The Venetian Blind Problem

Susan Kim gives me the side‑eye. “Sy, I get real suspicious when someone shows me a graph with no axis markings. I’ve seen that ploy used too often by people pushing a bias — you don’t know what happens offstage either side and you don’t know whether an effect was large or small. Your animated chart was very impressive, how that big methane infrared absorption peak just happens to fill in the space between CO2 and H2O peaks. But how wide is the chart compared to the whole spectrum? Did you cherry‑pick a region that just happens to make your point?”

“Susan, how could you accuse me of such underhanded tactics? But I confess — you’re right, sort of. <more tapping on Old Reliable’s keyboard> The animation only covered the near‑IR wavelengths from 1.0 to 5.0 micrometers. Here’s the whole strip from 0.2 micrometers in the near UV, out to 70 micrometers in the far IR. Among other things, it explains the James Webb Space Telescope, right, Al?”

Spectrum of Earth’s atmosphere. Adapted
under the Creative Commons 3.0 license
from Robert Wohde’s work
with the HITRAN2004 spectroscopic database,

“I know the Webb’s set up for IR astronomy from space, Sy. Wait, does this graph say there’s too much water vapor blocking the galaxy’s IR and that’s why they’re putting the scope like millions of miles away out there?”

“Not quite. The mission designers’ problem was the Sun’s heat, not Earth’s water vapor. The solution was to use Earth itself to shield the device from the Sun’s IR emissions. The plan is to orbit the Webb around the Earth‑Sun L2 point, about a million miles further out along the Sun‑Earth line. Earth’s atmosphere being only 60 miles thick, most of it, the Webb will be quite safe from our water molecules. No, our steamy atmosphere’s only a problem for Earth‑based observatories that have to peer through a Venetian blind with a few missing slats at very specific wavelengths.”

“Don’t forget, guys, the water spectrum is a barrier in both directions. Wavelengths the astronomers want to look at can’t get in, but also Earth’s heat radiation at those wavelengths can’t get out. Our heat balance depends on the right amount of IR energy making it out through where those missing slats are. That’s where Sy’s chart comes in — it identifies the wavelengths under threat by trace gases that aren’t so trace any more.”

“And we’re back to your point, Susan. We have to look at the whole spectrum. I heard one pitch by a fossil fuel defender who based his whole argument on the 2.8‑micrometer CO2 peak. ‘It’s totally buried by water’s absorption,‘ he claimed. ‘Can’t possibly do us any further damage.’ True, so far as it goes, but he carefully ignored CO2‘s other absorption wavelengths. Pseudoscience charlatan, ought to be ashamed of himself. Methane’s not as strong an absorber as CO2, but its peaks are mostly in the right places to do us wrong. Worse, both gas concentrations are going up — CO2 is 1½ times what it was in Newton’s day, and methane is 2½ times higher.”

“Funny how they both go up together. I thought the CO2 thing was about humanity burning fossil fuels but you said methane operations came late to that game.”

“Right on both counts, Al. Researchers are still debating why methane’s risen so bad but I think they’re zeroing in on cow gas — belches and farts. By and large, industry has made the world’s population richer over the past two centuries. People who used to subsist on a grain diet can now afford to buy meat so we’ve expanded our herds. Better off is good, but there’s an environmental cost.”

Al gets a far-away look. “Both those gases have carbon in them, right? How about we burn methane without the carbon in, just straight hydrogen?”

Susan gets excited. “Several groups in our lab are working on exactly that possibility, Al. The 2H2+O2→2H2O reaction yields 30% more energy per oxygen atom than burning methane. We just need to figure out how to use hydrogen economically.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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