Geoengineering

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NASA illustration. Astronaut photograph ISS013-E-8948

Geoengineering

History

“Instead of geoengineering being a last-ditch effort to avert the worst ravages of climate change, it’s going to have to be part of our toolkit to solve the problem. “ – Eric Holhaus

Geoengineering: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
We were supposed to start to bring our emissions down globally at least two decades ago, but instead they have increased. Even though many groups like the Club of Rome are now calling for significant reduction of emissions by the 2020’s, it’s hard to imagine it happening by any stretch. Because we continue to fail to act in other ways to clean up our planet, geoengineering, which has been called a devil’s bargain, is becoming one of our only remaining options.

In this video lecture eminent climate scientist and polar explorer, Peter Wadhams, discusses the importance of geoengineering in a 4°C World.

Professor Wadhams has also explained that in many ways we are already geoengineering the planet unintentionally, which is why we are headed for a 4°C world in the first place. This is also referred to as the trend toward a Hothouse Earth. The Earth’s climate has become intertwined with the deadly, dirty emissions we have been releasing for decades. These pollutants littering the atmosphere are now arguably keeping us cool in terms of global dimming and other effects.

Now we are somewhat like addicts reliant on the supply of this dark habit. In order to gradually withdraw, measures like geoengineering are becoming increasingly necessary to explore.  However, it is well known that this meddling with the planet poses enormous risks, and may well be a bit of the hair of the dog that bit us, as the saying goes.

In order to remove the addiction slowly and gradually it will likely be necessary to use some methods to assist the system to transition back to health. As stewards of this system, it will be incumbent upon us to choose natural, non-toxic methods that do not further damage this system which is already in jeopardy because of us.

This is a very delicate and difficult situation to say the least. It is going to be very important to have a discussion regarding what the ethical implications of these measures are.  Scientists will need to carefully weigh the risks and benefits as they move forward in experimenting with this technology. There will need to be sign-off from many levels. Many are also saying that geoengineering will not solve climate change but may only buy some time.

Jane C. S. Long, associate director-at-large of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, said “Everyone I know who works on this is scared to death of this stuff,” in an interview with Yale Environment 360. “People aren’t doing this because they think, ‘Oh whoopee! We can change the Earth!’ They’re doing it because they just don’t see any progress [on CO2 emissions] and it just seems to be getting worse and they want options on the table.”

What is Geoengineering?
According to Wikipedia, “climate engineering or climate intervention, commonly referred to as geoengineering, is the deliberate and large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, usually with the aim of mitigating the adverse effects of global warming.” The Union of Concerned Scientists have said that “this field of climate intervention (still in its infancy), has the potential to buy us some time in the attempt to maintain relatively slow warming rates.”

Geoengineering schemes are projects designed to tackle the effects of climate change directly, usually by removing CO2 from the air or limiting the amount of sunlight reaching the planet’s surface. Although large-scale geoengineering is still at the concept stage, advocates claim that it may eventually become essential if the world wants to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Critics, by contrast, claim that geoengineering isn’t realistic – and may be a distraction from reducing emissions. – The Guardian

What About Natural Geoengineering?
Geoengineering is often a feared concept. But it doesn’t have to be. There is a new take on this emerging referred to as green or natural geoengineering, in which scientists attempt to do no further harm by using non-toxic elements to do the job. Not all forms of geoengineering are invasive and harmful.

In fact, geoengineering can be done safely working with naturally occurring elements and systems.  There are many safe, natural, and non-toxic methods of geoengineering now being discussed. Most scientists and experts are now pushing in this direction.   Natural, non-toxic measures like  enhancing biodiversity to maximize the ability of ecosystems to store carbon are often overlooked tools in fighting climate change.  Further discussion of these methods follows below.


Reforestation/Afforestation

Not all geoengineering solutions are techno-fantasy or require high stakes risks with toxic components. Just planting a tree, or lot’s of them, is a form of geoengineering. It couldn’t be that simple right? Wrong. We are always coming back to this. This is yet another well-known, safe, all natural technology long touted as a solution, but still not getting enough large scale attention. Trees are known to produce natural aerosol particles which seed clouds and create cloud cover and rain. This could alleviate the aerosol masking effect (also called global dimming) gradually as we reduce emissions. Reforestation is always a good idea.

Recent studies reveal that the findings from the several experiments show that trees release molecules that contribute to cloud seeding. According to these studies, it was thought that the pollutant Sulfuric acid is required for a particular cloud formation. Sulphur dioxide (SO2) dissolves in the water vapor in clouds to form form dilute sulphurous acid  (H2SO3). But these studies are showing that aerosols can form and grow to the size needed to seed a cloud from the molecules naturally emitted by trees, without requiring Sulfuric acid.

Bjorn Stevens, atmospheric scientist, said that “the findings of the experiments have another important implication regarding the public’s perception of global warming and clean air. Some scientists believe that measures such as ridding the atmosphere of Sulfur dioxide by limiting coal plant processes could remove some of the beneficial cooling effect of clouds, and therefore boost global warming. However, upon knowing that trees can do the cloud seeding job themselves, this will be less of a concern today.”

“What it means is, we don’t have to fear clean air.” – Bjorn Stevens, Max Plank Institute

Solar Radiation Management
Solar radiation management (SRM), another form of geoengineering, is one method now being discussed that could also mitigate the widespread effects of pollution related to the aerosol masking effect. SRM has not been widely applied and it may require taking a risky gamble. SRM involves gradually eliminating pollution from factories, vehicles and other toxic sources; replacing it with artificial (natural, non-toxic) aerosols in the upper atmosphere where they’re much less likely to damage human health; and then praying nothing else goes wrong.

