Here’s what would actually happen if we changed the Moon’s orbit
A congressman asked and we answered.
It’s always bigger in Texas. In this case, the “bigger” is a galaxy brain thought: To solve the climate crisis, why don’t we just move the Moon?
Sure, it sounds like a barroom hypothetical pitched after three Long Island ice teas or something a child would ask, but it’s a real question, posed by Republican U.S. Congressman Louie Gohmert of Texas to National Forest System associate deputy chief Jennifer Eberlein in a House Natural Resources Committee meeting this week.
Spoiler alert: It’s not a great idea. Because we love a challenge, Inverse asked actual scientists:
- If there’s any reason to think moving the Moon could solve the climate crisis
- What would actually happen if we did move the Moon
Their answers ranged from no to why would you ever do that to this is what would happen, but you’re not going to like it.
The background — Here’s what Gohmert said exactly on Tuesday:
“I understand from what's been testified to the Forest Service and the BLM [Bureau of Land Management], you want very much to work on the issue of climate change.
I was informed by the immediate past director of NASA that they have found that the moon’s orbit is changing slightly and so is the Earth’s orbit around the sun. And we know there’s been significant solar flare activity. And so is there anything that the National Forest Service or BLM can do to change the course of the moon’s orbit or the Earth’s orbit around the sun? Obviously, that would have profound effects on our climate.
Is there anything that the National Forest Service, or BLM can do to change the course of the moon's orbit or the Earth's orbit around the sun? Obviously, they would have profound effects on our climate.”
If you would prefer to listen, here you go:
What would happen if we moved the Moon?
Inverse asked Fred Adams, a University of Michigan physics professor, for his take. Adams is a co-author of a 2001 paper in Astrophysics and Space Science about moving the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, and whether or not that could help humanity last longer.
The paper involves a complicated N-body problem involving using large asteroids and the gravitational influence of Jupiter and Saturn to nudge Earth into a new orbit where it can get the amount of sunlight it needs over huge timescales. It’s a thought experiment put to paper.
The math works, but the “changing the climate in the time we need” part doesn’t.
“The work that we did... plays out on time scales of billions of years, whereas the climate change we are facing now plays out in tens of years,” Adams explains. “Compare ‘10’ with ‘1,000,000,000.’”
“My take is that: The voter suppression activity going on in Texas is a far bigger and more important story than anything Louie Gohmert has to say about climate change,” Adams says.
So that’s not going to work.
Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at North Carolina State University, echoes similar sentiments.
- Yes, we could technically move the Moon.
- No, moving the Moon is not going to save us.
- Actually, it would be pretty bad.
“The short answer is you can pretty much do anything you want,” Byrne tells Inverse. “The only limit is energy, which functionally means money, and there is probably not enough money ever produced by humankind to produce the kind of energy required to move the Moon by any meaningful amount.”
“But you could do it, in the way that I could probably be a bodybuilder,” he adds. “But am I going to be? No.” (Don’t give up on your dreams so easily!)
“The short answer is you can pretty much do anything you want.”
Byrne guides us through a few scenarios that could nudge the Moon specifically. You could, for example, smash large things into it. We could also take advantage of flybys by large objects like asteroids, and use those as a kind of barge pole to nudge the Moon. Last but not least, we could (emphasis on could) strap rocket engines on it.
But, even if we went through with any of these hypotheticals, Byrne says the gravitational interplay between Earth and the Moon would make it very difficult to see any perceptible results. We could also just accidentally destroy the Moon if we threw stuff at it. (And if you’ve read Seveneves, you know that’s a bad thing.) Moving the Moon could also affect seismic activity on Earth for the worse if it was moved closer.
OK, so we should probably not do these things. But, what if we did...
Could moving the Moon solve climate change?
Matteo Ceriotti, a University of Glasgow space systems engineering lecturer, has run the math on it a few times. He even wrote about it in 2019. And he’s not so sure the climate effects would be pronounced.
First, he looks at tides, one of the most pronounced interactions between Earth and the Moon.
“Tides do not have a direct effect on climate, but they do affect animal life which relies on tides, and in the very long term, this may affect the climate to some extent,” Ceriotti tells Inverse.
Meanwhile, moving the Moon away from Earth could change its orbital period and, in turn, seasons. “However,” Ceriotti says, “unless the Moon is moved away considerably from its current orbit, these effects can only be perceived over thousands of years.”
So there you have it: Could we do it? Yes. The physics back it up. Could we really do it? No, both from an energy and timescale perspective. Should we do it? Also no, from an unintended consequences perspective.
“I would say that if we had the energy, resources, and technology to change the Moon’s orbit enough to cause a change in the Earth climate, we should probably re-think and invest a similar amount of energy and resources to tackle the problem on Earth,” Ceriotti says.