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A last-resort ‘planet-hacking’ plan could make Earth habitable for longer


One way to prevent the Earth’s temperature from rising into a city-drowning, hurricane-strengthening, heat-stroke–triggering danger zone is to immediately switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

At the moment, that transition seems unlikely. So scientists and tech innovators are also investigating various forms of geoengineering — an approach that involves transforming the Earth’s clouds and skies in ways that help cool the planet or suck carbon out of the atmosphere.

That idea, however, is extremely controversial. Some researchers believe such work could be a necessary part of the fight against climate change, but others argue that meddling with the planet exposes the world to a host of new risks. Plus, there’s a growing fear that a rogue actor trying to achieve something “good” could attempt one of these globe-altering projects and spark a devastating international conflict.

Two new papers published July 20 in the journal Science investigate two of the most well-studied geoengineering strategies: cirrus cloud modification and injecting sulfur into the atmosphere.

The authors of the papers make clear that these approaches are very risky and far from viability — so much so, in fact, that most researchers hope they never become necessary. But the papers also lay out the reasons why these strategies might work and are worth studying.

Recreating a volcanic eruption

If we delay aggressively cutting greenhouse gas emissions until 2040, authors Ulrike Niemeier and Simone Tilmes write in Science, the global temperature is projected to rise more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That is an increase that most scientists agree would create dramatic, irreversible consequences for human civilization and the planet.

The authors pick that as the point at which drastic intervention might be needed in order to stave off disaster. One option in that case would be to mimic a volcanic eruption.

When a volcano erupts, it spews forth lava, gas, and smoke, filling the skies with sulfur. Those clouds of sulfur reflect more of the sun’s solar radiation back into space and away from Earth, which has a cooling effect on the planet.

volcano_thumb_3 iStock

Researchers are investigating how this effect could be artificially recreated. The leading proposal involves planes that would inject sulfur into the atmosphere.

Niemeier and Tilmes reviewed the math, and said that in order to counteract the temperature rise at that point, we’d have to inject the atmosphere with the amount of sulfur that was created by the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo every year for 160 years. (For context, the Pinatubo eruption was the second largest of the 20th century.)

This effort, they write, would require 6,700 sulfur-injection flights per day — at a cost of about $20 billion a year.

The authors also note that the technology required for this aerosol modification in the stratosphere doesn’t exist yet, and that their timeline assumes that global carbon emissions would reach zero before 2100.

We’re still far from understanding all the risks involved with injecting sulfur into our atmosphere; however, a major one is the destruction of ozone, the layer that helps keep dangerous ultraviolet radiation from reaching Earth. The sulfur approach would also cool land more than oceans, which would continue to change and acidify. And it would transform tropical monsoons, reducing rainfall and potentially causing droughts in places like India.

Transforming the clouds in the sky

Another drastic approach to cooling our planet would be to alter a certain type of heat-trapping cloud.

One of the most confounding variables in climate models is the effect of clouds in sky, climate scientist Kate Marvel explained at TED 2017. Clouds can send solar radiation back into space, thereby helping to cool the planet. But they can also trap heat on Earth, playing a similar role to greenhouse gases like CO2.

cirrus clouds Cirrus clouds. Shutterstock/Aleksey Sagitov

All climate projections show a warming trend, but the role of clouds, Marvel says, is why “some of them project catastrophe — more than five times the warming we’ve seen already — and others are literally more chill.”

Cirrus clouds, the thin, wispy ones that look like streaks in the sky, don’t reflect much radiation and can trap a good amount of heat.

So authors Ulrike Lohmann and Blaz Gasparini write in Science that researchers are investigating ways to thin such clouds and let more heat escape, as the diagram below shows. This would be done by planting tiny particles (like chemicals, desert dust, or pollen) into cirrus clouds to break them apart — a process known as seeding.

cirrus cloud seeding G. GRULLÓN/SCIENCE 2017


This approach also comes with a list of risks, the authors write.

According to the paper, if the seeding process goes too far, or scientists didn’t get the location perfectly right, new cirrus clouds could form in places where they didn’t exist before, “creating additional warming rather than the intended cooling.”