Scientists at Harvard are planning “the earliest official geoengineering-related experiments conducted outside of a lab, with plans to test spraying a fine mist of materials such as non-toxic sulfur dioxide, or calcium carbonate into the stratosphere. The basic idea is that spraying certain types of particles into the stratosphere could reflect more heat back into space.“ The Gates Foundation is also involved in funding a similar experiment now.

Scientists believe it could work, because it already occurs in nature. Large volcanic eruptions in the past have blasted tens of millions of tons of sulfur dioxide into the sky, which contributed to lower global temperatures in subsequent months. The historic Dalton minimum is one example of this.  Climate Scientist, Paul Beckwith, discusses this in his recent blog Anthropogenic Arctic Volcano.

It is known that stratospheric aerosols reduce the amount of direct sunlight that reaches the surface of Earth, but increase diffuse light. The side effects of this are as yet unknown. However, this may be our only chance now.

Marine Cloud Brightening
A related method called marine cloud brightening is described by Peter Wadhams in a recent interview regarding his book A Farewell to Ice as follows, “you have a drone ship drifting around with very tall masts which inject a carefully calculated size of tiny sea water droplets into the bottoms of clouds and that brightens the cloud up because of the small size of these particles and increases albedo which could hold back global warming.”

The general principle behind the marine cloud brightening (MCB), another climate engineering technique, is that seeding marine clouds with concentrations of natural seawater particles might significantly enhance cloud albedo and longevity, thereby producing a cooling effect. Preliminary studies of the possible beneficial application would mitigate the recovery of polar ice loss, the weakening of developing hurricanes, and the elimination or reduction of coral bleaching. Many more ocean-based solutions and techniques are being discussed.

Iron Salt Aerosols (ISAs)
According to Robert Tulip at Iron Salt Aerosol Australia Pty Ltd. “Iron Salt Aerosols are naturally occurring iron compounds, mainly iron chloride, that are main cooling agents in the earth’s atmosphere. Iron chloride removes carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses from the air, while also bringing extensive benefits for marine biology. Expanding ISA could be the single most economic, safe, easy and rapid contribution to reversing climate change.” ISA has numerous cooling effects. Iron Salt Aerosol (ISA) could provide rapid cooling to the oceans, methane removal and carbon dioxide removal (CRD).

A small group of scientific researchers led by European chemical engineers Franz D. Oeste and Renaud K. de Richter, are studying this very strong, easily affordable solution to climate change that is unlike conventional climate solutions. Their solution is to rekindle a series of natural processes that operated powerfully during each of the ice ages of the past million years. This would be done by increasing levels of bio-available iron in the atmosphere, using a variety of methods including aircraft dispersion and through the exhaust flues of power stations, ships and remote, purpose-built dispersion platforms. The breakthrough discovery is of numerous inter-related cooling mechanisms involving naturally occurring Iron Salt Aerosol (ISA).

Ocean Pasture Restoration
It is known that yet another large factor in global dimming is the dimming that is produced by ocean pasture plankton. They also produce these aerosols. In fact, some researchers are now saying that diminished dust from collapsed ocean pastures and plankton cooling could be a force of nature far more powerful that CO2 radiative warming.

Climate scientists often use the example of the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), which occurred some 55 Myr ago to study and make comparisons about global warming and climate change. A study reported in Nature Geoscience, found that CO2 forcing alone is likely insufficient to explain this. They state, CO2 alone did not cause the PETM climate changes.

The collapse of ocean productivity is also resulting in the greatest loss of ‘plankton cooling’ which some scientists are comparing with global dimming effects. Plankton cooling loss is readily reversed. Scientists showed this in the 2012 large scale Ocean Pasture Restoration Project (OPR) which restored 50,000km2 of ocean to health and abundance.

Negative Emissions Technologies
While some scientists do not technically classify negative emissions technologies (NETs) as a form of geoengineering, others do. This topic is  under debate. In any case, these technologies are worth noting in this discussion because they are also potentially natural and non-toxic methods that could reduce CO2 and get us back on track. They are sometimes called carbon engineering methods as well.  According to Phys.org, many of the following  “proposed NETs are highly speculative.” This article goes so far as to argue that these technologies won’t solve the problem. However, Bill Gates among others, is looking to experiment more thoroughly in the near future.


Credit: Chart: The Conversation, CC-BY-ND Source: Howard Herzog, MIT

Regeneration & Rewilding
Additionally,  the regenerative abilities of the planet are still largely unknown. We have to find every way we can to give them a chance. Rewilding, reforestation, and similar natural solutions remain the ideal. If we can get out of the way of nature, stop polluting and employ some natural geoengineering strategies to aid this process we might find way out of this very real predicament that has us on course for the sixth mass extinction. Many are looking to projects like retrosuburbia, UNM, and other discussions of how to rewild the earth toward creating an ecological civilization with permaculture and sustainable development practices as well. These options would be much preferable to risky geoengineering options that are toxic or unnatural.

Simple. Serious. Solvable.
As Greta Thunberg in Straight Talk (video) recently said, referring to the problem of climate change, that “the problem is already solved.” The only question is are we going to deploy the solutions in time? We have solutions. The real problem is we aren’t using them; and we may only have a short window to act. The situation is serious, even dire, but according to many scientists it is also solvable. While it would have been preferable to have left the geoengineering to Hollywood, at this point we might all have to be heroes.

 

 

 

Note: This page, as with many wiki pages, is a work in progress and is far from complete.  It’s aim is to introduce concepts in geoengineering, an increasingly necessary evil to mitigate climate change.

 

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