Engineering a cooler Earth Author(s): Erika Engelhaupt Reviewed work(s): Source: Science News, Vol. 177, No.

12 (JUNE 5, 2010), pp. 16-20 Published by: Society for Science & the Public Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25677901 . Accessed: 18/01/2012 07:46
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FEATURE

I ENGINEERING A COOLER EARTH

Engineering
Researchers

a

brainstorm radical ways to counter climate change
guidelines to regulateDNA experiments. This time around, cloud physicists, legal
scholars and government bureaucrats explain away how man-made protective chemicals ozone ate layer,

cooler

Earth

By Erika Engelhaupt
None of the scientists in the room somuch as blinked when David Keith suggested sav ing theworld with spy planes spraying sulfuric acid. Keith, a physicist at theUniversity of
Calgary other in Canada, was the Earth's

ence not likelytobe shocked: nearly 200
researchers, His some of whom had

facing

an audi

debated the relativemerits of brighten ingclouds versus building artificial trees. In the end, the meeting-goers concluded that geoengineering research should
cautiously climate rent means fossil proceed, proves fuel use. broken of repair: in case beyond ratcheting Earth's the cur down

the idea gained some traction. Geoengineers poked theirheads from the closet tentatively at first.But soon, ideasmultiplied.

theirown radical ideas forfighting global
warming. concept was to spray a mist

Keith's spray planes fall into one of the
most controversial solar categories radiation of geoen gineering: management,

Quick and dirty

of sulfuric acid high in the stratosphere to formparticles called sulfate aerosols, which would act like a sprinkling of tiny
sunshades Keith's for the overheating idea may sound Earth. outrageous,

Researchers have kicked around the since at least the 1960s,when Soviet sci entists suggested damming the Bering
Strait as part of a scheme to warm Sibe idea of large-scale climate manipulation

meant to reflect sunlight away from the Earth. As geoengineering schemes go,
solar radiation management would be

but it is just one ofmany proposals for ria and free shipping lanes of sea ice.But bumping the global thermostat down a mainstream scientific attention began couple of degrees by tinkering directly only about five years ago. In a 2006 editorial with the planet's heating and cooling sys in Climatic tems. Plans to cool theEarth range from Change, atmospheric chemist Paul shading it to fertilizing it,from seeding Crutzen suggested that sulfate aerosols clouds to building massive supersuckers might be used to intentionally cool the thatfiltergreenhouse gases from the air. planet. Coming from a scientist who The schemes are all part of a growingfield had shared the Nobel Prize forhelping
known as geoengineering: a subject once

relatively cheap and fast. Itwould also be effective: Blocking just 2 percent of
the sun's rays, scientists estimate, could

cool the planet by about 2 degrees Cel sius, roughly balancing the warming effectof doubling carbon dioxide above
preindustrial levels.

One obvious way to reflect light would be tohang something shinybetween the Earth and the sun. Such proposals feel distinctly like science fiction, ranging from a finemesh of aluminum threads hung in space to a swarm of reflective disks launched in stacks of a million
every minute for 30 years.

taboo forall but the scientific fringe, but
now beginning in computer to go mainstream. where research

Gauging publicunderstanding
a results from surveyof Preliminary Americans suggest that few 1,001 understand the term "geoengineer
ing."When participants were asked,

So far the tinkering happens mainly
models,

ers are tryingto figure out geoengineer ing's potential side effects. Yet some technologies are in the prototype stage,
governments are starting to consider

"Have you heard about geoengi neering as a possible response to global warming?":

proceed safely,and ethically,with real
world experiments.

geoengineering seriously and budding geoengineers are working out how to

74%
_ .

no Said
Said yes but incorrectly thought the term referred green building or some other issue

into the stratosphere, the atmospheric layer between about 10 and 50 kilome ters up. To scatter light effectively,the particles need to be solid. But dispers ing solid bitswithout clumping isnearly impossible, so one idea is to spray sulfur
gases that turn into solids. Keith's spray

A more popular idea among scientists is to pump tiny reflective particles high

"It truly is asking giant questions which nobody really knows the answers
to," Keith the whole says ? "like how we manage Earth."