Plus, just like the sulfur injections, cirrus thinning wouldn’t decrease the levels of CO2 already in the air or lower the amount we’re still releasing to the atmosphere. And ocean acidification would continue.

“In theory it could be done,” Alan Robock, an environmental science professor at Rutgers who was not involved with the new papers, told Business Insider. But no one has ever tried it, and “it’s still relatively early days in terms of knowing whether it would work.”

But there’s another major risk involved with developing technology that allows us to tinker with the planet’s climate systems: Human conflict.

Permission to transform the world

Once geoengineering technology and methods are developed, a situation could arise in which one country or rich individual decides to try it out on their own.

In an editorial published alongside the new papers in Science, authors from the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Initiative pointed out that the world’s governments don’t have a framework yet for deciding whether or not “the potential global benefit of geoengineering is worth the risks to certain regions.”

In an absolute worst case scenario, one rogue actor claiming they were trying to do good could attempt some kind of geoengineering project that winds up triggering environmental disaster, like massive droughts, in another country. That could lead to a destabilizing global conflict.

This may sound extreme, but Robock said he once participated in a discussion at a geoengineering conference in which the question of worst possible outcomes was raised. One answer was particularly sobering, he said: global nuclear war.

The easier solution

At TED 2017, Marvel likened geoengineering to “going to a doctor who says ‘You have a fever, I know exactly why you have a fever, and we’re not going to treat that. We’re going to give you ibuprofen, and also your nose is going to fall off.'”

In other words, it’s like using a very risky band-aid without ever solving the original problem: greenhouse gas emissions.

Even if these geoengineering strategies were to work as planned, trying to change the planet’s natural systems without stopping emissions in the first place would be stupid, because we wouldn’t eradicate the primary factor causing warming.

The Carnegie Council scholars wrote in their editorial that embarking on a geoengineering project without cutting emissions might mean that we need to continue modifying our stratosphere for centuries with unknown side effects. And even if we did that, we’d still need to develop ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and store that carbon safely.

Researchers are making progress in that area. But there’s still much to be done and that science is still in very early stages.

Robock points out an obvious truth in regards to all of these radical possibilities: It would be safer for people to simply come together now and figure out how to stop fossil fuel emissions.

To keep the planet at a stable temperature, even the Paris Agreement goals would need to be made significantly more aggressive. Given Trump’s vow to pull the US out of the international accord, that might seem unlikely right now, but Robock thinks it’s possible.

“With charismatic leadership, things can change very quickly,” he said. “I’m optimistic the world will do that and we won’t need to use geoengineering.”

Hopefully, Robock’s optimism proves to be justified.

Business Insider

11 Comments on "A last-resort ‘planet-hacking’ plan could make Earth habitable for longer"

  1. Kenz300 on Sat, 22nd Jul 2017 10:18 am 

    Wind and solar are safer, cleaner and cheaper than fossil fuels.

    The sooner we transition the better.

  2. dissident on Sat, 22nd Jul 2017 10:35 am 

    Geoengineering is lunacy. Every twit with a half baked idea thinks they have a solution. The atmosphere is not a laboratory system and we do not know all the variables (which control feedbacks) involved when it comes to aerosol dynamics. (To the deniers, the bulk energy balance in the ocean-atmosphere system is not uncertain). So starting out with some scheme to change the cirrus CCN size distribution does not guarantee that large scale changes in the thermal forcing and circulation will not feed back onto the microphysics and counteract the intended size distribution change.

  3. Apneaman on Sat, 22nd Jul 2017 12:04 pm 

    Intentional geoengineering to save the humans from their unintentional geoengineering experiment which is the fastest geoengineering project in planetary history and with the magic of positive feedbacks will be the biggest in another half century or so – equaling past hothouse extinctions that took thousands to tens of thousands of years of volcanism burning up the earths carbon, much of it coal beds and oil and gas. Nothing new under the sun eh? CO2e (equivalent)is about 492ppm, which is very close to the halfway point of 1000ppm – hot house mass extinction level. Of course many a creature dies before the 1000ppm level is reached. Usually those who rely the most on a wide variety of other species for their survival and there is no evidence (so far as I can find from a few studies) of any terrestrial creature over 99lbs surviving mass extinctions.

