The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released their 6th climate change report and made it abundantly clear that the dangers of climate change are very real and increasing. We are already seeing increased heat waves, forest fires, and stormy weather which can be reasonably attributed to climate change. Among all the methods outlined for reducing the impact caused by humans on the planet, surprisingly geoengineering was missing on the agenda. The Working Group III which covered limiting emissions, mitigation options to offset emissions, and sustainable development did not bring up this cutting-edge branch of science – maybe for good reason.
A relatively recent branch of engineering application, geoengineering is the deliberate intervention of natural climate systems to counteract climate change (Source: Wikipedia). With a primary focus on limiting Carbon in the atmosphere, there have been several new theories that scientists have been working on, ranging from increasing iron in the oceans to planting artificial trees that are CO2 scrubbing towers. While afforestation, reducing emissions, etc. help to reduce the intensity of climate change, they do nothing to reverse the effect we have had on the environment over the 20th century. geoengineering on the other hand could help us negate some of the adverse effects we have had on the environment.
While this may seem far-fetched, most of the principles involved are rooted in environmental sciences that have been studied for the better part of the last century. For example, scientists found that increasing the amount of iron in the ocean helped drastically increase the phytoplankton that acts as carbon absorbers. Although when phytoplankton die, they release this carbon back into the ocean, they still help absorb a significant amount of carbon leading to temperature reductions. Meteorologists maintain that even a slight decrease in the surface temperature of the water (over a few hundred square kilometers) can lead to less severe storms. The jury is still out about how the increase in phytoplankton may affect the existing species in the same water body.
Human actions are one part of the story in raising global temperatures but are easily dwarfed by the heat generated by the sun. A technique being discussed to reduce the sun’s impact is to have ships spray fine particles of seawater into the atmosphere which can form clouds and reflect some of the sunlight, thereby producing a cooling effect. Even though we have a seemingly infinite supply of seawater, the cost of running these ships may be very high and difficult to offset. According to a calculation run by the Economist, doubling the CO2 in the atmosphere would only create a radiative forcing of 4 watts per square meter compared to the 240 watts per square meter from the sun. Furthermore, 4 divided by 240 is 0.017 which means that we can offset this warming by dissipating just 1.7% of the sun’s radiation reaching us. In every volcanic eruption we have seen, the upper atmosphere is filled with Sulphur particles that reflect solar radiation and cause localized cooling. A strategy similar to this will have the upper atmosphere be filled with minute sulfur particles that can help dissipate some of the solar radiation. A con of this approach would be that sulfur is the cause of acid rain, and any spreading of sulfur will have to be regulated by an international body of scientists and political leaders.
Proponents of geoengineering believe that this can help us negate some of the changes we have caused to the climate while creating more jobs at the same time. But it is not so easily done as we can see at every climate meeting the world leaders have. Manipulating the environment can have serious consequences if not done correctly, and the long-term effects of altering the planet’s climate cycles are simply something we don’t know. Trying to seed rain in one country could cause a draught in another or adding iron to the ocean can kill the fish and destroy fishing communities. Maybe it is because of this that the IPCC decided just to skip this altogether. Maybe Elon Musk will test out these technologies on Mars and let us know how it turns out before we start to mess with mother nature.
Fount of wisdom, insufferable know it all, make it go away are just some of the phrases used to define Melwyn. When he is not at his Consulting job, he spends his time reading about technology and current affairs.