning several million tonnes of hydrogen per second, heats the core of the sun to temperatures of roughly 15m°.
 
The laws of thermodynamics tell us that energy moves from hot to cold, and so heat starts moving towards the surface of the sun, where the temperature is a balmy 6,000°. It’s not an easy journey, though. It’s only about 700,000 kilometres, or a trip from the earth to the moon and back, but it takes the packets of energy released in nuclear fusion something like 40,000 years to reach the sun’s surface.
 
It’s hard to fathom that the warmth you feel (or don’t feel) today was created at a time when Neanderthals were still around. Yet that is not the real mystery. The problem that has scientists scratching their heads is the temperature of the outer layer of the sun’s atmosphere, the corona. The temperature of this blanket of ionised gas is roughly 1m° to 2m°. Bafflingly, the further away you move from the furnace at the centre of the sun, the hotter it gets.
 
The solution to this puzzle lies in the region of the sun known as the chromosphere. This is the layer that lies between the surface and the corona. That is why Nasa has just launched a telescope to take a closer look. For the next two years, the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (Iris) will watch the chromosphere from its position in orbit 400 miles above Planet Earth.
 
It’s ironic that Iris’s launch on 27 June was delayed by a power outage that took Vandenberg Air Force Base’s systems offline: that is exactly what Iris may help prevent. The huge quantity of energy trapped in the chromosphere powers the solar wind, a stream of particles that emanates from the sun, as well as events such as the coronal mass ejections that occasionally catapult hundred-billionkilogram gobs of plasma out into space at speeds of up to seven million miles per hour.
 
When those hot plasma balls (they start off at 10m°) head our way, things can get pretty tricky here on earth. Interactions between the plasma balls and the earth’s magnetic field can cause havoc with our power grids and threaten vital infrastructure.
 
The US National Academy of Sciences has estimated that, in a worst-case scenario, a freak space storm could cause a catastrophe that would leave the US government with a repair bill of up to $2trn. Improving our understanding of the chromosphere is one way to tell how badly the sun could hurt us, so the $100m to build Iris and look into the possibilities seems a bargain.
 
The main working part of the spacecraft is a telescope that inspects the ultraviolet radiation coming from the 2,000-mile gap between the surface and the corona. It will take an image every ten seconds or so and analyse the spectrum of radiation for clues to how the heat is moving around to produce such odd changes in temperature. In a couple of years, we may have solved the biggest mystery in our solar system. Then we can sit, shivering under steel-grey skies, marvelling at human scientific ingenuity and wondering why someone can’t do something about the weather. 
 
A field of rapeseed blossoms in the sunshine. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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