In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted, spewing millions of tons of sulfur dioxide high into the Earth’s atmosphere. Over the next 15 months, average global temperatures dropped by about 0.6º C primarily by reflecting some sunlight back into space. As the world hurtles toward what could become a climatic (and climactic) crisis, some scientists theorize that dispersing sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere from high altitude balloons could replicate that amount of cooling, keeping the Earth habitable for humans.
Harvard professor Frank Keutsch is the head of SCoPEx, shorthand for a stratospheric controlled perturbation experiment. He tells The Guardian that he shares many of the concerns environmentalists have about the experiments, but believes the research could help scientists better understand the potential risks of solar geoengineering. “The risk of not doing research on this outweighs the risk of doing this research,” he says.
“I’m really worried about the world we are heading towards. For me, that is a reason to do research on solar radiation management. Climate change is a problem of profound size and potentially profound impact on humanity. I think we should be considering all kinds of options because it’s unlikely that there is going to be a silver bullet that will fix everything. We need to be considering all options and we need to do research on them.”
The website for the Keutsch Group At Harvard explains the project this way:
At the heart of SCoPEx is a scientific balloon, fitted with repurposed off-the-shelf airboat propellers. The repurposed propellers serve two functions. First, the propeller wake forms a well mixed volume (roughly 1 km long and 100 meters in diameter) that serves as an experimental ‘beaker’ in which we can add gasses or particles. Second, the propellers allow us to reposition the gondola to different locations within the volume to measure the properties of the perturbed air. The payload can achieve speeds of a few meters per second (walking speed) relative to the surrounding air, generally for about ten minutes at a time.
The advantage of the SCoPEx propelled balloon is that it allows us to create a small controlled volume of stratospheric air and observe its evolution for (we hope) over 24 hours. Hence the acronym, Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment. If we used an aircraft instead of a balloon, we would not be able to use such a small perturbed volume nor would we be able to observe it for such long durations.
Environmental Groups Object
In June the Harvard researchers plan to launch a high altitude balloon from Kiruna in Lapland to test whether it can carry equipment for a future small scale experiment on radiation reflecting particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, and have applied for approval of the flight to an independent advisory committee. It is expected to issue a ruling by February 15. Swedish environmental groups have written to the government and the Swedish Space Corporation to voice their opposition. The researchers say they will abide by the committee’s decision.
The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, Greenpeace Sweden, and Friends of the Earth Sweden (Lapland is in Finland but shares a border with Sweden) all contend that while the balloon flight scheduled for June does not involve the release of particles, it could be the first step towards the adoption of a potentially “dangerous, unpredictable, and unmanageable” technology.
In a joint letter to Per Bolund, the Swedish minister for environment and climate, the environmental groups, say “While the first stratospheric flight proposed for Kiruna intends to test the balloon and gondola equipment, the stated purpose of the flight is to prepare for the release of aerosols into the stratosphere later in the year. Since the goal of the initial flight is to enable the subsequent release of particles, the social and environmental impacts of this test cannot be evaluated in isolation from the overall purpose of the SCoPEx project. The balloon flight must be viewed as integral to the project’s intention of conducting open-air testing and particle releases.
“We appeal to the Swedish government to oppose the SSC’s involvement with SCoPEx’s proposed tests, as they are fundamentally incompatible with the precautionary principle, in breach of international norms, and inconsistent with Sweden’s own climate policy framework as well as its reputation as an international climate leader. SAI is a technology with the potential for extreme consequences, and stands out as dangerous, unpredictable, and unmanageable. There is no justification for testing and experimenting with technology that seems to be too dangerous to ever be used.”
Inexpensive & Safe?
Some studies suggest solar geoengineering could be inexpensive and safe, but those who oppose the experiment argue the consequences of its use are not well understood and stratospheric aerosol injections on a large scale could damage the ozone layer, cause heating in the stratosphere, and disrupt ecosystems.
A spokesperson for the Swedish Space Corporation tells The Guardian, “The flight will only be conducted provided that it is compliant with national and international regulations. The process to find out if this flight is legally compliant and ethically appropriate is ongoing. As of today we don’t know whether there will be a flight or not. SSC provides services and infrastructure for sounding rocket and balloon launches, carrying many different scientific experiments within various fields. The purpose of this flight is to test technical equipment, it is not an active experiment.”
The Technology Paradox
All technology is nothing more than a tool. A screwdriver can be used to assemble complex structures. It can also be used as a lethal weapon. Older readers will well remember the furious debates that surrounded the development of nuclear fission during and after World War II. Younger readers are probably aware of the promise and portends of facial recognition software and personal communication devices that track our every move and share that information with our government.
Few recall that Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was not about monsters. It was about the reaction of the villagers to Dr. Frankenstein’s creation as they stormed his castle with torches ablaze and pitchforks at the ready, eager to repel the new technology at all costs.
The Obvious Solution
The researchers have a point. People were once terrified of automobiles. Airplanes were considered too dangerous. Space flight? Forget about it. Perhaps it does make sense to conduct some preliminary experiments to determine if geoengineering is even realistic before we decide one way or the other. Some suggest that since the oceans absorb most of the excess carbon dioxide and excess heat threatening the planet, geoengineering the seas would be a better use of our resources.
Of course, there is another way. We could stop pumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, a tactic that climate scientist Michael Mann says would start curbing the increase in average global temperatures in a decade or two, not hundreds of years from now. Stopping the cutting of the world’s rain forests would be another step in the right direction.
Everyone complains about how expensive it will be to stop burning coal, oil, and natural gas, but the cost of geoengineering will likely be far higher. On the one hand, we know the former will work. On the other hand, we have no idea if the latter will. So why not go with the least expensive and most effective solution? The answer is, because doing so will interfere with some of the largest corporations in the world and threaten their profits. That in turn threatens the politicians who rely on those profits for the campaign contributions that keep them in office.
Why not make carbon pollution a cost of doing business and eliminate private funding of political campaigns? Easy peasy, right? Actually, if that’s what it takes to tame global heating, maybe geoengineering research is the smarter way to go.
Image credit: Keutsch Group