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20 Reasons Why Geoengineering Alan Robock

20 Reasons Why Geoengineering Alan Robock

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14
 
Bulletin of the Atomic ScientiStS
 
MAY/JUNE 2008
he stated objective of the
1992
U.N. Framework Convention on Cli-mate Change is to stabilize greenhousegas concentrations in the atmosphere “ata level that would prevent dangerous an-thropogenic interference with the climatesystem.” Though the framework conven-tion did not define “dangerous,” that levelis now generally considered to be about450 parts per million (ppm) of carbon di-oxide in the atmosphere; the current con-centration is about 385 ppm, up from 280ppm before the Industrial Revolution.In light of society’s failure to act con-certedly to deal with global warming inspite of the framework convention agree-ment, two prominent atmospheric sci-entists recently suggested that humansconsider geoengineering—in this case,deliberate modification of the climate toachieve specific effects such as cooling—to address global warming. Nobel laure-ate Paul Crutzen, who is well regardedfor his work on ozone damage and nucle-ar winter, spearheaded a special August2006 issue of 
Climatic Change
with a con-troversial editorial about injecting sulfateaerosols into the stratosphere as a meansto block sunlight and cool Earth. Anotherrespected climate scientist, Tom Wigley,followed up with a feasibility study in
Sci-ence
that advocated the same approach incombination with emissions reduction.
1
The idea of geoengineering traces itsgenesis to military strategy during theearly years of the Cold War, when sci-entists in the United States and the So-viet Union devoted considerable fundsand research efforts to controlling theweather. Some early geoengineeringtheories involved damming the Straitof Gibraltar and the Bering Strait as away to
warm
the Arctic, making Siberiamore habitable.
2
Since scientists becameaware of rising concentrations of atmo-spheric carbon dioxide, however, somehave proposed artificially altering cli-mate and weather patterns to reverse ormask the effects of global warming.Some geoengineering schemes aim toremove carbon dioxide from the atmo-sphere, through natural or mechanicalmeans. Ocean fertilization, where irondust is dumped into the open ocean totrigger algal blooms; genetic modifica-tion of crops to increase biotic carbonuptake; carbon capture and storage tech-niques such as those proposed to outfitcoal plants; and planting forests are suchexamples. Other schemes involve block-ing or reflecting incoming solar radia-tion, for example by spraying seawaterhundreds of meters into the air to seedthe formation of stratocumulus cloudsover the subtropical ocean.
3
 Two strategies to reduce incom-ing solar radiation—stratospheric aero-sol injection as proposed by Crutzenand space-based sun shields (i.e., mir-rors or shades placed in orbit betweenthe sun and Earth)—are among themost widely discussed geoengineeringschemes in scientific circles. While theseschemes (if they could be built) wouldcool Earth, they might also have adverseconsequences. Several papers in the Au-gust 2006
Climatic Change
discussedsome of these issues, but here I present afairly comprehensive list of reasons whygeoengineering might be a bad idea, firstwritten down during a two-day NASA-
20 ess why eeeemy e  d de
Cabn dixide emissins ae isings fast that sme scientists ae seiusycnsideing putting Eath n ife supptas a ast est. But is this cue wsethan the disease?
BY AlAN roBoCk
T
   J   o   N    H   A   N
Vol. 64, No. 2, p. 14-18, 59DOI: 10.2968/064002006
 
