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Archimedes, the Ancient Greek mathematician and engineer, once said something like: “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I will move the earth.” In the centuries since, the idea hasn’t gone away.  Humanity is always looking for powerful new tools Cool Research Projects That Could Change the Future Cool Research Projects That Could Change the Future Will mega-corporations like Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Intel go on to give future generations the world we can only imagine now? These exciting research projects say that it is a promise they will keep. Read More  to change the world.

Which brings us to climate change.

While climate change is a contested subject, there’s growing evidence that it’s a big problem, and we aren’t helping. In this age of big data analytics, scientists are crunching numbers on sea level GlobalFloodMap: Interactive Sea Level Rise Map GlobalFloodMap: Interactive Sea Level Rise Map Read More  and thermal imaging and the results aren’t promising. A growing number of experts are speaking out and warning that if we don’t start implementing changes soon, we could do permanent and possibly apocalyptic damage to the biosphere.

The History of Geoengineering

The fear of climate change has sparked a lot of discussion and governmental policies to help limit emissions in the hopes of reversing the damage we’re causing. However, political progress has been slow – and, even with dramatic reductions in our emissions, it may already be too late to avoid all of the damage.

This has pushed scientists to think of other innovative ways of fighting climate change that may speed up the process. This is where geoengineering comes in. Geoengineering is the process of deliberately altering of our planet’s environment.  Approaches range from seeding reflective material into the upper atmosphere to doping the oceans with specific chemicals.

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Believe it or not, this isn’t a new idea. While the term geoengineering itself may be new, the idea of manipulating weather has been around for a while. Examples of rainmaking – attempting to artificially induce or increase precipitation – can be traced back to the 1830s, when James Espy proposed setting fire to the crest of the Appalachian mountains to generate heated updrafts that would stimulate rain.


Geoengineering Methods

In 1991, The Philippines faced a Pompeii-like disaster when Mount Pinatubo erupted, covering over a thousand square miles with ash, sulfur and other volcanic deposits. However, during the months following the eruption, scientists noticed a dramatic cooling in the atmosphere. Apparently, the volcanic ash served to block out sunlight, cooling the earth underneath.

Likewise, when the supervolcano Mt. Tambora erupted in 1815, the plume of ash dropped the global temperature by an average of 1.3 degrees fahrenheit (about the same amount of temperature change as all global warming since 1880 combined).  The effects were profound: 1816 is known as “The Year Without a Summer.”  Snow fell in Albany NY in June.  The colder climate ruined harvests, leading to mass food shortages.

This represents one of the most powerful ways to impact the climate – seeding the upper atmosphere with sulphur like that produced by a volcano to redirect sunlight away from the planet.  Other ideas include fertilizing the ocean with iron dust to increase the number of phytoplankton that feed on carbon dioxide, or brightening clouds with salt water to increase their reflectivity.

However, for the time being, the sulphur idea remains the most practical method of intervening in the climate intentionally.  It also has one other major perk going for it: it’s cheap.  Fixing climate change the usual way is extremely expensive, both in terms of dollars and human lives.  The restrictions needed to produce large-scale emissions reductions will take years, cripple economic growth, and devastate emerging markers, disproportionately hurting the poor.  In contrast, filling the upper atmosphere with large amounts of sulphur would cost only a few billion dollars and could be done immediately.


The Consequences

Unfortunately, there are a number of potential problems with geoengineering.  Climates are unpredictable.  While our best models don’t predict enormous ill effects from geo-engineering, there’s a real danger there.  If we mess up, we could actually kill everyone.

There’s also a practical concern about the sulphur approach: during the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, scientists also noticed an increased deterioration of the ozone layer. For those who forget their high school science, the ozone layer is a portion of the atmosphere that shields us from the sun’s UV radiation. Depletion of this layer increases the incidence of skin cancer, and has complex ecological effects. At this point we know that releasing different chemicals in the atmosphere might cool the earth, but the risk is they could also destroy the ozone.  The good news is that it looks like there may be some solutions to this: David Keith, the climatologist in the video above, thinks it may be possible to create a layer of material that floats above the ozone layer, cooling the world without damaging it.

