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Michael Winship: Neighborhood Watch on Planet Earth

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

''Neighborhood Watch on Planet Earth''
By Michael Winship

For a bit of change, let’s talk about a different kind of health care reform – the kind that affects the health of the planet.

The other evening, I was listening to All Things Considered on NPR. Robert Siegel was interviewing Dr. Hal Levison, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, about the king-sized comet that slammed into Jupiter a few weeks ago.

The comet’s impact – it punched a hole the size of the Pacific Ocean, and would have annihilated a lesser planet, like Earth – was discovered by an amateur astronomer in Australia. Siegel asked how such an event escaped the notice of the world’s great observatories.

“There are only a few really large telescopes,” Levison explained. “They're hard to get time on, and so they're dedicated to particular projects. And the amateurs really are the only ones that have time just to monitor things to see what's happening.”

“Part of the Neighborhood Watch looking out the front door,” Siegel suggested.

Neighborhood Watch. Dr. Levison liked that analogy and so do I. Combined with the recent passing of space enthusiast Walter Cronkite and the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, it got me thinking about the value of exploring the cosmos at a time of economic destitution on the ground and a national deficit that makes the word “astronomical” seem inadequate.

As a kid, I was in thrall to the space program. Squinting into the night above rural upstate New York, my family and I sometimes could see those early, primitive satellites traverse the dark sky, and my younger brother, a skilled amateur astronomer to this day, would haul out his telescope for us to look at the craters of the moon, or Jupiter or Saturn’s rings.

In the auditorium of my elementary school, a modest, black and white television set was placed on the stage so we could watch the space flights of Alan Shepard and John Glenn, and for a class project in the sixth grade, I tracked the mission of astronaut Gordon Cooper, dutifully moving a tiny, construction paper space capsule across a map of the world as Cooper orbited the planet 22 times.

Six years later, in 1969, we sat downstairs in the family room of our home and watched the mission of Apollo 11. I remember Cronkite’s exultant, “Oh boy!” as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the lunar surface, and staying up through the night to watch the first moonwalk. (Years later, editing a TV series on the history of television, colleagues and I noted how, in his excitement, Cronkite almost talked over Armstrong’s “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”)

As time went by, America became blasé about space exploration. The budget for moon landings was curtailed after the first few, and flights of the space shuttle became commonplace save for the horrific, fatal explosions of Columbia and Challenger.

We speak now of returning astronauts to the moon and manned missions to Mars yet efforts to do so seem half-hearted. But there can be no denying the greater understanding of the universe gained from the amazing images obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope, and data from satellites and unmanned interplanetary probes. And beyond the jokes about Tang and Velcro, NASA and the space program have generated advances in a range of technologies.

Which brings us back to that notion of the Neighborhood Watch, for one of the most valuable contributions of our exploration of the skies has been the knowledge gained from being able to examine our own earthly neighborhood from the distance of space.

Invaluable information is obtained from satellites monitoring weather and the damage created by drought, floods, fire, earthquakes and climate change. But that fleet is aging and few new satellites are being launched to replace them.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Jane Lubchenco, the new head of the National Oceanic and Administrative Administration (NOAA), was quoted in the British newspaper THE GUARDIAN. "Our primary focus is maintaining the continuity of climate observations,” she said, “and those are at great risk right now because we don't have the resources to have satellites at the ready and taking the kinds of information that we need… We are playing catch-up."

The paper went on to report that, “Even before her warning, scientists were saying that America, the world's scientific superpower, was virtually blinding itself to climate change by cutting funds to the environmental satellite programmes run by the Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA. A report by the National Academy of Sciences this year warned that the environmental satellite network was at risk of collapse.”

This news comes on the heels of a NOAA report that the world’s ocean surface temperature for June was the warmest on record and the release of more than a thousand spy satellite photographs of Arctic sea ice that were withheld from public view by the Bush Administration.

On the morning of July 15, the National Research Council issued a report asking the Obama administration to release the pictures; the Department of the Interior declassified them just hours later. A source told the Reuters news service, “That doesn’t happen every day… This is a great example of good government cooperation between the intelligence community and academia.”

The images are remarkable. You can see a selection of them online at Arctic ice is in retreat from the shores of Barrow, Alaska, along the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska and west of Canada’s Northwest Territories, and from the Bering Glacier, among many other sites.

“The photographs demonstrate starkly how global warming is changing the Arctic,” THE GUARDIAN noted. “More than a million square kilometres of sea ice – a record loss – were missing in the summer of 2007 compared with the previous year. Nor has this loss shown any sign of recovery. Ice cover for 2008 was almost as bad as for 2007, and this year levels look equally sparse.”

One reason, of course, for the Obama White House’s release of the dramatic photographs is to bolster support for the climate change bill narrowly passed by the House and now awaiting action in the Senate.