MAY/JUNE 2008
Bulletin of the Atomic ScientiStS
 
15
sponsored conference on Managing SolarRadiation (a rather audacious title) in No-vember 2006.
4
These concerns addressunknowns in climate system response; ef-fects on human quality of life; and the po-litical, ethical, and moral issues raised.
1. Effects on regional climate.
Geo-engineering proponents often suggestthat volcanic eruptions are an innocuousnatural analog for stratospheric injectionof sulfate aerosols. The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo on the Philippine is-land of Luzon, which injected 20 mega-tons of sulfur dioxide gas into the strato-sphere, produced a sulfate aerosol cloudthat is said to have caused global cool-ing for a couple of years without adverseeffects. However, researchers at the Na-tional Center for Atmospheric Researchshowed in 2007 that the Pinatubo erup-tion caused large hydrological respons-es, including reduced precipitation, soilmoisture, and river flow in many re-gions.
5
Simulations of the climate re-sponse to volcanic eruptions have alsoshown large impacts on regional climate,but whether these are good analogs forthe geoengineering response requiresfurther investigation.Scientists have also seen volcaniceruptions in the tropics produce changesin atmospheric circulation, causing win-ter warming over continents in theNorthern Hemisphere, as well as erup-tions at high latitudes weaken the Asianand African monsoons, causing reducedprecipitation.
6
In fact, the eight-month-long eruption of the Laki fissure in Ice-land in 1783–1784 contributed to faminein Africa, India, and Japan.If scientists and engineers were able toinject smaller amounts of stratosphericaerosols than result from volcanic erup-tions, how would they affect summerwind and precipitation patterns? Couldattempts to geoengineer isolated regions(say, the Arctic) be confined there? Sci-entists need to investigate these scenari-os. At the fall 2007 American GeophysicalUnion meeting, researchers presentedpreliminary findings from several dif-ferent climate models that simulatedgeoengineering schemes and found thatthey reduced precipitation over wide re-gions, condemning hundreds of millionsof people to drought.
2. Continued ocean acidification.
If humans adopted geoengineering asa solution to global warming, with norestriction on continued carbon emis-sions, the ocean would continue to be-come more acidic, because about half of all excess carbon dioxide in the atmo-sphere is removed by ocean uptake. Theocean is already 30 percent more acidicthan it was before the Industrial Revolu-tion, and continued acidification threat-ens the entire oceanic biological chain,from coral reefs right up to humans.
7
3. Ozone depletion.
Aerosol particlesin the stratosphere serve as surfaces forchemical reactions that destroy ozone inthe same way that water and nitric acidaerosols in polar stratospheric cloudsproduce the seasonal Antarctic ozonehole.
8
For the next four decades or so,when the concentration of anthropo-genic ozone-depleting substances willstill be large enough in the stratosphere
 
16
 
Bulletin of the Atomic ScientiStS
 
MAY/JUNE 2008
to produce this effect, additional aero-sols from geoengineering would destroyeven more ozone and increase damagingultraviolet flux to Earth’s surface.
4. Effects on plants.
S
unlight scat-ters as it passes through stratosphericaerosols, reducing direct solar radia-tion and increasing diffuse radiation,with important biological consequences.Some studies, including one that mea-sured this effect in trees following theMount Pinatubo eruption, suggest thatdiffuse radiation allows plant canopiesto photosynthesize more efficiently,thus increasing their capacity as a car-bon sink.
9
At the same time, insertingaerosols or reflective disks into the at-mosphere would reduce the total sun-light to reach Earth’s surface. Scientistsneed to assess the impacts on crops andnatural vegetation of reductions in total,diffuse, and direct solar radiation.
5. More acid deposition.
If sulfate isinjected regularly into the stratosphere,no matter where on Earth, acid deposi-tion will increase as the material pass-es through the troposphere—the atmo-spheric layer closest to Earth’s surface.In 1977, Russian climatologist MikhailBudyko calculated that the additionalacidity caused by sulfate injections wouldbe negligibly greater than levels that re-sulted from air pollution.
10
But the rele-vant quantity is the
total
amount of acidthat reaches the ground, including bothwet (acid rain, snow, and fog) and dry de-position (acidic gases and particles). Anyadditional acid deposition would harmthe ecosystem, and it will be important tounderstand the consequences of exceed-ing different biological thresholds. Fur-thermore, more acidic particles in the tro-posphere would affect public health. Theeffect may not be large compared to theimpact of pollution in urban areas, but inpristine areas it could be significant.
6. Effects of cirrus clouds.
As aerosolparticles injected into the stratospherefall to Earth, they may seed cirrus cloudformations in the troposphere.
11
Cirrusclouds affect Earth’s radiative balanceof incoming and outgoing heat, althoughthe amplitude and even direction of theeffects are not well understood. Whileevidence exists that some volcanic aero-sols form cirrus clouds, the global effecthas not been quantified.
12
7. Whitening of the sky (but nicesunsets).
Atmospheric aerosols close tothe size of the wavelength of light producea white, cloudy appearance to the sky.They also contribute to colorful sunsets,similar to those that occur after volcaniceruptions. The red and yellow sky in
TheScream
by Edvard Munch was inspiredby the brilliant sunsets he witnessed overOslo in 1883, following the eruption of Krakatau in Indonesia.
13
Both the disap-pearance of blue skies and the appearanceof red sunsets could have strong psycho-logical impacts on humanity.
8. Less sun for solar power.
Scien-tists estimate that as little as a 1.8 percentreduction in incoming solar radiationwould compensate for a doubling of at-mospheric carbon dioxide. Even thissmall reduction would significantly affectthe radiation available for solar powersystems—one of the prime alternatemethods of generating clean energy—as the response of different solar powersystems to total available sunlight is notlinear. This is especially true for someof the most efficiently designed systemsthat reflect or focus direct solar radiationon one location for direct heating.
14
Fol-lowing the Mount Pinatubo eruption andthe 1982 eruption of El Chichón in Mex-ico, scientists observed a direct solar ra-diation decrease of 25–35 percent.
15
 