There’s also another objection to geo-engineering that’s a little subtler. There’s a concept in economics called a ‘moral hazard’, which describes how people change the way they act when they’re protected from consequences.  Banks behave more recklessly when they know they’ll be bailed out, for example.

In the case of climate change, people and regulators are finally beginning to make positive environmental changes to stave off global warming. However, if we develop these geoengineering processes to combat climate change, people may revert back to old habits. After all, what’s the point of driving futuristic cars Autonomous Cars: Are Robots Good for the Environment? Autonomous Cars: Are Robots Good for the Environment? The way we use cars is going to change.  Those changes will be wide-ranging, but one area that hasn't been investigated in as much detail: the impact on the environment. Read More or switching to solar energy What Is Solar Energy And Why Hasn't It Taken Off? What Is Solar Energy And Why Hasn't It Taken Off? What's the big deal with solar energy? If it's really as important and necessary as so many claim it to be, why hasn't it taken over the energy industry yet? Read More if scientists can snap their fingers and fix the problem.  

Without more fundamental reductions in pollution, subtler dangers like the acidification of the ocean and atmospheric compositional changes will continue to accumulate, even if we reverse climate change itself.  

Should We Do It?

For the moment, we don’t know exactly what the effects of geoengineering are. Many are against the idea, but it seems like too powerful a tool to abandon lightly.

We should continue to cut back on consumption and emissions, but why not combine that with other useful technologies?  It seems worthwhile to at least do some small-scale tests to try to determine the effects of different interventions.  Furthermore, it may turn out that we don’t have a choice: if the US is too cautious to take the risk, China may not be.

What do you think? Is geoengineering the answer to global warming? Weigh in below in the comments.

Article Credit: Giss temperature via Wikimedia; Pinatubo via Wikimedia; SPICE SRM via Wikimedia

  1. DAS
    March 23, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    I am very happy to see the comments are overwhelmingly negative in regards to "climate change" which is nothing more than a political, wealth re-distribution program and otherwise lacking any real scientific support.

  2. Colonel Angus
    March 18, 2015 at 9:16 pm

    Global warming has been sufficiently proven a hoax supported by manipulated data and outright lies. That said, we still need to take better care of the planet. Monsanto is probably the biggest offender with its chemicals, poisons and GMO food. Long term, we have no idea what their Frankenfood is doing to the people who consume it, or to the environment where it grows. What we do know is that if a single seed from a Monsanto crop drifts into a neighboring farmer's field, that farmer is guilty of stealing Monsanto's property. Gotta love how the American justice system looks out for the people!

  3. Sam
    March 18, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    Excellent comments from dragonmouth and Dann there. The final sentences of each save me saying essentially the same thing.

    The thought of scientists going ahead with this sulphur insanity scares the hell out of me (though of course politics would hopefully put a stop to it - it surely couldn't be done without every country agreeing?).

    Thanks for a fascinating read Rick!

  4. George Klein
    March 18, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    First of all global warming is a myth.
    That's what environmental pundits called the change in the climate mainly in the last decade of the last century.
    When statistical data came out at around the end of the first decade of this century showing the global temperature on earth going down a fraction the same pundits had to change the "tone".
    There was no more "global warming", the statistical data has proven otherwise.
    Then they invented the "climate change" expression, which should have been used before instead of "global warming". It is somewhat more appropriate.
    During the several billion years of its existence our Earth went through many significant warming and cooling periods well before the existence of humans. So, human activity is definitely not the cause of rising earth temperature at the end of the last century. The so called "greenhouse effect" is a theory yet to be proven.
    The much more likely cause of global temperature change on Earth, both in upward and downward directions is solar activity, the frequency of solar eruptions.

    • Max
      March 21, 2015 at 10:34 am

      Your entire post is wrong.

      1. "There was no more “global warming”, the statistical data has proven otherwise.Then they invented the “climate change” expression, which should have been used before instead of “global warming”. It is somewhat more appropriate."