The bill’s a thin soup version of what many believe needs to be done. It inadequately reduces emissions, gives away permits and offsets to industry, and, as Erich Pica of Friends of the Earth recently told my colleague Bill Moyers on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL, strips away the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

But even this watered down version of the climate legislation is in jeopardy, collateral damage from the health care reform fight. “A handful of key senators on climate change are almost guaranteed to be tied up well into the fall on health care,” the Web site reports. “Democrats from the Midwest and the South are resistant to a cap-and-trade proposal. And few if any Republicans are jumping in to help push a global warming and energy initiative.”

If true, it’s hard to imagine a bill passing before December’s UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. Harder still, without a law of our own, to imagine the United States being able to convince China, India and developing nations to pass climate regulations and change polluting behaviors.

In other words, there goes the neighborhood.

Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.


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I'm deeply in love with Lady Jane Goodall (formerly Van Lawick), and she is my soulmate. I have a perfectly lovely wife/sweetheart because Jane is 75 years old and inaccessible to me. My last contact with Lady Jane was in hearing her last week on the Diane Rehm show in conversation with Cokie Robert's husband Steve. (Diane fell and broke her hip in the pelvis, so that the two rarest gentlewomen could not get together.)

I love Jane because she believes in BIGFOOT, and so do I. Science doesn't support our belief, but we wish so fervently for BIGFOOT to be real that it hardly matters. Jane explained to Steve that believing in BIGFOOT is the same as believing the Earth will be saved as a home for humanity and the higher animal kingdom. Real science doesn't support that proposition either. Jane is trying to save the planet by making youngsters love animals as she and I do. We advocate vegetarianism for that reason. Somehow in our shared subconscious our love for BIGFOOT is an encapsulation of our love for the planet, the sustaining ecosystem and life itself. I love Lady Jane Goodall truly and deeply, and I am assured by her love for BIGFOOT that she adores me.

I try, Grady, I try. I even got the chance for 7 months to do a half hour TV show on a local UHF station, a show geared to increase the ranks of amateur astronomers out here in the boonies. But the show got yanked because the TV owners wanted ME to go get funding instead of them coming clean with the data about how many people were calling the station as pleased viewers and use that data to get advertising...two years later and a lot of locals still call me the "star lady" and ask me what happened to the show...

I'm up to plan X now :-) - just made a connection on the shuttle back from the airport with a local who will be calling me whenever a telescope or good binocs show up at the local St Vincent de Paul store so the local amateur astronomy club can continue the monthly public nights shows...but another glitch now about where to hold the public nights since one of the two local state parks (the darker sky one) has been shut down due to funding issues.

Everytime things get going with the amateur astronomy group, a macoute gets sent in to yank one of the resources out from under us...THEY want to make it FEEL like we need someone's permission to be alive...nothing more NATURAL and NORMAL than to look at the stars at night, especially out here in the boonies :-)

The informant that our "organization" is working is someone who shows up at every club meeting in the public library..."back in the ussr, boy, don't know how lucky you are, boy"...

NASA announced in no uncertain terms last week that their budget and resources do not enable them to track the myriad of meteors and comets that might impact our planet on short notice. They hope that amateurs will provide warning for dangers they miss. Suggestion: Buy telescopes for old ladies and nerdy kids who live way out in the sticks this Christmas. That's grassroots socialism in action for the commonweal! Thanks for your watchfulness, Anna. Now if we could only select who gets the meteor-right impact? (Does your insurance policy cover shooting stars? Look in the very, very, very fine micro-print on the back of the last page- looks like gnat poop.)

No one needs anyone's permission to go outside and look up at the sky.

The amateur astronomy community is an international club of enthusiasts. We're not going to stop watching whassup in the 'hood anytime soon :-)

For the beginner and for the links and because it's your tax dollars at work, I suggest the site

Now if we could only give the Prime Directive a second look, we'd be looking at the Greek theatre archetype skits of Star Trek through something other than a "sex" gross out eyeball.

Live long and prosper.

The Neighborhood

Yesterday, as I do most days I stopped to pick up some garbage along the Way. But yesterday was different because as I was picking up the trash I began to sing the old song: "What the world needs now is love sweet love, its the only thing that there's much too little of." Truly the Earth, our home, as is equally ourselves, is only in need of this. How do you legislate love?


I am reminded of the shipwrecked sailor in A.A. Milne's poem, who thought of so many alternatives in his own quest to provide for himself that he never did anything in the end, but lay on the beach in the sun waiting to be rescued.

If we cannot have the FCC come rescue us, could we not, PBS, ask you to provide us with something like the excitement provided by Walter Cronkite and company? Yes, the resources are shrinking, but less glitz and more porridge would accomplish much. Just saying. Thanks, Mr. Winship.

Maybe Michael, as we slide into the dark and dismal ages, a big old comet or meteor will blind-side us and put us out of our misery. It's been shown by extensive research that as individual human consciousness develops the appetite for Tang evaporates. I imagine they'd really slurp up some "tang" in Congress. So what's the answer? More space themed sex odysseys and video games? Remember Captain Kirk's libido when you're viewing that full moon through your telescope. The Post Office may be hatching a covert plan to sabotage communications satellites.

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