^3 ^\ /fk

to energy, geothermal

erswould use a mist of liquid H2S04, or sulfuric acid, which forms small parti cles of the right size effectively.
Volcanoes, whose to cause emissions have long chills, been known temporary The

InMarch, Keith and other expertsmet in a dimly lit chapel-turned-auditorium
at the Asilomar resort near Monterey, landmark

10/

/0

correctly geoengineering
as a way to artificially cool the planet

Said yes and described

inspired the idea of using sulfate aero
sols as climate coolers. 1991 erup

z cc UJ tn z UJ o cc o < i o 5

Calif. In 1975,molecular biologists met
at the 16 same resort NEWS to write

SOURCE: ANTHONY UNIVERSITY LEISEROWITZ/YALE

Mount Pinatubo inthePhilippines tionof released about 20 million metric tons of

I SCIENCE

I June 5, 2010

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FEATURE

I ENGINEERING A COOLER EARTH themhigher, they stayup longerbecause
they're above the clouds, which means

sulfurous gases and cooled the planet by
half a degree formore need than a year. Geoen to spray that much, gineers wouldn't

because particles shot directly into the stratospherewould coolmore efficiently
than volcanoes. To reflect 2 percent of

they aren't raining out as acid rain all
the time."

Seeing white would be to Another way to reflect light
harness the Earth's built-in solar reflec tors, clouds. there whiter could ones, And where be more some there are clouds, ? or at least clouds say.

A different problem is that aerosols
can damage the stratospheric known once common have ozone layer. Chemicals carbons, cans and or CFCs, as chlorofluoro in spray depleted

researchers

geoengineers would need incoming light, to spraybetween 1 million and 5million
metric tons of sulfur each year.

One leading geoengineering
to spray and the a mist of seawater

idea is

into clouds

A single firehose to the stratosphere, running constantly, could potentially deliver enough. The cost? An estimated $10 billion per year to cool the planet
2 degrees. The even environmental bigger question, effects scientists are an say. For

the ozone layer globally, and in partic
ular over Antarctica. Now that CFCs

refrigerants,

over the ocean to make
brighter. spray would Sea-salt add more

them whiter
particles "seeds" in to

are being phased out by a global treaty,
ozone has been slowly recovering. But

the air on which water vapor could
condense, forming amplifying process. the natural cloud

one thing, sulfur sprayingwould lead to whiter daytime skies and bolder, redder
sunsets, scatter because off aerosol question, of the way particles. at least at first, was the sun's rays

spraying enough sulfate aerosols in the stratosphere to push back the effects of global warming by 40 years would delay the recovery of theAntarctic ozone hole by about 30 years, according to a 2009 paper
An effect

in the Journal
more

of Geophysical
potential

A fleet of 1,500 remote-controlled spray ships could whiten clouds enough to offsetthe warming created by doubled says engineer Stephen Salter of the C02, University ofEdinburgh inScotland. He and John Latham of theNational Center forAtmospheric Research in Boulder,
even developed a working proto

Research-Atmospheres. even worrying is on precipitation, says meteorol

Another

whether spraying sulfur in the strato spherewould, like sulfurpollution from power plants, cause problems with acid rain and air quality. But where in the a big difference, says physicist Jason Blackstock of the International Institute forApplied Systems Analysis in Lax thatwe would put in the stratosphere would be the same as those which cause acid rain now," he says. "But by putting Cool but different Models suggestthat
enburg, Austria. "The sulfate particles atmosphere sulfur is released makes

Colo.,

ogistAlan Robock ofRutgers University inNew Brunswick, N.J. Injecting sulfur gas could reduce rain delivered during
the Asian and African summer mon

type spray ship. One challenge:
comes affect rain. So precipitation

along with clouds
seeding patterns, can also as new

cloud

soons,which 2 billion people rely on for growing food,by as much as 15 percent, Robock and his colleagues reported in theJournal ofGeophysical Research in
2008. That would make the new aver

computer model
and colleagues

studies by Latham
In simulations of

show.

cloud seeding across 20 to 70 percent
of the ocean's surface area, less pre

age rainfall "the equivalent of theworst
monsoon produce year now, and weather years with than that," he would precip says. bad monsoon lower

cipitation fell at the equator but more
fell over the Amazon period, region on average reported Let over a 20-year last year the team

inEnvironmental

Research

itation much

into the stratosphere would injecting aerosols change temperature and precipitation invari able patterns. Shown are worlds with C02 levels doubled since preindustrial times, without (left) and with (right)geoengineering. change, in degrees Celsius

Temperature

In principle, injecting sulfur in the right way could minimize precipita tion changes, says climate modeler Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif. Inject ing aerosols uniformly around the globe would result in less disruption

ters. Other work by Caldeira and his col leagues suggests that brightening ocean clouds would generally increase rainfall
over the ocean but decrease it over land.