      In 2002, Frank Luntz - a Republican advisor to George Bush's administration - wrote this;

      " The terminology in the upcoming environmental debate needs refinement, starting with 'global warming' and ending with 'environmentalism'.

      ** It's time for us to start talking about 'climate change' instead of 'global warming'. **

      'Climate change' is less frightening than 'global warming'. As one focus group participant noted, climate change 'sounds like you are going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale'. "

      2. Meteorological, not statical data, is what is proving global warming is happening, and the observations show the warming is pretty much in line with earlier predictions.

      3. Solar influence on climate has been declining for years - even dragonmouth had obviously heard about that - but globally temperatures have climbed and ice is melting far faster today than at any time in the last 800,000 years.

      The Sun is important, but it ISN'T the only factor involved in global warming. Right now, WE are the biggest cause of the warming.

      Yes, in the future Earth WILL swing a bit closer to the Sun and global temperatures will rise above the 8 degrees we are now heading for - it has done that many times in the far past . But who cares about very distant futures? We will have been dead long before that happens.

  5. bnjohanson
    March 18, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    Hey again. Learn to read. I know when the Manhattan was covered in was due to happen it has hundreds of times before in Earth's history. Otherwise, you made some relatively decent points despite your laughable attempt to think you know much with your thousands of words of annoying chin-wagging as usual.

  6. dragonmouth
    March 18, 2015 at 1:05 pm

    "Can We Engineer the Planet to Fight Global Warming? "
    Under no circumstances should humans try to geoengineer the planet. That would be like letting chimps into a fully equipped chemical lab and having them mix chemicals at random. While scientists and politicians make learned-sounding and profound statement s about climate change, they know next to nothing about climate. Just like with the chimps in a chem lab, it is almost a statistical certainty that if humans tried to "fix" the climate problem, they would cause a disaster. A disaster that would make the effects of Global Warming seem puny in comparison. Man cannot comprehend all the interrelated variables that go into climate change.

    Terms like "Global Warming" and "climate change" are flung about gratuitously by scientists and politicians. However, there is no agreement on the baseline from which the "Global Warming" or "climate change" is measured. Do we use last year's climate and global temps as baselines? Do we go back 50, 100, 500, 1,000, 10,000 years for our baseline? Climate is not absolute, it changes constantly. A chart of temperatures for any period of time, be it 1 day, 1 year or a million years, has a sawtooth pattern. There is no flat spots at any time to indicate a "normal." Without establishing a "normal condition" there can be no discussion about change, let alone if that change is "abnormal."

    Earth has gone through periods when most of it was covered with ice. It has also gone through periods when most of it was tropical. All those changes occurred either before Man came on the scene or was too few in numbers to have any effect on the climate. That would indicate that warming and cooling (climate change) is a natural phenomenon
    Twenty thousand years ago sea levels were 300 feet lower than they are now. There was no Bering Straight, Britain was not a bunch of islands but part of the European continent. By 10,000 years ago, the sea levels rose by 300 feet. The land bridge between Alaska and Kamchatka was under water. What caused the climate changed that ended the last Ice Age? Was it human activity?

    In the time of the Vikings grapes were routinely grown in Northern Europe. In spite of all the talk by Al Gore and the climatologists about "global warming" and "climate change", the climate today is still too cold in Northern Europe to grow grapes in any quantity. The Vikings did not give the name "Greenland" to that land mass because of their twisted sense of humor. Greenland was so name because it was green and habitable, with a climate similar to New England's. Now scientists are warning us that the melting rate of Greenland's glaciers is accelerating. If Greenland was green in 8th-10th century, how did those glaciers get there?

    Climate ist nicht fur mittengrabben und fingerpoken. It takes Mother Nature thousands of years to make adjustments to the environment. Man should not try for a quick fix.

    • Evan
      March 20, 2015 at 12:17 am

      Dragonmouth, you are exactly right here.

