09 Jan 2014: Report

Solar Geoengineering: Weighing
Costs of Blocking the Sun’s Rays

With prominent scientists now calling for experiments to test whether pumping sulfates into the atmosphere could safely counteract global warming, critics worry that the world community may be moving a step closer to deploying this controversial technology.

by nicola jones

In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in one of the largest volcanic blasts of the 20th century. It spat up to 20 million tons of sulfur into the upper atmosphere, shielding the earth from the sun’s rays and causing global temperatures to drop by nearly half a degree Celsius in a single year. That’s more than half of the amount the planet has warmed
Studies have shown that such a strategy would be powerful, feasible, fast-acting, and cheap.
due to climate change in 130 years.

Now some scientists are thinking about replicating Mount Pinatubo’s dramatic cooling power by intentionally spewing sulfates into the atmosphere to counteract global warming. Studies have shown that such a strategy would be powerful, feasible, fast-acting, and cheap, capable in principle of reversing all of the expected worst-case warming over the next century or longer, all the while increasing plant productivity. Harvard University physicist David Keith, one of the world’s most vocal advocates of serious research into such a scheme, calls it "a cheap tool that could green the world." In the face of anticipated rapid climate change, Keith contends that the smart move is to intensively study both the positive and negative effects of using a small fleet of jets to inject
“Mount
Arlan Naeg/AFP/Getty Images
The 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption lowered temperatures nearly half a degree Celsius.
sulfate aerosols high into the atmosphere to block a portion of the sun’s rays.

Yet even Keith acknowledges that there are serious concerns about solar geoengineering, both in terms of the environment and politics. Growing discussion about experimentation with solar radiation management has touched off an emotional debate, with proponents saying the technique may be needed to avert climate catastrophe and opponents warning that deployment could lead to international conflicts and unintended environmental consequences — and that experimentation would create a slippery slope that would inevitably lead to deployment. University of Chicago geophysicist Raymond Pierrehumbert has called the scheme "barking mad." Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki has dismissed it as "insane." Protestors have stopped even harmless, small-scale field experiments that aim to explore the idea. And Keith has received a couple of death threats from the fringe of the environmentalist community.

Clearly, there are good reasons for concern. Solar geoengineering would likely make the planet drier, potentially disrupting monsoons in places like India and creating drought in parts of the tropics. The technique could help eat away the protective ozone shield of our planet, and it would cause air pollution. It would also do nothing to counteract the problem of ocean
Some worry that solar geoengineering would hand politicians an easy reason to avoid emissions reductions.
acidification, which occurs when the seas absorb high levels of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Some worry that solar geoengineering would hand politicians an easy reason to avoid reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And if the impacts of climate change worsen and nations cannot agree on what scheme to deploy, or at what temperature the planet’s thermostat should be set, then conflict or even war could result as countries unilaterally begin programs to inject sulfates into the atmosphere. "My greatest concern is societal disruption and conflict between countries," says Alan Robock, a climatologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

As Keith himself summarizes, "Solar geoengineering is an extraordinarily powerful tool. But it is also dangerous."

Studies have shown that solar radiation management could be accomplished and that it would cool the planet. Last fall, Keith published a book, A Case for Climate Engineering, that lays out the practicalities of such a scheme. A fleet of ten Gulfstream jets could be used to annually inject 25,000 tons of sulfur — as finely dispersed sulfuric acid, for example — into the lower stratosphere. That would be ramped up to a million tons of sulfur per year by 2070, in order to counter about half of the world’s warming from greenhouse gases. The idea is to combine such a scheme with emissions cuts, and keep it running for about twice as long as it takes for CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to level out.

Under Keith’s projections, a world that would have warmed 2 degrees C by century’s end would instead warm 1 degree C. Keith says his "moderate, temporary" plan would help to avoid many of the problems associated with full-throttle solar geoengineering schemes that aim to counteract all of the planet’s warming, while reducing the cost of adapting to rapid climate change. He estimates this scheme would cost about $700 million annually — less than 1 percent of what is currently spent on clean energy development. If such relatively modest cost projections prove to be accurate, some individual countries could deploy solar geoengineering technologies without international agreement.
‘The thing that’s surprising is the degree to which it’s being taken more seriously,’ says one scientist.

The idea of solar geoengineering dates back at least to the 1970s; researchers have toyed with a range of ideas, including deploying giant mirrors to deflect solar energy back into space, or spraying salt water into the air to make more reflective clouds. In recent years the notion of spraying sulfates into the stratosphere has moved to the forefront. "Back in 2000 we just thought of it as a ‘what if’ thought experiment," says atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who did some of the first global climate modeling work on the concept. "In the last years, the thing that’s surprising is the degree to which it’s being taken more seriously in the policy world."

