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UBC professor uses Star Wars planet Tatooine to demonstrate climate forcing

Credit: David Ng, University of British Columbia

Credit: David Ng, University of British Columbia

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Friday, July 25, 2014, 5:24 PM - Although climate change is a serious issue, with alarming ramifications for our future, communicating the science behind it doesn't always have to be done in a serious way. University of British Columbia professor David Ng demonstrates this idea quite well in his recent release - the Tatooine Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Tatooine is well known as a planet visited from time to time by the characters of the Star Wars movies. This burning-hot desert world, which orbits a binary pair of stars, was only seen during a small portion of the whole series so far, but was home to Anakin and Luke Skywalker, both of whom went on to have a great influence over the events of the Clone Wars and the Galactic Civil War. However, beyond this pivotal role in galactic history, the planet is also excellent example to use for communicating climate change.

Tatooine has no oceans to speak of - with only 1 per cent of its surface covered in water, according to sources - and minimal plant life on the surface. With a fairly uniform landscape of barren rock and sand dunes, but also having an atmosphere (presumably) similar to Earth's - proper nitrogen/oxygen ratio and trace gas content to support human life, although significantly drier - it provides a simplified 'laboratory' to study radiative forcing (RF), which is one of the basic concepts behind climate change.

"If you're not familiar with this term," Ng wrote in Science Creative Quarterly (SCQ), "it's basically a metric used to calculate net energetics in climate systems (expressed in Watts per square metre). For example, you can use it to measure how our pesky greenhouse gases contribute a positive radiative forcing by keeping heat energy within the Earth’s atmosphere; or how having an extra star would also definitely result in a significant positive RF effect."

Now, Ng hasn't added a fossil fuel narrative to Tatooine's story. That wouldn't make much sense, in context, given the much more abundant energy sources used by the peoples of the Republic and Galactic Empire. However, he does add more water vapour to the planet's atmosphere (via "unregulated for-profit water mining/extraction," Ng writes), which produces the desired effect. On a planet like Earth, adding more water vapour to the atmosphere certainly has an effect on our climate, but not as much as it would have on a dry planet like Tatooine, baking in the harsh glare of twin suns.

That's where this report from the Tatooine Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (TIPCC) comes in (click on the image to open the PDF report).

Taking the basic format of the United Nations IPCC reports, Ng shows how adding water vapour to Tatooine's atmosphere traps more of the heat radiated from the planet's surface, thus causing climate change. Included in the report are graphs similar to those used in the IPCC reports, and a discussion of how the animal life (native and introduced) will fair with the shifting climate regions. Some species, like the bantha and the eopie will likely be able to migrate along with their preferred climate range, as will the sentient trooshti. However, the sarlacc will likely not fair as well. The shifting climate may threaten its existence long before it gets a chance to fully digest its latest meals.

"And why all the effort?" asks Ng. "Well, firstly, this stands as an admittedly elaborate teaching prop; but secondly, I hope this document entices folks to learn more about the real IPCC report. I get the sense that very few people have even heard of the IPCC, and maybe this even includes yourself. Which is a shame because it’s kind of important. In brief, it’s a document, organized by the United Nations, and prepared by a massive group of academics to try and objectively summarize all available research on climate change and its possible downstream effects. In other words, it’s the summation of decades of work by tens of thousands of very smart people, who are essentially telling you: (1) what the scientific evidence currently looks like; (2) what you might expect to happen in the Earth’s near future; and (3) what should people in influence (i.e. governments) consider doing in order to mitigate or adapt to these projections. Put another way, it’s definitely worth a few moments of your time, even if it is a bit of a sobering read."

If Ng's efforts have made you curious, the full IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) is available on the web (click here).

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