Climate change is on everyone’s lips at the moment, whether it’s the effects of glacier melting, Co2 levels on the rise, extreme weather, draughts or the extinction of animal and plant species, it’s all tied to the same root cause: Humanity. We see ourselves as the masters of our environment, tool builders, conquerors and meme makers, but it has only become apparent in recent history what the long term effects our presence could have on our home planet and it’s other inhabitants. Geoengineering could be the answer we’ve been looking for, or it could make things so much worse.
To begin, let’s explain what exactly geoengineering is and how it can be used. Geoengineering is the large scale modification of a natural process that affects the climate of the Earth. Sounds cool, right? Well, yes and no. If we consider how we could possibly do something that could alter the climate of the Earth, it seems daunting at first, but let’s not forget, we’re doing this already! Co2 emission have never been this high in human history and current levels have not been this high in over 3 Million years. Projections are now showing that if we don’t curb Co2 (in the “business as usual” scenario) we could potentially reach a 4.5 degree rise in global temperature by 2100 . With Co2 still climbing, ice caps and glacier melting and oceans rising, is there anything we could do to stop this?
Part 1 – Stratospheric geoengineering
Many geoengineering concepts have been thrown around, but I’ll just stick to the most popular ones for now. The concept that’s gotten the most press lately and actually has started to gain traction is the idea of Stratospheric Sulphate Aerosols. Basically, this involves taking a jet, flying 20km up (way higher than commercial airline flights) and releasing sulphate particles (Sulfuric acid, Hydrogen sulfide or Sulfur dioxide) into the upper atmosphere. These sulphate particles reflect the incoming sunlight and, because the winds carry these particles around the globe, have a global dimming effect. This cools the planet and could, in theory, could offset the effects of global warming. This is essentially mimicking nature. Volcanoes release aerosols into the atmosphere all the time, during a large eruption large amount of sulphate can be lofted high into the atmosphere. This happened in 1991 when Mount Pinatubo erupted and dropped average global temperatures by 0.5oC over the next few years. This project would require large quantities of sulphate particles to be injected into the upper atmosphere every few months/years to maintain the cooling, but it’s totally do-able!Along with the reflective properties of the sulphate particles, it also contributes to the nucleation process, which creates nice, white, fluffy, REFLECTIVE clouds, adding to the global cooling effect.
As an added bonus, a large amount of sulphur in the atmosphere will give the sky an eerily purple hue, which I personally think is awesome!
Sounds great, right! Let’s do it!
Well, it’s not as simple as it sounds. Firstly we need to consider the down sides to this idea. As promising as this project sounds, the truth is, we really don’t know what kind of effects it will have in the long term, ie. how much of this stuff do we need, how will we get it into the stratosphere, how damaging will this be to the Ozone layer, it’s only just repairing itself now after John Travolta’s use of hairspray for Grease in ’78, thanks a lot Travolta. Dick.
One of many side effects is the change in precipitation patterns. If sulphate particles are released over the Pacific, for example, it could change weather patterns over the Amazon rain forest, causing draught-like conditions in one area and flooding in another, making the problem much worse. Not to mention the accompanying ACID-FREAKIN-RAIN! The oceans are already acidifying, not sure this will help. This would also affect solar energy production. If 1% of sunlight is reflected, that’s 1% less clean energy we can produce from the Sun. Plants would also be affected as they rely on sunlight for energy through photosynthesis. Also, as an Astronomer, I hate to inform you that using this method would severely hinder astronomical observations, as incoming starlight could be distorted and reflect city lights back down to the ground! Ahhh!!
It’s clear that any miscalculation in this would make global warming a whole lot worse. So we have to think, under what circumstance would we need to use this method. Let’s say, for example, average global temperatures were 3.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This is pretty much a doomsday scenario. No ice caps (no reflective ice in the Northern Hemisphere), severe draughts,floods and wildfires become the norm, 10’s of millions of climate refugees, unprecedented extinction rates and extremely limited food production through agriculture. If this were the case, I would say, f*ck it, let’s try it, we can’t possibly make things much worse anyway. At the very least, it would slightly reduce the global temperature, maybe enough to stabilise the climate again, until we can find another solution. Worst case scenario, we put too much aerosol in the atmosphere and spin the climate back to a global ice age, uh-oh!
The point I want to make is that, as stupid an idea as this seems, kinda like mending a broken finger by taking a hacksaw to it, at some point in the future it may become our only option. If we mess things up so bad, then we may need to resort to this method. However, the important thing here is that we need to do our research into the effects of this kind of geoengineering long before we’re ever going to need it. Who know’s, it may be more effective and safer that we think. But, if we know the benefits and side effects early, we can plan how and when to implement this method. Currently, two Harvard engineers have plans to test this idea on a small scale next year (2018). By injecting small amounts of aerosols from an instrument on board a weather balloon, then flying the instrument back through the aerosol cloud, they can measure the effect the aerosols are having and how the particles are interacting.
So, I (and I’m sure many others) have a big problem with this kind of solution to climate change. It doesn’t get to the root of the problem, our carbon emissions. Geoengineering is kinda like putting a small bandage on a small septic cut, the cut spreads so you just get a bigger bandage. Not a great idea. Why would we ever cut our emissions if we have a simple fix? Well, the issue here is that eventually we’re going to run out of fossil fuels, or it will get to the point where extracting fossil fuels will be more expensive than the fuel you use to actually dig it up. So the solution is simple, a clean, indefinite supply of energy from Solar, Geothermal, Wind and many more sources of energy that I’ll discuss in a different post.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed part 1 of my rant on geoengineering. Since this is my first blog post, I’d appreciate your feedback to help me grow as a blogger. Please leave any comments,questions or feedback in the comments section below and I’ll be happy to answer them.