In 2010, the first major cost estimates of sulfate-spewing schemes were produced. ‎ In 2012, China listed geoengineering among its earth science research priorities. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s summary statement for policymakers controversially mentioned geoengineering for the first time in the panel’s 25-year history. And the National Academy of Sciences is working on a geoengineering report, funded in part by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Solar geoengineering cannot precisely counteract global warming. Carbon dioxide warms the planet fairly evenly, while sunshine is patchy: There’s more in the daytime, in the summer, and closer to the equator. Back in the 1990s, Caldeira was convinced that these differences would make geoengineering ineffective. "So we did these simulations, and much to our surprise it did a pretty good job," he says. The reason is that a third factor has a bigger impact on climate than either CO2 or sunlight: polar ice. If you cool the planet enough to keep that ice, says Caldeira, then this dominates the climate response.

But there are still problems. Putting a million tons of sulfur into the stratosphere each year would probably "contribute to thousands of air pollution deaths a year," Keith acknowledges. Because solar geoengineering doesn’t affect the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, ocean acidification would continue unabated. And sulfates would alter atmospheric chemistry toward formation of ozone-destroying chlorine compounds, which could lead to a moderate increase in skin cancers or ultraviolet damage to plant life. Sulfates would also make the sky a little whiter than usual and sunsets more dramatic, scientists say.
‘When you try to fix one problem you create other problems,’ warns one expert.

Basic physics shows that warming from sunlight boosts the planet’s water cycle more than warming from carbon dioxide. This is because sunlight adds more energy to the system, like turning up the heat on a stove under a pot of water, while carbon dioxide simply puts a lid on the pot. So counteracting greenhouse warming by reducing sunlight would likely make the planet drier — models predict a 1 percent reduction in rainfall for every degree Celsius of warming counteracted, says Axel Kleidon of the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany. "When you try to fix one problem you create other problems," says Kleidon, who opposes pursuing such techniques.

The Geoengineering Model Intercomparison Project (GEOMIP) recently looked at how solar alterations might affect regional climate patterns. It concluded that the tropics would be over-cooled and the poles under-cooled. While the project concluded that solar radiation management would likely protect more than 90 percent of the globe from the serious changes in rainfall predicted from climate change, summer monsoons might start to dry up, requiring a change in agriculture or water storage systems to adapt to the new climate.

The upshot is that things would get better for some people and worse for others, though the details are hard to predict. Rice production might go down in China because of water cycle changes for example, but could increase because of increased carbon dioxide to feed the plants, says Caldeira. Despite the drop in sunshine, crop productivity would probably
Keith concludes it ‘makes sense to move with deliberate haste towards deployment of [solar] geoengineering.’
increase worldwide because of higher atmospheric concentrations of CO2.

Because sulfates only remain in the atmosphere for a few years, a geoengineering program could be stopped at any time if unanticipated disaster ensues. But then the temperature would race upward as the planet readjusts to the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. If geoengineering were used to counteract 2 degrees C of warming over 50 years, for example, that 2 degrees of warming would come back quickly once the geoengineering stops. And there is no governance system at present to oversee if and how a program should start or stop. A group called The Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative has held a few workshops in recent years to discuss these questions.

Such concerns have led some people to take a hard-line stance against any kind of geoengineering. This started with environmental organizations like ETC Group protesting against iron fertilization of the seas — an idea meant to stimulate phytoplankton growth and so suck up carbon dioxide from the air, which controversially interferes with the base of the ocean’s food chain. This led to a 2008 Convention on Biological Diversity moratorium against iron fertilization, which in 2010 was expanded to any geoengineering.

These agreements are non-binding, but still have influence, even on apparently harmless experimentation. When the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) research group attempted to run a small field experiment in 2011 to spray water into the air from balloons as a way of testing a stratospheric delivery system, protestors forced the group to stop. This irritates Caldeira. "I think it’s very dangerous

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to tell scientists that an experiment with no risk in itself cannot be performed because we don’t like what it might lead to," he says.

To date, no solar geoengineering field trials have taken place, aside from a study or two looking at the idea of seeding more reflective clouds. Keith argues that some experiments would be good to test the risks and efficacy of such a strategy, and he has proposed a meeting of researchers to hash out a list of suitable work that should be done. He and his colleagues are currently planning experiments that would inject less than a hundred kilograms of aerosol material into the stratosphere in order to investigate some of the ensuing chlorine chemistry. They haven’t yet gotten to the stage of an official proposal.

But Robock argues that while modeling and indoor experiments should be pursued, outdoor field trials are problematic. "You can’t see a climate response unless an experiment is so large as to actually be geoengineering," Robock says.