Models by Philip Rasch, a climate sci entist at the Pacific Northwest National
Laboratory works with in Richland, Latham's Wash., team, also who show

^^"^^2^1
Precipitation

-.50 .50 ?M^msm^^
change, inmillimeters/year

of global precipitation patterns than focusing injection at the poles, a strat egy some have suggested for saving the ice caps, Caldeira reported inFebruary in San Diego at a meeting of theAmeri
can Association of Science. for the Advancement In fact, he would used said, seem a geoengi more like a cli

that high levels of cloud seeding could cool theArctic enough to restore disap pearing sea ice.But the team can't find a
way tomaintain sea

precipitation at desired levels at the same time. "You could optimize the planet to
produce like a sea-ice but distribution then that looks and says. today's, temperature

ice, temperature

and

neered

climate

the one we're

to than would

precipitation

would

be off," Rasch Like

mate with doubled C02 levels. Still, he

What's more, reflecting light is no
solution. a celebrity

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18 I SCIENCE NEWS

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I June 5, 2010

noted, to cause

"stratospheric some damage

aerosols in some

are

likely

permanent

places."

addicted to painkillers, a planet hooked

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Effectiveness: ^ ^

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Timeliness:

Effectiveness:

: ________ __________

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Timeliness

_effect Slow-acting and/or slow to deploy

C02 the air and stored u nd e rgro iffecttwr^^ u nd, i effect the ocean or as solids. Cost: Effectiveness: Timeliness: Cost:

air capture is sucked from

^

A; Ocean n sti Cost: Effectiveness: Effectiveness: < Timeliness: Timeliness: has rated geoengineering techniques according to cost, effectiveness would cause cooling). could be deployed and how fast it fertilization Cloud Spray m i brightens Seeding seas with iron m u ate s p a n kton I I to suck up more C02. seeding ships create a st of seawate r that clouds.

Fast-acting and/or quick , to deploy

Five

The United Kingdom's Royal Society to save the planet ways (cooling power) and timeliness (considering both how quickly a technology

on sulfur particles or cloud seeding would need to keep its fixcoming to stay cool; turnoffthe juice, and temperatures climb rightback up. And any solarman agement plan does nothing to counteract
ecosystem-wide changes caused other

designed air-capture systems.Using dif
ferent industrial processes, stream each system stored

would absorb and separate out C02 from
the air. That pure and can be

twoyears itsprototype unitswill capture a ton a day for less than $100 per ton. aren't the only way to Machines
absorb C02. Some researchers are work

in geological formations, as is done in
carbon capture Canada storage elsewhere. systems for

ing on fertilizing ocean plankton with
iron to stimulate their growth, enhanc

by rising C02 levels, such as the ris ing acidity of the oceans as they absorb
more

power plants being tested in theUnited
States, and

methods would work only as a stopgap to head off theworst effectsof warming while greenhouse gas levels are brought down by burning less fossil fuel. Slow but sure
As an alternative, carbon many dioxide champion ber researchers ? tak removal

C02.

So most

scientists

say these

At the Asilomar meeting, Keith announced that he plans to build an
air-capture tons than of C02 $100 prototype over the next few

ingnatural C02 uptake. Other scientists are looking into using large pipes to
churn face nutrient-rich for the same private waters effect. companies results. have to the sur

Several

years. Each unit could lock up 100,000
per per year, at a cost that rate, of more absorb ton. At

launched
recent

iron fertilization efforts in
but with mixed One

years,

ing all the C02 that the United States
emits each year would units. More cost more than

killed its project when facedwith envi
ronmental concerns, while another faces

ingC02 from the air using any of a num
of materials, it keeps such as sodium

$580 billion annually and take 58,000
air-capture realistically,

hydroxide. This solution is essentially
permanent, oceans from acidify

ing and ithas few side effects. But it is storage expensive and couldmean finding
for billions of tons of carbon-containing

Keith hopes to improve the system's efficiency and lock up as much carbon as possible while also cutting emissions. Meanwhile, Lackner is developing his Tucson facility through a partnership between Columbia and the company he
cofounded, Global Research Technolo capture devices in a 10,000-square-foot

continuing scientific questions about howmuch carbon dioxide is sequestered by plankton sinking into the deep ocean and how much is returned to the atmo
sphere as plankton decompose.