    CO2 levels and mass extinction events

    “The cause for concern is that the current CO2 level — approximately 393 406.73 ppm — is projected to reach a thousand ppm in approximately one hundred years at the current rate of increase”

    “…at the current rate CO2 will increase one hundred ppm in approximately 40 years. During past periods of abrupt change — the most recent one occurring approximately 50 million years ago — it took roughly a million years for CO2 to change by one hundred ppm. Thus it is now changing about 25,000 times faster than in known geologic history.”

    Daily CO2

    July 21, 2017: 406.73 ppm

    July 21, 2016: 404.92 ppm

    June CO2

    June 2017: 408.84 ppm

    June 2016: 406.81 ppm

    In the coming decades many humans, with little or no information, will be screaming for the overlords to attempt geoengineering. The combination of human suffering (dead babies) and terror combined with the retard levels of optimism evolution provided humans with will result in the “something is better than nothing” mentality.

    Blocking sunlight will obviously reduce the amount that hits solar panels.

    Plenty of big money people and corporations hold patents on geoengineering “technologies”, so it will make for great conspiracy fodder too.

  4. onlooker on Sat, 22nd Jul 2017 1:28 pm 

    Yep,the climate/ocean atmospheric system is highly complex and prone I would think to manifest unintended nasty consequences if we interfere with it. But we will need to throw the dice because a climate CO2 induced mass extinction event is hurtling our way

  5. Apneaman on Sat, 22nd Jul 2017 1:41 pm 

    Burning at record pace

    “The province has lost more timber to wildfires to this point in 2017 than over the previous four years.

    Since the start of the current fire season, 700 wildfires have been reported across the province. Those fires have resulted in more than 410,000 hectares of timber going up in flames.”

    “To date in 2017, 120 fires have started in the Kamloops Fire Centre, which includes the Okanagan. More than 60,000 hectares of forest has burned. That’s almost seven times the previous four years combined.

    Traditionally, August is the worst month for fires in the province.

    Well over half of the fires reported in the province over the past four years started after August 1.”

  6. Apneaman on Sat, 22nd Jul 2017 1:49 pm 

    onlooker, hurtling our way indeed. Here is a few hi/low lites from the last few weeks. Most who saw them quickly forgot them of rationalized them away or distracted themselves with Trump tweets and/or barrel counting. I’m certain TPTB will attempt geoengineering (good luck). I’m not sure if they will tell the public at all or not in all instances.

    Hottest day ever in Shanghai as heat wave bakes China

    Spain Breaks All-Time Highest Temperature Record

    Saudi Arabia just reached its highest-ever temperature

    Temperatures in Iranian city of Ahvaz hit 129.2F (54C), near hottest on Earth in modern measurements

  7. onlooker on Sat, 22nd Jul 2017 2:01 pm 

    Airconditioning is allowing some of these places to remain livable. When wet bulb temp goes up or industrial civilization falls apart, these places will quickly become hell holes

  8. Go Speed Racer on Sat, 22nd Jul 2017 2:37 pm 

    It’s true the Earth already is no longer habitable.

    It’s the mormons. They are everywhere. With their
    black ties, and their bicycles. This has caused the
    environment to become toxic, and no longer sustain life.

  9. Go Speed Racer on Sat, 22nd Jul 2017 2:37 pm 

    If we incinerated old La-Z-Boy recliners in
    waste-to-energy, it would meet the entire
    electric grid needs of the United States.

    The resource is perpetually renewable and
    sufficient, because we will never run out
    of old La-Z-Boy recliners.

  10. Sissyfuss on Sat, 22nd Jul 2017 4:37 pm 

    Yes, by all means make the habitability of our poor tortured globe extend for a while longer. That way we can continue on with our overbreeding, overconsuming mania rather than take action against it. We certainly can’t be expected to change and reform our actions towards a long term behavioral pattern. Wouldn’t be human.

  11. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 23rd Jul 2017 12:34 am 

    We should use giant cans of white spray paint.
    By painting the blue sky, it turns white which causes
    more cloud formation, more rainfall and
    lower temperatures.

    But seriously the planet is already so phucked up,
    we should phuck it up some more.
    Best terraform plan is pump water into Sahara Desert,
    turning it into a nice green forest with eagles and chipmunks.

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