BAN #251: VOTE, dammit

7 September 2020 Issue #251

[Spiral Galaxy M81 image credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona]

Subscribers can save the world. As can we all. Please do. Read on.

Piece of mind

I have opinions. I try to base them on evidence.

[Please read this to the end. It will go in a direction you’re not expecting, and it’s important. Please also share it with anyone and everyone, too. ]

On Saturday night, the Moon passed fairly close to Mars in the sky. Depending on where you were on Earth, they were as far as a degree or so apart or, if you were in South America or other points south, you got to see the Moon actually block out Mars, an event called an occultation.

I tweeted about it to remind folks to go look, and was rewarded by lots of lovely pictures of the pair from people all over the globe. It was late and I was very tired, but I decided to take a look myself. When I opened my curtain I literally gasped; I grabbed my DSLR and went outside and took some handheld (well, propped against a fence) shots. This was the best:

[The Moon and Mars around midnight Colorado time on 05 September 2020. Credit: Phil Plait]

That’s Mars above the Moon, and yes, it’s resolved. In other words, it’s not just a dot but a disk. Mars is close to Earth right now in its orbit, about 70 million km away. I measured it in my photo, and got about the right size for it (0.006°, compared to the Moon’s 0.5° diameter).  

The beauty of the pair was palpable, but that’s not why I gasped when I saw them through my bedroom curtain.

It was partly because of the color of the Moon. It was the deep blood red of a total lunar eclipse, not the silvery white it should’ve been that far off the horizon. The reason for that is because 70 km away from me is the Cameron Peak fire, which has been burning for three weeks. It’s over 30,000 acres right now in difficult, rugged terrain, accelerated by incredibly hot and dry conditions in Colorado; that area is considered to be in extreme drought.

This is what sunset looked like to my west a few hours before taking that shot of the Moon and Mars:

[The Cameron Peak fire plume at sunset, 05 September 2020. Credit: Phil Plait.]

The origin of the plume is obvious, and the smoke spread out rapidly north and south as it blew west (there is a perspective effect as well making it look wider as it gets closer to overhead, too). The smoke was utterly dark and texture visible only because it was lit by the low Sun. The gap to the north was orange like a flame itself, with what look like cooler downdrafts of smoke plummeting to the ground. I can only imagine what it was like in Ft. Collins; one person on Twitter told me it was snowing ash.

And that’s the other reason I gasped when I saw the Moon; I wasn’t expecting to see it at all. The smoke a few hours earlier was so thick I literally thought I wouldn’t be able to see stars through it.

As I write this on Sunday afternoon, the sky outside is glowing an eerie and frankly distressing pale orange-yellow. The Rocky Mountains I usually enjoy out my window are completely hidden; I can’t even see the foothills which are only a dozen or so kilometers to my west. The smell is like that of an old fireplace recently used. People with respiratory problems are bring urged to stay in doors.

I checked my solar power production, and it’s down 80% relative to where it should be at this time of day. I’ll note the sky is cloudless — the usual water vapor clouds, that is.

We get wildfires in Colorado, but this year was a record. The Pine Gulch fire, which started on 31 July, grew to become the state’s largest in history at 140,000 acres, and still is not 100% contained. If you look at the list of Colorado wildfires and sort them by size, you’ll find the biggest have overwhelmingly happened in the past few years.

Generally speaking, if all the record-breaking events have happened recently, it means there’s a strong trend. That trend is climate change.

I’ve lived in Colorado since 2007, and I can attest to the weather changing in that time. Summer rainstorms were common; now it’s months of dry conditions at a stretch. The snow on the mountains has visibly changed. And wildfires are getting worse.

And, of course, it’s not just here. California is seeing horrendous fires. Australia’s were far worse. We had two hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico at the same time, which is literally unprecedented. In 2019 Greenland had a record loss of ice: 532 billion tons. Arctic sea ice is heading for a near-record low this summer; the record was in 2012 and that was due to highly unusual circumstances; no such excuse is available for this year.

Climate change is real, and it’s here, and it’s now, and it’s our fault.

I can look out my window and see it.

[A map of the smoke plume from the Cameron Peak fire covering the Denver metro area on 06 September 2020. This is vertically integrated, meaning what it’s like to take a one-meter by one-meter column going up all the way into the sky and measuring the smoke particles in it; dark red is 250 milligrams per square meter and purple is 500 and higher. Normally it would be light blue or white, near 0. Credit: NOAA]

As bad as this all is, it can and will get worse. Even before it gets better it’ll get worse, and there’s no guarantee it will get better.

Unless.

Unless you vote.

It is that simple. If Trump wins, we get four more years of not just inaction about the climate, but an active fight against it, making it harder for solar and wind power to grow, making it easier for fossil fuel companies to pollute. Just last week the Trumpian head of the EPA, Andrew Wheeler — a former coal company lobbyist! — gave a speech vilifying renewable energy and glorifying the Trump regime’s attacks on the environment and its rolling back of protections.

And he’s the head of the damn EPA. Even Orwell would think that’s too obviously dystopian.

Joe Biden was slow to warm (so to speak) to aggressive climate change action, but since getting the nomination he has been gathering a team around him that is more progressive on that front. It’s not too much to hope that the Green New Deal could get dusted off once he’s in office.

But we’ll also need to make the Senate blue as well, or else people like Mitch McConnell will make sure nothing happens until we’re dead.

Don’t like Biden? OK, I have some issues with him as well. But you know what? I can deal with those issues once he’s in office. If Trump is re-elected we won’t even have that option.

[Arctic sea ice extent. The dashed red line is 2012, and the blue line 2020. The gray line is the median for 1981-2010 (when global warming was already long an issue. Credit: NSIDC]

We must make sure this does not happen. In November, absolutely 100% literally our lives depend on it. This is no exaggeration, no hyperbole. The future of the country is in our hands, the future of our lives and those of billions of others.

Vote.

Make sure you’re registered. Make sure you understand your state’s rules about voting. Vote early, to help avoid sabotage by Trump and his GOP minions. Or vote in person if you can and feel safe doing so, vote by drop-off if you prefer, vote by mail if that’s your thing (do it early).

But vote.

Call your friends, urge them to vote too. We as a country need to vote in numbers that can’t be denied, can’t be downplayed, can overcome the electoral college and the gerrymandering biases.

Dammit, VOTE.

The Moon, Mars, Arctic ice, Greenland, the atmosphere, wildfires… they don’t care about us. But we care very much about them.

Vote.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[Why wait 4.6 billion years? The Andromeda galaxy halo is already colliding with ours. From Monday’s article. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. DePasquale and E. Wheatley (STScI) and Z. Levay]

Monday 31 August, 2020: The Andromeda galaxy's halo is already colliding with the Milky Way's

Tuesday 1 September, 2020: No, there's no such thing as a solar micronova

Wednesday 2 September, 2020: The biggest black hole merger ever detected rocked the Universe and left behind a mystery

Thursday 3 September, 2020: The ghost of an angry black hole still haunts this galaxy

Friday 4 September, 2020: A supernova that left chaos in its wake

Et alia

You can email me at thebadastronomer@gmail.com (though replies can take a while), and all my social media outlets are gathered together at about.me. Also, if you don’t already, please subscribe to this newsletter! And feel free to tell a friend or nine, too. Thanks!