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Engineering a Cooler Earth

Engineering a Cooler Earth

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Published by: Thomas Bonde on Jan 18, 2012
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Engineering a cooler EarthAuthor(s): Erika EngelhauptReviewed work(s):Source:
Science News,
Vol. 177, No. 12 (JUNE 5, 2010), pp. 16-20Published by:
Stable URL:
Accessed: 18/01/2012 07:46
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FEATUREI ENGINEERING ACOOLEREARTH
EngineeringacoolerEarth
Researchersbrainstormradicalwaystocounterclimatechange
ByErikaEngelhaupt
None ofthe scientists in theroom somuchasblinked whenDavid Keithsuggestedsavingtheworld withspyplanessprayingsulfuric acid.Keith,aphysicistattheUniversityof
CalgaryinCanada,wasfacinganaudi
encenotlikelytobe shocked:nearly200
otherresearchers,someof whom had
theirownradical ideas forighting lobal
warming.Hisconceptwastosprayamist
of sulfuric acidhighinthestratospheretoformparticlescalled sulfateaerosols,which wouldactlikeasprinklingoftiny
sunshades fortheoverheatingEarth.Keith's ideamaysoundoutrageous,
butitisjustoneofmanyproposalsforbumpingtheglobalthermostat downacoupleofdegrees by tinkeringdirectlywith theplanet'sheatingandcoolingsystems. Planstocool theEarthrangefromshadingittofertilizingit,fromseedingcloudstobuildingmassivesupersuckersthatfiltergreenhousegasesfrom theair.The schemesareallpartofagrowingfield
knownasgeoengineering:asubjectonce
taboo for ll but thescientificfringe,ut
nowbeginningtogomainstream.
Sofarthetinkering happensmainly
incomputermodels,where research
ers aretryingofigureoutgeoengineering's potentialside effects.Yetsometechnologiesarein theprototype stage,
governmentsarestartingtoconsider
geoengineering seriouslyandbuddinggeoengineersareworkingouthowtoproceedsafely,ndethically,withreal
worldexperiments.
"Ittrulyisasking giant questionswhichnobody reallyknows theanswers
to,"Keithsays?"like howwemanagethewhole Earth."
InMarch,Keith andotherexpertsmetinadimlylitchapel-turned-auditorium
attheAsilomarresortnearMonterey,
Calif.In1975,molecularbiologistsmet
atthesameresorttowritelandmark
guidelinestoregulateDNAexperiments.Thistimearound,cloudphysicists, legal
scholars andgovernmentbureaucrats
debated therelativemerits ofbrighteningloudsversusbuildingartificialtrees.In theend,themeeting-goersconcludedthatgeoengineeringresearchshould
cautiously proceed,incaseEarth'sclimateprovesbrokenbeyondthecurrentmeansofrepair:ratchetingdownfossilfueluse.
Researchershave kickedaround the
ideaoflarge-scaleclimatemanipulation
sinceatleast the1960s,whenSoviet scientistssuggested dammingtheBering
StraitaspartofaschemetowarmSibe
riaand freeshippinglanes ofseaice.Butmainstreamscientificattentionbegan
onlyabout fiveyearsago.
Ina2006editorial inClimaticChange, atmosphericchemist PaulCrutzensuggestedthatsulfate aerosolsmightbe usedtointentionallycool theplanet.Comingfromascientist whohad sharedtheNobel Prize forhelping
Gaugingpublicunderstanding
Preliminaryesultsfromsurveyf1,001Americanssuggestthatfewunderstand theterm"geoengineer
ing."Whenparticipantswereasked,
"Haveyouheard aboutgeoengineeringasapossibleresponsetoglobalwarming?":
74%Saido
Saidyesbutincorrectly_.thoughtthetermreferred
^3 ^\ /fktoeothermalnergy,
greenbuildingor someother issueSaidyesanddescribed
10/geoengineeringorrectly
/0as awaytoartificiallycool theplanetSOURCE: NTHONYEISEROWITZ/YALENIVERSITYexplainhowman-madechemicalsateawaythe Earth'sprotectiveozonelayer,
theideagainedsometraction.Geoengineers pokedtheirheads fromthe closettentativelyatfirst.Butsoon,ideasmultiplied.
Quickanddirty
Keith'ssprayplanesfallintooneof the
mostcontroversialcategoriesofgeoengineering:solar radiationmanagement,
meant toreflectsunlightawayfrom theEarth.Asgeoengineeringschemesgo,
solarradiationmanagementwould be
relatively cheapand fast.Itwould alsobeeffective:Blocking just2percentof
thesun'srays,scientistsestimate,could
cool theplanetbyabout2degreesCelsius,roughly balancingthewarmingeffect ofdoublingcarbondioxideabove
preindustriallevels.
Oneobviouswaytoreflectightouldbetohang something shinybetweentheEarth and thesun.Suchproposalsfeeldistinctlylike sciencefiction,rangingfromafinemesh of aluminumthreadshunginspacetoa swarmof reflectivediskslaunchedinstacks ofamillion
everyminute for30years.
Amorepopularideaamongscientistsistopumptinyreflectiveparticleshighinto thestratosphere,theatmosphericlayerbetween about10and50kilometersup.Toscatterlight effectively,theparticlesneedtobe solid.Butdispersingsolid bitswithoutclumpingisnearlyimpossible,so oneidea istospraysulfur
gasesthat turninto solids. Keith'sspray
erswoulduse amistofliquidH2S04,orsulfuricacid,which forms smallparticles of therightsizeeffectively.
Volcanoes,whoseemissionshavelongbeen knowntocausetemporarychills,
inspiredthe ideaofusingsulfateaero
solsasclimatecoolers.The 1991erup
tionofMountPinatubointhe Philippinesreleasedabout20 millionmetric tonsofzccUJtnzUJocco<io5
16I SCIENCE NEWSIJune5,2010www.sciencenews.org
 
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