Thursday, May 22, 2008

Poisoning the Atmosphere

Have you looked at the sky recently? It´s like a motorway up there.

On one day last week in the space of less than ten minutes I counted at least seventeen aircraft. It was nearing sunset so all the lines of exhaust fumes were lit up like little streaks of phosphorescent pink candy scattered about across the sky. Later, as it began to get dark, I could make out the aircraft lights blinking on and off like secret messages in Morse code.

What strikes me is how we have diminished the power of the heavens. We look into the sky to see evidence only of ourselves. The stars have disappeared behind a barrier of light haze and air pollution and all that´s left is aeroplanes.

When I was in Transylvania last year I saw the Milky Way in a clear sky for the first time in years and it was breathtaking. There was no light pollution and the sky was utterly black. Looking up was like being cast adrift in an ocean of stars. Millions of stars like a tidal surge arcing across the infinite sky.

We´ve forgotten how awesome the Universe is. The Milky Way is the heart of the Galaxy in which our tiny sun dances and plays. It is one galaxy amongst millions. Each galaxy consists of billions of stars - billions of suns - each one of them a white-hot nuclear furnace of unimaginable power, unimaginable strength. To look up at the stars is to be reminded of this. To look up at the stars is to measure ourselves against the Universe and to know how insignificant we are.

It takes millions of years for the light from the furthest galaxies to reach us. Looking at the stars is like stepping into a time-machine. It´s like looking deep into the past to a time before our own fragile little planet was born.

Instead of which we look up and there´s some guy in a Cesna buzzing about catching the sunset, there´s a stray passenger plane from Gatwick flying to Lanzarote, and a few high-flying jets on some obscure military manoeuvres leaving plumes of smoke across the sky.

How much does it cost to send a military jet into the upper atmosphere, to catapult one man half way across the globe? How many gallons of aviation fuel does this use?

We´ve been taking this world of ours for granted. Now is the time to start asking questions. Whose purpose does any of this serve? Who gave the orders for these planes to take off? I don´t remember being consulted about it.

Have you noticed how the exhaust trails from those high-flying jets seem to hang around for a long time in the air? You look up into the sky and there´s not only live aircraft skimming the ionosphere, but evidence of previous ones left in long white streamers criss-crossing the whole expanse.

The official name for these streamers is contrails, and the official explanation is that they are the result of water vapour caused by engine exhaust. This doesn´t explain why they hang around for so long, however, nor why, as you watch them, they spread out and start to turn into something resembling a fine white mist.

The question is, what mess of chemicals are hidden in this mist? What effect is this having on our delicate atmosphere?

We can´t go on poisoning the world like this.

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