“I feel more of an environmentalist. There are definitely areas where the Earth is covered with pollution almost all the time.”
—Astronaut Scott Kelly
Scott Kelly, an American astronaut came back to Earth last week after almost one year on the International Space Station (ISS), the longest for any American. (Canada’s Chris Hadfield spent nearly half a year of his life as the ISS commander a couple of years ago, the longest any Canadian has spent in space.) During Kelly’s extended time off our planet, he had ample opportunity to see Earth from a vantage point very get to experience with their own eyes. Just like Hadfield, he shared his experiences on social media gaining him a Twitter fan base of almost one million followers. And just like Hadfield, Kelly’s unique perspective has allowed him to realize just how fragile our planet is, and why we have to do what we can to protect it.
As Kelly put it in his last press conference before coming home:
The more I look at Earth and certain parts of Earth the more I feel more of an environmentalist. There are definitely areas where the Earth is covered with pollution almost all the time. And it’s not good for any of us. There are weather systems that I’ve seen while I was up here that were places that were unexpected. Storms bigger than we’ve seen in the past. And this is a human effect. You can tell that that is not a naturally occurring phenomenon.
Kelly managed to witness some extreme weather including the strongest storm we’ve ever observed on our planet, Hurricane Patricia in October 2015. He also saw the strongest storm ever recorded in the southern hemisphere, Winston just last month. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to chalk these extremes all up to coincidence.
He also got to see how polluted our planet has become:
There are definitely parts of Asia, Central America that when you look at them from space, you’re always looking through a haze of pollution. As far as the atmosphere is concerned, and being able to see the surface, you know, I would say definitely those areas that I mentioned look kind of sick.
According to a study published in Nature, air pollution has killed more than three million people on Earth while Kelly was on the ISS. As much as seventeen percent of all deaths in China are attributed to air pollution.
This kind of environmental epiphany that Kelly has experienced is nothing new for people who get to experience his perspective. As Michael Mann, the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University put it:
[Kelly’s] evolution as an environmentalist seems to mirror the experiences of Carl Sagan, whose concern about our environment and environmental sustainability was a natural outgrowth of his love of cosmology, planetary science, and space exploration.
Chris Hadfield had a similar experience. In his words:
We just need to be more responsible in the decisions we make and think of the longer term, more than five years, more than the upcoming elections, more than just one lifespan, and think about our grandchildren and even further.
It’s a shame that we might need to leave the planet to appreciate how important it is to protect it.