400,000 Atomic Explosions Every Single Day

Photo from the National Archives Catalog

Dr. Max Wei is a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory of the US Department of Energy.

When Max speaks, I listen.

At a recent conference, I heard Dr. Wei offer a fascinating metaphor of how much energy our Earth currently absorbs due to the presence of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) in the atmosphere.

He said that each and every day the energy added to Earth by GHGs is the equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima-size explosions.

In other words, in a month’s time, the Earth absorbs the energy equivalent of twelve million atomic explosions.

This effect, known as solar forcing, is quantified by NASA as adding approximately “0.8 – 1.6 watts per square meter.” (Take out your calculator: 0.8 W/m2 multiplied over the Earth’s 510.1 trillion square meters equals Dr. Wei’s 400,000 atomic explosions.)

Dr. James Hansen made a similar analysis a few years back. However, the situation has likely grown worse. NASA’s Gavin Schmidt believes the Earth now absorbs double Hansen’s previous assessment.

How do we rectify the problem of excess energy? There are, generally speaking, four strategies:

  1. We must stop dumping GHGs into the atmosphere (looking at you, fossil fuels)
  2. We must drawdown GHGs already present in the atmosphere (i.e., trees naturally breathe in CO2)
  3. We could prevent solar radiation from reaching Earth (i.e., geoengineering)
  4. Last, we could do a better job of reflecting more sunlight from Earth into space from our built environment.

Climate Resolve is actively engaged in three of the four strategies. We’re not comfortable with pushing the red button of geoengineering – at least, not anytime soon.

The least explored and most intriguing strategy, the fourth strategy that concerns solar reflection, is where Climate Resolve is breaking new ground.

For years, Climate Resolve has been helping communities survive heat waves. Rather than exclusively relying on mechanical air conditioning, Climate Resolve has been looking upstream at the way our cities have been constructed. Roofs and roads – the part of our built environment that most of the time faces the sun – are predominantly covered in asphaltic materials.

Asphalt, a fossil fuel product, readily absorbs the sun’s shortwave energy and re-emits it as longwave infrared radiation (heat). That energy makes homes hotter and contributes to the Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect, amplifying disastrous public health impacts. Our asphalt-covered cities result in more incidents of heat stroke and heat exhaustion, particularly among the most vulnerable among us.

Importantly, longwave energy also remains caught within the Earth’s atmosphere due to the greenhouse effect and contributes to the global energy imbalance that causes climate change.

By contrast, cool roofs, cool walls, and cool pavements – which Climate Resolve advocates for – reflect sunlight mainly in the shortwave band, emit less of it as heat, and return more of the sun’s energy back into space. In that way, implementing cool surfaces provides us with 2-for-1 benefits. Locally, they cool buildings, communities, and people; globally, at scale, they can mitigate the Earth’s energy imbalance and buy us some time to implement carbon drawdown strategies.

Building on previous efforts, Climate Resolve is organizing a major new collaborative effort called Shine On that seeks to keep communities safer during heat waves and rectify the Earth’s terrible energy imbalance by returning more of the sun’s energy back to space.

Seen in this light, our Shine On initiative is the anti-bomb, bringing blessed coolness to Earth.

If you want more information on Shine On, please write to Selena Melgoza at smelgoza@climateresolve.org.

Jonathan Parfrey