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Researchers at Harvard have proposed a plan for sulphate dispersal they say could cool the Earth by 1.5 degrees C within 15 years at minimal cost. Is ir real or just pie in the sky?

Climate Change

Scientists Prescribe A Healthy Dose Of Sulphate Particles To Promote Global Cooling On The Cheap

Researchers at Harvard have proposed a plan for sulphate dispersal they say could cool the Earth by 1.5 degrees C within 15 years at minimal cost. Is ir real or just pie in the sky?

June 16, 1883. The island of Krakatoa in the Java Straits disappears in a volcanic eruption so powerful it blots out the sun in many places around the world. Millions of tons of hydrogen sulfide gas are hurled high into the Earth’s atmosphere, where they remain for years. Tracking the ash clouds from Krakatoa alerts the scientific community for the first time to the existence of the jet streams.

Average temperatures in North America decreased by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit after the volcano on Krakatoa erupted. Southern California received almost 40 inches of rain in the 12 months following the event. People around the world reported fires blazing nearby that turned out to be optical illusions created by sunlight being filtered in strange ways by the particulates from Krakatoa. Purple sunsets were common and the moon sometimes appeared blue or green in some areas of the world.

The Scream and climate change

Here’s one interesting tidbit you may find intriguing. According to Wikipedia, in 2004 an astronomer suggested the sky in Edvard Munch’s The Scream — completed 10 years after the Krakatoa eruption — was not an early expression of artistic surrealism as previously thought but was an accurate portrayal of what the sky over Norway actually looked like after the cataclysm.

Shielding the Earth from the sun’s rays is one way to cool an overheated planet. While no one can say for sure what led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, a popular theory is that the dust thrown into the atmosphere by the collision of a large meteor with the Earth somewhere near present day Siberia led to a cooler world in which the creatures were unable to survive.

A thoughtful person might pause to ponder what connection there might be between the inability of dinosaurs to survive a markedly cooler planet and the potential inability of humans to survive a markedly warmer one.

Can We Science Our Way Out Of This?

There are a significant number of people who pooh pooh all the dire warnings about global warming. They claim that humanity will somehow “science its way out of” an existential climate crisis just in the nick of time. For them, it’s time to party like it’s 2099, continuing to pour carbon emissions into the atmosphere as we go.

They have no proof such a miracle will happen any more than the passengers on the Titanic were able to science their way out of the inevitability that their unsinkable ship was about to become a submersible vessel. But they persist in their belief with the same vigor that Flat Earth advocates argue that the world is really more of a pancake than a globe. Their optimism seems to fly in the face of the popular perception encouraged by the fossil fuel industry and Faux News that all scientists are liars, cheats, and frauds.

Saving The World On A Budget

The world community is currently spending about $500 billion a year on green technology — renewables, energy conservation, and the like. A new report published in the journal Environmental Research Letters on November 23 claims we could solve the global warming quickly, easily, and cheaply using sulphate particles dispersed at the edge of space. The cost? No more than $2.5 billion a year. The process is little more than a high tech version of what Krakatoa did to the environment nearly 150 years ago.

“We show that a hypothetical deployment program, while both highly uncertain and ambitious, would be technically possible,” Gernot Wagner of Harvard tells The Guardian. “It would also be remarkably inexpensive, at an average of around $2 billion to $2.5 billion per year.”

The particles would need to be dispersed at least 12 miles above the Earth. Any closer and they would simply fall to Earth faster than they can be replaced. Current aircraft are incapable of transporting heavy loads that high and rockets would be too expensive. A new generation of heavy lift cargo planes with larger wings and more powerful engines would be required to carry out the flights needed each year for the plan to work. “It would be an unusual design, but one does not need technological breakthroughs,” says Wake Smith, an aviation engineer who has worked with Wagner.

Wagner’s plan is conceptually simple. The objective is to cool the planet by 0.1º C per year for a period of 15 years. It would start with a small fleet of planes making 4,000 flights in the first year and adding about 8 planes a year until the number of annual flights reaches 100,000 from a fleet of 100 aircraft. “The amount of flights happening would be so big it could not be done secretly,” says Smith. “This is not like the German naval buildup before the second world war. If people were doing this, we would know about it.”

Is Bio-Engineering Even A Thing?

That brings up one of the objections to the whole idea of bio-engineering — the weaponization of the technology so one country could literally throw shade on another, causing drought, famine, and other calamities in pursuit of world domination.

Another objection is the whole idea of fooling around with Mother Nature. Somebody once thought it was a good idea to introduce rabbits to Australia so the swells could hunt them in their leisure time. That didn’t work out well for the Land Down Under. Zebra mussels in the Great Lakes. Kudzu in the South. All are ideas that proved disastrous for the environment.

“Dangerous, Unnecessary, And Unjust”

Toying with nature can lead to some nasty surprises, which is why 100 scientists and environmental groups published a manifesto in October decrying the whole idea of bio-engineering and calling it “dangerous, unnecessary and unjust.” They worry that if we hold out the prospect of a solution to a warming planet, people will stop trying to decrease carbon emissions. Then if the geo-engineering process fails to work, we will be well and truly screwed six ways to Sunday.

Professor Joanna Haigh of Imperial College London warns, “This plan is a distraction that may well encourage weaker action on emissions reduction.” She thinks the money the plan would cost could be better spent helping nations cut emissions and protect themselves from extreme weather.

The costs of compensating for droughts, floods, and food shortages that geoengineering might cause could be much larger than the $2.5 billion Wagner says his plan would cost, according to Phil Williamson at the University of East Anglia. “International agreement to go ahead would seem near-impossible. Rapid reductions in emissions remain the best way to avoid climate catastrophe.”

Carbon Reduction Is Still Required

Not to worry, claims Dr Matthew Watson at the University of Bristol in the UK. “Unfortunately, climate change is dire enough for us to have to consider drastic action,” he says. “Some argue against researching these ideas but personally I think that is a mistake. There may come a time, in a future not so far away, where it would be immoral not to intervene.”

Gernot Wagner and his colleagues say they are not pushing their solar engineering plan, but think it deserves consideration. “It can only be part of an overall climate policy portfolio that first includes [emission cuts], adaptation and carbon removal from the atmosphere,” says Wagner.The latest IPCC 6 climate assessment says geo-engineering could be needed as a temporary “remedial measure” in extreme circumstances. “If the world runs through the door with its hair on fire, we need to understand what the options are,” says Wake Smith.

The sulfate particle plan also fails to address other impacts of a warming planet such as ocean acidification, which threatens the food supply billions of people rely on. But professor Peter Cox at the University of Exeter in the UK is sanguine about such concerns. “The fact that researchers at one of the world’s top universities are costing the deployment of such a radical [geoengineering] scheme shows how urgent the climate change problem has become.”

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his homes in Florida and Connecticut or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.


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