9. Environmental impacts of im-plementation.
Any system that couldinject aerosols into the stratosphere, i.e.,commercial jetliners with sulfur mixedinto their fuel, 16-inch naval rifles firing1-ton shells of dust vertically into the air,or hoses suspended from stratosphericballoons, would cause enormous envi-ronmental damage. The same could besaid for systems that would deploy sun
capitalizing on carbon
W
ithut maet incentives, geengineeing schemes t efect sa heat aesti agey cnfined t ceative thught and atists’ endeings. But a fewambitius entepeneus have begun t expeiment with pivatizing cimatemitigatin thugh cabn sequestatin. Hee ae a few cmpanies in the maet tffset yu cabn ftpint:Caifnia-based techngy statups Pants and Cims ae pehaps the mstpminent gups ffeing t se cabn ffsets in exchange f pefming ceanin fetiizatin, which induces bms f cabn-eating phytpantn. Funding fPants died up in eay 2008 as scientists gew inceasingy septica abut thetechnique, but Cims has managed t pess n, secuing $3.5 miin in funding fmBaema Enegy Ventues as f Febuay.As in the eseach and devepment phase is Sydney, Austaia–based oceanNuishment Cpatin, which simiay aims t induce ceanic phtsynthesis, nyit fetiizes with nitgen-ich uea instead f in. Atmcean, based in Santa Fe, NewMexic, taes a sighty diffeent tac: It’s deveped a 200-mete deep, wave-pweedpump that bings cde, me bita-ich wate up t the suface whee ifefms suchas tiny, tube-ie saps sequeste cabn as they feed n agae.reated in missin if nt in name, statinay cabn-captue techngies, whichgeneay aen’t cnsideed geengineeing, ae nnetheess equay inventive: Synic,a Texas-based statup, captues cabn dixide at pwe pants (a eativey we- pven techngy) and mixes it with sdium hydxide t ende high-gade baingsda. A pit vesin f the system is peating at the Bwn Steam Eectic Statinin Faified, Texas. T the west in Tucsn, Aizna, Gba reseach Techngies, theny cmpany in the wd dedicated t cabn captue fm ambient ai, ecenty dem-nstated a wing “ai extactin” pttype—a ind f cabn dixide vacuum thatstands upight and is abut the size f a phne bth. Meanwhie, GeenFue Techn-gies Cpatin, in cabatin with Aizna Pubic Sevice Cmpany, is ecycingcabn dixide emissins fm pwe pants by using it t gw bifue stc in thefm f—what ese?—agae. kIrSTEN JErCH

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