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The sun is perfectly fine, but for generations, not a single human has seen sunlight. Earth is completely covered in black fog, reaching high up into the atmosphere, so that not even skyscrapers can escape it.

The fog is actually made of microscopic organisms. In the upper layers of the atmosphere, they photosynthesize. Dead microbes eventually drift down to the ground, creating a rich black soil that feeds fungus and other lifeforms.

Across the whole world, the fog utterly blacks out the sky, and even at ground level, it is dense enough to limit visibility to under a hundred feet, even with a powerful torch (of course, since there is no sunlight, a human would need some artificial light source to see at all). This level of fog is roughly similar to a perpetual Tule fog.

The problem: thick atmospheres lead to greenhouse conditions on a planet, but Earth must remain habitable for human-like creatures.

How can I keep our world from turning into a Venusian hellhole?

The fog is genetically engineered by a sufficiently advanced intelligence, so any hard science answer is acceptable.

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This question asks for hard science. All answers to this question should be backed up by equations, empirical evidence, scientific papers, other citations, etc. Answers that do not satisfy this requirement might be removed. See the tag description for more information.

  • $\begingroup$ How can hard science answer something that is effectively magic ("engineered by a sufficiently advanced intelligence")? $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 24 '17 at 1:57
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn While sophisticated, the intelligence has no magical powers--no violating conservation of energy and just annihilating the excess heat, for example. While sufficiently advanced technology seems magical, it's still bound by scientific laws. $\endgroup$ – Somatic May 24 '17 at 2:03
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, but they're scientific laws that we don't understand. Thus, how do we answer you? $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 24 '17 at 2:05
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn All you need is thermodynamics $\endgroup$ – Joe Kissling May 24 '17 at 2:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Somatic without changing the composition of the atmosphere, I think the warming if any at all would be minimal. The composition of your microbes may be a slight issue though. Can you add some more properties of the organisms? Emissivity, metabolic properties and composition would be fantastic, $\endgroup$ – Joe Kissling May 24 '17 at 2:10
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/thick atmospheres lead to greenhouse conditions on a planet/

Venus has a huge greenhouse effect because their atmosphere contains a metric buttload*of CO2. This makes the Venusian atmosphere "thicker" as well because CO2 is more massive than N2 or O2.

If you add a heavier gas like CO2 to the atmosphere it will increase atmospheric pressure, because the gas column above you will be more massive. If a given volume of floating fog microbe were more massive than the atmosphere it displaced, a lot of shoulder-to-shoulder dense microbes might increase atmospheric pressure. I conclude that these microbes are not that massive because by your description of them floating around they seem to be at least neutrally buoyant - equal in mass to the atmosphere they displace. So their presence should not increase atmospheric pressure.

Actually for a couple of reasons I think this black fog might make things colder. People argue whether nuclear winter could really happen - enormous airborne clouds of black soot caused by fires cooling the planet.
from link

This aerosol of particles could heat the stratosphere and block out a portion of the sun's light from reaching the surface, causing surface temperatures to drop drastically, and with that, it is predicted surface air temperatures would be akin to, or colder than, a given region's winter for months to years on end.

That is one mechanism by which the fog would cool the earth - trapping heat high up and preventing light from heating the earth below.

The other mechanism is that this colossal biomass of floating photosynthetic organisms would deplete our atmosphere of the main greenhouse gases we have - CO2 and H2O both of which are required for photosynthesis and which presumably this fog will gobble up, there being no other obvious carbon source or water source for them. Without those two, it gets cold.

https://www.giss.nasa.gov/research/briefs/ma_01/

Without naturally occurring greenhouse gases, Earth's average temperature would be near 0°F (or -18°C) instead of the much warmer 59°F (15°C).

*hard science term

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  • $\begingroup$ My thoughts exactly +1 $\endgroup$ – Joe Kissling May 24 '17 at 2:22
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Something is going to need to circulate the atmosphere, bringing the hot air trapped at the bottom of the fog to the top to cool off and bringing the cool air down.

Whoever created the microbes cracked open a bunch of volcanoes at the equator. They heat the air, causing it to rise and bringing up materials for the live microbes in the upper atmosphere.

