Where do human beings come from? A field trip to Bonn – episode two

The ‘Light Around Earth’ installation creates an artificial forest around the international headquarters of the UN climate change talks in Bonn, designed to provide real-time information on man-made climate change for next generations Humanity’s…

Where do human beings come from? A field trip to Bonn – episode two

The ‘Light Around Earth’ installation creates an artificial forest around the international headquarters of the UN climate change talks in Bonn, designed to provide real-time information on man-made climate change for next generations

Humanity’s new motto may well be: Earth’s Black Box. On Wednesday, at the UN climate conference in Bonn, the Aix-en-Provence-based organisations who conceived this latest and most ambitious of their EARTHFORUM projects took the global stage for the first time.

Earth’s Black Box

The Earth’s Black Box installation was one of the speakers at a panel held in Bonn and a rare shining light in a gathering dominated by a fierce row over finance and corporate interests in shaping the post-2020 clean energy programme for the world.

“I want to make real-time observations of the Earth and me, and do it using black boxes with sensors,” explained Vito Giangregorio, a senior scientist from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Giangregorio was speaking on a panel that featured top experts on climate change from around the world. The panel – one of several at the conference focused on “large-scale systems” – aimed to spotlight what was being called the “missing scientist” – the person or group who could prove climate science correct but has not yet taken the risk of becoming an economic casualty to speaking out in the pursuit of facts.

“Science is vital and crucial but you have to understand the complexities of climate change,” Giangregorio explained.

To that end, Earth’s Black Box is designed to protect scientific research from pressure and industry. Accompanying sensors feed data collected from the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land into an artificial environment designed to provide real-time information on man-made climate change for future generations.

It is a relatively simple idea. A multitude of sensors of various kinds are dotted about the Earth, operating in a wide variety of settings. One set of these sensors, for example, are placed on a satellite that orbits Earth. Another set are installed at Pacific submarine pressure stations.

Light in disguise

But when the sensors gather data at these places, they do so at levels of concentration that are off the chart.

“A scientist would say it is off the charts, but he wouldn’t want to make waves by talking about it,” explained Donatella Rovera, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

The device can keep track of the intensity of man-made climate change in a way that could give scientists a “human-readable global climate signal.” According to Rovera, information is captured like a list of alarms. The alarm rings above the tree in the forest, signals are detected at weather stations, and at other installations.

Beyond the night when your digital clock shows you to sleep

But Earth’s Black Box is a response to the lack of global scientific knowledge about the full frequency of changes caused by man-made activities.

Today, the Earth is constantly emitting carbon dioxide emissions, but scientists have struggled to gain visibility into just how much. In a way, nature gives them a way out.

“Everything is just less complicated than we first thought,” joked Michael Fricklas, a senior manager in Amazon natural gas.

Routinely installed below the Rio Tinto Bridge in Brazil, which connects the city to its Amazon basin home, a number of these sensors will be monitored in the coming years. In that way, Fricklas said, Earth’s Black Box will improve the understanding of how man-made activities are affecting the planet’s carbon cycle.

At the other end of the scale, Earth’s Black Box will also provide data that should permit the detection of an early warning sign – the first sign of a giant storm, for example – for the first time.

Even when exposure to society is immense, humanity’s life continues. But as the climate crisis worsens and becomes less of a phenomenon for each individual, chances are that the information being collected will need to be locked away, out of the view of generations to come.

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