Explaining Why the Upper Atmosphere is Important

It feels like basic science is no longer considered valuable. Why do we need to study X, Y or Z when it may not have any relevance to the society at large right now? Isn’t it more important to spend money on things that have much more short-term societal benefits, like giving assistance to farmers and making sure that every American owns a gun? But I jest.

In this new age of needing to justify why some science topic is of importance to more than just future humankind, we scientists often come up with explanations that sometimes feel like a stretch. For example, why do we study comets? Well, to better understand the make up of our solar system and universe. These are the core elements that went into making our planet and the planets around us, as well as what into making us. Therefore, by studying comets, we are really exploring where we came from. Is this really true? I am not entirely sure. I know that people who study comets are not really molecular biologists.

As another example, we often use the justification of atmospheric escape to study Mars’s atmosphere. Where did the atmosphere go? Why is Mars so different today than Earth? If we could address this question, we may be able to predict how long our atmosphere has left (will it be here forever?) or predict what planets around what stars may have an atmosphere that can sustain life. While the question of what happened to Mar’s atmosphere is quite interesting, it is extremely difficult to answer. Satellites that measure the atmosphere won’t really be able to fully address this question, but they might push us a tiny bit closer to the answer.

For the upper atmosphere of the Earth, we point to possible effects that can result from bad “space weather”. For example, when the ionosphere becomes strongly disturbed, GPS navigation can be significantly degraded. If we are using GPS to navigate our airplanes, this can cause a real problem. Another example is over the horizon communication. This involves bouncing radio waves off the ionosphere to communicate very long distances – say between an airplane in the middle of the Pacific ocean and a communication station on the west coast. If the ionosphere goes a bit crazy, then communication goes out.

Is this the reason we study the upper atmosphere? Well, maybe not. But as we gain in knowledge as a society, we begin to understand these processes a lot more and our ability to predict them increases. Many scientists study things for the long-term gain of our society, not necessarily for the short term profit.

But, when your mom asks why what you are studying is important, you should have an answer.

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About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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