  7. Dann Albright
    March 18, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    I'm pretty sure I watched a horror movie about a few survivors of an apocalyptic snowstorm that had been brought about because of climate control methods. If I remember correctly, there were a number of unexpected effects, including a continual snow. For years, I think. We have some really smart people working on this, and some amazingly powerful computers at our disposal, but the scale and complexity of the global climate is mind-boggling. And it doesn't seem like something you can test on a small scale; we can't just throw up some sulfur over the western states and see what happens. :-)

    All in all, I'd say too big of a risk. Just like you said: "If we mess up, we could actually kill everyone."

    Very interesting article, Rick!

    • Andre Infante
      March 19, 2015 at 8:20 am

      Actually, I think testing it on a small scale is a really good idea. Put a small amount of sulphur into the upper atmosphere and make sure it tips the temperature scale the way we think it does. That way, if there are crazy, apocalyptic effects, we can find out about them without going all in.

    • Evan
      March 20, 2015 at 12:14 am

      How can anyone know if the temperature scale was tipped by the sulphur, or by natural variations which can be much larger?

    • Dann Albright
      March 23, 2015 at 8:06 am

      Andre, do you think that you'd be able to get a testable effect on a small scale like that? I don't know much about high-altitude weather (or low-altitude weather), but I would imagine that if you put a bunch of sulphur into the atmosphere in a small space, it would just disperse and the effect would be dampened. Do you think it would stay stable enough?

    • Dann Albright
      March 30, 2015 at 7:12 am

      Evan, not being a climate scientist, I have no idea. Having done a lot of statistics, I can say that using a lot of data points and computational power might be enough to make a pretty well-supported statement of causation. Ultimately, we wouldn't know. But we could be very confident if the test and stats are run well.

  8. bnjohanson
    March 18, 2015 at 11:39 am

    Silly Libs; genetically predisposed with the inability to ever learn a damn thing except reflexive responses to when their heart hurts always leading to results rife with unintended consequences. You know, as is typical of children prior to when they grow-up...

    PS: Those volcanoes that you mention, let's specifically use Mt. Pinatubo as an example, belched enough CO2 into the atmosphere to outweigh the entire planet's human-contribution of CO2 for over a decade and that isn't counting the extremely poisonous sulfur dioxide release that outweighed every chemical weapon detonated in human history; ONE ERUPTION. There are over 60 eruptions of significant consequence EACH year, not counting the defined number that is measured in the thousands. Finally, pinch yourselves Liberal Loons; the Little Ice Age was scheduled to be ramping-up in full effect continuously over the next 500-years resulting in Manhattan buried in 3,000 feet of ice (3x the Empire State Building) just as it has hundreds of times before in Earth's history. Instead, we all were fortunately able to overcome the Dark Ages, The Black Death, and terrible famine throughout Europe and enjoy one of the most rare, temperate climate conditions in this planet's history. So, enjoy it while it the rest of us strive to tolerate all of you in the meantime.

    • dragonmouth
      March 18, 2015 at 1:13 pm

      "the Little Ice Age was scheduled to be ramping-up in full effect continuously over the next 500-years resulting in Manhattan buried in 3,000 feet of ice"
      Not so. Little Ice Age took place roughly between 1250 A.D. and 1850 A.D.

      The last time Manhattan was covered by 3000 feet of ice was over 20,000 years ago.

  9. Joe
    March 17, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    If were possible to control climate or the weather it would already be used as a weapon.

    • Andre Infante
      March 19, 2015 at 8:18 am

      Weapons aren't useful if they don't hurt your enemy more than they hurt you. Any country on earth could plunge the world into an ice-age for a few hundred billion dollars, but... why? It's going to hurt you just as much as it hurts any enemies you might have.

  10. Mark Ryan
    March 17, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    Why spend time on junk science? Global warming is the most suspect science to come down the line is hundreds of years. What ought to get all the funding is simple ecology: clean air, clean water and healthy, non-chemical treat food sources. Sadly, governments and private enterprise do not want to fund that as there is not the largesse in place thanks to Mr. Gore. If all the money spent chasing and pushing the junk science agenda of Global Warming were put towards ecology, No one would be without clean water, food to eat and air to breathe.

    • Rudy
      March 18, 2015 at 6:57 am

      Agree 100%

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