Meanwhile, at the poles, the microbes detect that the local magnetic field is pointing down, turn white, and die. The white microbes reflect a lot of sunlight from the poles, making the air much colder. The cool air sinks, slowly making its way to the equator and cooling the land as it does so.

This makes the poles the most hospitable region of Earth, as the vast amount of falling microbes and cool air make it an ideal place to live.

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This question asks for hard science. All answers to this question should be backed up by equations, empirical evidence, scientific papers, other citations, etc. Answers that do not satisfy this requirement might be removed. See the tag description for more information.

  • $\begingroup$ Note that the volcanoes also expel sulfur dioxide, which reflect sunlight. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 24 '17 at 2:06
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There are three kinds of events that are similar yet not identical and that are said to reduce the temperature should they happen. Impact winter, nuclear winter and volcanic winter. What they have in common is that in all three cases at least part of the reason for the lowering of temperature are particles injected into the upper atmosphere. And that would be true for the scenario described in the question, too.

Based on that I'd post the thesis that the microorganisms in the upper atmosphere would block sunlight and by that reduce temperature, too.

But:

Biological decomposition creates heat and if happening on a big enough scale that can offset the reduction in temperature by the artificial winter.

How can this work?

Certain microbes are introduced into earth's eco system. They are light enough to float when you but get heavier over time when they reproduce. The old microbe starts drifting down, releases its seeds and dies.

After some time the microbes, having no natural enemies and a high reproduction, build a fog that covers all of earth. The temperature rises in the upper atmosphere and lowers down on the surface (as it would during a volcanic winter). The increased temperature speeds up the growth of the microbes, but the lack of light below the upper reaches of the fog speeds up the death of the mature microbes, too.

The dead microbes settle down at an increasing rate, creating compost heaps everywhere they collect due to wind currents. There they decompose in an exothermic reaction that, after some time raises the ground temperature back to levels similar to those before the introduction of the microbes.

Such a scenario would always be on the brink of becoming a planet wide dead zone. But surely the advanced intelligence who engineered the microbes in the first place would prevent that, no?

I'm not sure whether the citations about the various kinds of artificial winters and those about heat generated by decomposition of organic matter are enough that this answer is on topic but I think it gives an overview how such a scenario could work.

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This question asks for hard science. All answers to this question should be backed up by equations, empirical evidence, scientific papers, other citations, etc. Answers that do not satisfy this requirement might be removed. See the tag description for more information.

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You just make the organisms not only very poficient a photosynthisis(which would cool the planet) but also others which use "thermosysthisis" directly converting heat to energy in the high atmosphere.

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This question asks for hard science. All answers to this question should be backed up by equations, empirical evidence, scientific papers, other citations, etc. Answers that do not satisfy this requirement might be removed. See the tag description for more information.

  • $\begingroup$ Neat answer, but you will need math to back it up. $\endgroup$ – Joe Kissling May 24 '17 at 1:34
  • $\begingroup$ Is there any math -- short of a supercomputer simulation -- which could answer this question? $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 24 '17 at 1:53
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn Basic thermodynamics can give a decent figure $\endgroup$ – Joe Kissling May 24 '17 at 1:57
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How can I keep our world from turning into a Venusian hellhole?

You can't always get what you want.

Problems with your scenario:

  1. Black fog absorbs heat, but
  2. photosynthesis requires green plants.
  3. What keeps living "fog" in the atmosphere, but allows dead "fog" to sink?

Not even a thick green fog would work, because -- sooner than you think -- all of the light will be absorbed and there will be no more photons left to power photosynthesis at the lower levels.

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This question asks for hard science. All answers to this question should be backed up by equations, empirical evidence, scientific papers, other citations, etc. Answers that do not satisfy this requirement might be removed. See the tag description for more information.

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    $\begingroup$ Correct me if I'm wrong, but plants don't need to be green to photosynthesize, right? Green chlorophyll just happens to be particularly well-suited for the wavelengths of light our sun generates, and a quick Google tells me there are plants that are pure black. There should indeed be no sunlight at lower levels; only the top is photosynthetically active. $\endgroup$ – Somatic May 24 '17 at 2:08

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