Keith concludes that it "makes sense to move with deliberate haste towards deployment of geoengineering," so long as early work supports the theoretical promise of the technique. Caldeira is less bullish, saying, "Climate change is not going to extinguish us as a species. Geoengineering will always be a decision, not a necessity."



POSTED ON 09 Jan 2014 IN Climate Climate Policy & Politics Science & Technology Antarctica and the Arctic 

COMMENTS


But I thought chemtrails already aim at this purpose. Seems that if the aluminum particles are that small, they are capable of infiltrating a human brain alongside the olfactory nerves.
Posted by Marc on 09 Jan 2014


A bit of cooling at the risk of...well, the article said it, thousands of additional deaths from air pollution (and the discomfort of breathing befouled air among those who don't die or get sick), the large potential for conflict as nations haggle over where to "set the global thermostat," and the almost limitless potential for unintended consequences. From my reading, in the face of the great deal that science does not fully understand about the planetary climate system, this strikes me as hubris in the extreme. Not to mention that the promise of cooling even as we burn fossil fuels will immediately increase the mining, drilling, fracking, pumping, and other destructive practices associated with getting fuel out of the ground.
Posted by jbinsb on 09 Jan 2014


In addition to the hubris factor, unintended consequences and "unanticipated disaster" of injecting massive quantities into the atmosphere, there remains the need for a cost/benefit analysis of these projects and the cost/benefits of stopping all CO2 emissions that do not contribute to improved health and welfare of humans. We might learn that reducing consumerism is the best remedial measure.
Posted by Herb Curl on 09 Jan 2014


Isn't placing more solar panels, absorbing heat, a good alternative?
Posted by Ric Bollen on 10 Jan 2014


I'm not a scientist but it seems to me that if volcanoes have done this without ill effects, what is the problem?
Posted by Theplantman on 12 Jan 2014


Isn't this a moot point since I know for a fact that they are spraying chemtrails in Phoenix like crazy, on an almost daily basis? They need to stop what they are doing.
Posted by Iris Chiago on 12 Jan 2014


Everything being discussed by well-meaning individuals on this site shrivels to insignificance when compared to Fukushima.
Posted by Ed Salter on 14 Jan 2014


Have you met the human race? Nations and corporations are going to only agree to an easing off of fossil fuels, so a geoengineering solution that allows them to carry on for decades more, sucking up as much hydrocarbons as they can, while some people die from air pollution, and drier seasons, and some skin cancer, why that seems perfect! The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, they'll say. A thousand to save a billion they'll say. Whatever helps them sleep at night.

But to Theplantman, volcanoes do the same thing, yes, but that doesn't mean they have a positive effect on habitats and the normal cycles. The question is whether or not we can absorb such shifts (though much less dramatic than continued climate shifting) without hurting too many people, and causing damage to the environment in the process. We're always going to damage the environment, but you can't do thing willy-nilly. You have to measure it out, and weigh the consequences. If the powers that be had their way, the consequences be damned, which means us, the world, and even them. They hate regulation and caution, but it's the only thing saving us from them, and them from themselves.
Posted by Mustang55 on 15 Jan 2014


My initial reaction is that we are truly headed off the cliff when we can have serious discussions about altering the climate, but it is taboo to even consider discussing controlling population growth.
Posted by John Dyer on 15 Jan 2014


This is a topic that I have invested a great deal of study. As a graduate chemical engineer and environmental engineer, I have explored and analyzed numerous sites regarding geo-engineering, as I would have hoped the author of this article might have done. Some are crazy but many are well documented and based in solid science. In addition, I have observed the active release of chemtrails all over the US skies, and I have listened to a whistle-blower from the US Air Force who confirms the USAF's active involvement in spraying heavy metal oxides and sulfides into our atmosphere. With all due respect to the author, she has misstated the facts, namely, geoengineering is here and has been actively underway for a number of years. The government is already affecting the weather and the pH of the soils, and probably creating numerous other adverse effects. The real question is how to fully expose it and stop it. I, for one, don't want to live in a science experiment. Contrails disperse quickly while chemtrails persist for hours and eventually form wispy, feathered clouds. You only have to look up to witness what is happening!
Posted by David F. on 06 Feb 2014


This is total nonsense as blocking the sun will also mean curbing plant growth, will it not? Since we have an expanding population, that does not make much sense to me.

The action needed is making the sun our sole energy power source. That would mean no more mining and burning of fossil fuels to be causing CC/GW. That would mean being done with nuclear energy and all the messes that it engenders. It is time to recognize that we can get all the energy power we need by using the sun much more effectively! And get it with no pollution problems!

