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How Climate Change Could Make Our Space Junk Problem Worse

How Climate Change Could Make Our Space Junk Problem Worse

In the pantheon of climate change concerns, more space junk isn’t high on my list. But apparently it should be.

Two striking recent findings show that excess carbon dioxide is messing with the composition of the atmosphere dozens to hundreds of miles above Earth’s surface. The shifts taking place could turn low Earth orbit into a landfill (or skyfill, I guess?) and impact the functionality of GPS and other technology vital to modern life.

Most climate change happenings that preoccupy us take place here on the surface of Earth as well as in the lowest level of the atmosphere, known as the troposphere. But recent research presented at the European Conference on Space Debris sheds light on the less-explored upper edges of the atmosphere. Their startling conclusions show that the atmosphere is essentially experiencing shrinkage and becoming less dense, and that’s increasing the risk of more space junk piling up.

“The impact on the troposphere has been studied for years, and to some extent we know what we are getting ourselves into with increasing carbon dioxide,” said Matthew Brown, a researcher at the University of Southampton who led the new work. “However, there is much less research looking at the upper atmosphere, while we are becoming more and more reliant on the satellites orbiting in the regions being impacts.”

While we often think of the air as, in essence, nothing, it’s actually a fluid. Different layers of the atmosphere have different densities based on what chemicals, compounds, and molecules are kicking around. In the troposphere, excess carbon dioxide traps more of the Sun’s energy, and that’s what’s causing the surface of the planet to heat up. It’s the densest part of the atmosphere, so it has lots of molecules to help keep heat trapped. But as you climb the atmosphere, there’s less stuff to trap heat. In fact, much of it gets lost to space.