Moving
Despite

ahead
such uncertainties, public inter

CO Q

stuff each year (SN: 5/10/08,p. 18). Klaus Lackner of Columbia Uni versity and Calgary's Keith have both

est in geoengineering has snowballed in
recent months. The U.S. House of Repre

within gies. The company estimates that
www.sciencenews.org

sentatives held hearings to learn about November andMarch, geoengineering in
June 5, 2010 I SCIENCE NEWS I 19

FEATURE

I ENGINEERING A COOLER EARTH
issue recommendations research. for regulating

and the Government Accountability
Office has launched a major assess

ment.

tion with the Academy of Sciences forthe Developing World and theEnvironmen talDefense Fund, that late this yearwill

In September 2009 the Royal Society, the United Kingdom's leading scientific body, called for ?100 million ingovernment funding forgeoengineer ing research over the next 10 years. The society isalso leading a study,incoopera

If funding can be found, several geo engineering technologies could be tested in real-world experiments within a few years.Working with Aurora Flight Sci
ences in Manassas, Va., Keith's

geoengineering

would be used only to test themechan ics of spraying and perhaps study atmo spheric chemistry.
But sulfur spraying raises even a small questions, amount such

one-millionth the amount proposed for altering climate, so such an experiment

of as

has estimated that a civilian version of a U-2 spy plane could be adapted for less than $10 million to spray a ton of sul fur.That amount of sulfur is less than

group

major

Desperate

As climate researchers have grown increasingly alarmed byvanishing sea ice and faster-than-expected growth ingreenhouse gas emissions, geoengineering has become less of a laughing matter inscientificcircles. "Emissions reduc tion alone is not going to cause the Earth to start cooling this century," says for Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution Science inStanford,Calif. Even if all C02 emissions stopped today,he says, temperatureswould increase for not centuries, warming the Earth by at least another half a degree decades, if Celsius as oceans slowly release stored heat. Without a dramatic turnaroundin will probablyovershoot emissions, C02 levels targets scientists consider safe, says Steve Schneider, a climate scientist at Stanford University. Today's atmospheric C02 level is380 parts permillion, compared with 280 ppm in1850. Schneider has longadvocated a 350 ppm
goal?already surpassed?but , No emission cuts

times and desperate measures

lomar, scientists called for the develop ment of voluntary guidelines because there is no major treaty or law that
clearly covers geoengineering.

what could gowrong and who is respon sible ifsomething does. No international authority is in charge of sayingwhether Keith can do such an experiment.At Asi

Even to scientists who take the idea seriously, the prospect of actually fid dling with the planet's climate on pur pose is frightening."If you'd asked me a decade ago, Iwould have said that study ing these issues is problematic, because the more you know how to do it, the greater the possibility that someone
will do it," says M.

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even 450 ppm, a typicaltarget in international negotiations, is fast approaching (SN: 12/5/09, p. 16). Geoengineeringmethods mightwork "as a temporary palliativemeasure youwould use to hold the peak down, while you'reworkingon carbon removaland tremendously
increasing mitigation," he says.

applied physicist who heads a research program at Carnegie Mellon University inPittsburgh that examines solar radia
tion management. he "But "I don't want to see

Granger

Morgan,

an

theworld do this; Iwant to abate emis
sions," says. I think we're at the

would be amistake not to pointwhere it better understand what might be pos sible orwhether it might work." Then again, not fiddling with the
climate

amounts of geoen Implementingdifferent (low,medium or high approaches gineering shown here) would result indiffering amounts of predicted temperature rises.

The idea of using geoengi neering to "shave the top" off a temperaturepeak stirsmixed

know the risks of C02 are serious too," Keith said at Asilomar. That makes geoengineering a lot like chemotherapy, inhis view. "Would you prefer to avoid eating
or have chemotherapy?" would rather avoid "Everybody

is just

as

scary

to some.

"We

feelings. "Deep down, Ithink it'sa bad idea," says ecologist Rob Jackson of Duke Universityin Durham, N.C. "Butwhat are we going to do? I
can see scenarios now where we don't have any other choice."

carcinogens he asks.

Scientists don't agree on whether geoengineering should be seen as part of an ongoing global temperaturemanagement plan or only as a possible last-ditch effort.But many do agree that geoengineers need to get cracking
now on research and development.

you sick and make your hair fall out." ? and sometimes always work the patient.
And, of course, chemotherapy

the carcinogens, but if you already have cancer you might prefer chemotherapy to dying, even though chemo will leave
doesn't

it kills

ened with famine?" Caldeira says. "We'd better tryto understand if there is we could do, because there's no otherway to realisticallystop the something Earth from ?Erika Engelhaupt warming during the course of this century."

"What happens if in2040 or 2060 temperature increases are so high that crops are failingthroughouttropical regions and billions of people are threat

Explore more Read the Royal Society's geoengineer at ingreport http://royalsociety.org/
geoengineering-the-climate/

o o CM o UJ o CO LU _1 g
oill cc _ o CO

20

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NEWS

I June 5, 2010

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