James Singmaster, III, Ph.D. UC Davis '76, Env. Chemist, Ret., Davis, CA
Posted by JJames A. Singmaster, III, Ph.D. on 11 Feb 2014


Geoengineering allows humans to avoid facing the real solution of halting development and technological progress, and allows us to continue to glorify our insignificant egos at the cost of our existence.
Posted by elp on 23 Feb 2014


Volcanic eruptions have caused the death of millions through drought and failed crops.
Posted by Versa on 28 Feb 2014


Agree that they are already geoengineering across the U.S. I have lived in Arizona for 24 years, and I for one can testify they are definitely geoengineering. How do I know? I am fair-skinned; 10 years ago I could not go in the direct sun between 10am and 2pm or risk being severely burned. Now I can go all day and barely look like I was in the sun. If this is not 100 percent proof that they are already manipulating the atmosphere, I don't know what is.
Posted by RS on 16 Mar 2014


I remember in my youth an ambitious program for progress and modernization to improve the lives of the masses of people in Egypt. Scientists designed a fabulous huge dam to raise the level of the Nile River so that hydro energy could be generated to supply cheap electricity to all of the region.

They had to take up a collection to pay for removal and relocation of the huge and ancient Abu Simbel cliff carvings that would be submerged. Some of us took up collections in grammar school.

Well, apart from the rivalry between the west and the Soviets, which Nasser used to his advantage over the project, it was eventually implemented and completed.

Among the unanticipated consequences, the Nile stopped flooding every year. That caused the soil to be rapidly depleted of all its nutrients and so agricultural output was crushed. Moreover the silt and runoff of the Nile into the Mediterranean was disrupted to the point where sardine and other fish populations died or left the region.

The project was a resounding success because millions of the poverty stricken and backward Egyptians could now watch television, run electric motors, and enjoy streetlights. Giza built an impressive sound and light show to entertain and attract tourists to the Sphinx.

The only downside, which was ignored by the press and progressives of the Western elite, was that they food supply was totally decimated causing an explosion in starvation and malnutrition among the new TV viewers. Whoops! Duh!

I realized then, at a young age, that government-sponsored technological solutions can be the most destructive and self-defeating ideas there are. Reagan said it: "Government IS the problem."

Posted by terry seale on 24 Mar 2014


Geoengineering is a way to address symptoms while ignoring the causes. It mirrors the medical industry which is more geared towards alleviating the consequences of symptoms while ignoring an actual cure. In the case of geoengineering it also allows giant corporation to conduct business as usual, which in turn keeps economies going and pleases governments. Geoengineering is also another profitable business model for the elite few involved with it.
Posted by Kevin on 16 Apr 2014


@RS:
You’ve forgotten the Ozone depletion problem already?

We shifted away from CFC’s and the Ozone layer started rebuilding. Thus, the amount of UV reaching the ground in Arizona diminished, and you experience less sunburns.

What many people probably don’t know is that ozone in the upper atmosphere only persists for a matter of minutes reduce the irritant that was causing depletion and the ozone layer rebuilds rapidly.


@terry seale:
Reagan was a tool of the 1%, who tripled the national debt in eight years and grew the size of government.

I suggest you re-examine your “government is the problem” philosophy after all, government didn’t create the global warming problem, industry did.

That stupid “hovernment is the problem” saying is the mantra for every industrialist that fears the government will ACT to solve problems and cut into their profits. They prefer doing nothing and letting other people pay the price.


@James Singmaster, III, Ph.D:

Will reducing sunlight reduce plant growth? Not so much.

Plants are evolved to maximize their solar absorption in the weak sunlight of Spring to get a jumpstart on growth. But in June, the sun is FAR too powerful for the chloroplasts to deal with.

They’d oxidize rapidly and break down, leaving the plants to starve as they desperately rebuilt their resources over and over.

So the tactic nature evolved is to “stack” the chloroplasts when the solar input is too high. They literally shift so most of them are shaded by the top chloroplast in the stack. That throttles down the energy input.

When the solar input is low, the stack disperses, to maximize solar conversion. It’s like an automatic transmission.

So reducing sunlight slightly will really have no measurable effect, especially as higher CO2 levels boost photosynthesis a LOT in C3 plants and somewhat in C4 plants.

@David F: Chemtrails are a HOAX.
The only people that believe in them are the easily misled individuals that are willing to accept psuedoscience as reality without evidence.
Posted by William Carr on 19 Apr 2014


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nicola jonesABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicola Jones is a freelance journalist based in Pemberton, British Columbia, just outside of Vancouver. With a background in chemistry and oceanography, she writes about the physical sciences, most often for the journal Nature. She has also contributed to Scientific American, Globe and Mail, and New Scientist and serves as the science journalist in residence at the University of British Columbia. Previously for Yale Environment 360, she wrote about the challenges of predicting sea level rise far into the future and how rare metal shortages might affect green technologies.

 
 

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