You are on page 1of 6
Engineering a cooler Earth Author(s): Erika Engelhaupt Reviewed work(s): Source: Science News , Vol. 177

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

Accessed: 18/01/2012 07:46

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org. Society for Science & the Public is collaborating with

Society for Science & the Public is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Science News.

http://www.jstor.org

FEATURE

I ENGINEERING A COOLER EARTH

Engineering

Researchers

a

cooler

brainstorm radical ways

By Erika Engelhaupt

Earth

to counter climate change

None of the scientists

in the

room somuch as blinkedwhen

suggested ing theworld with spy planes

David Keith

sav

spraying sulfuric acid.

Keith, a physicist at the University of

Calgary

in Canada,

was

facing

an

audi

ence not likely tobe shocked: nearly 200

other

researchers,

some

of whom

had

theirown radical ideas for fightingglobal

warming.

His

concept

was

to spray a mist

of sulfuric acid high in the stratosphere

to form particles called sulfate aerosols,

which would act likea sprinkling of tiny

sunshades

Keith's

for the overheating

idea may

sound

Earth.

outrageous,

but it is just one of many proposals for bumping the global thermostat down a

couple of degrees by tinkering directly with the planet's heating and cooling sys tems.Plans to cool theEarth range from

shading it to fertilizing it, from seeding clouds to building massive supersuckers thatfilter greenhouse gases fromthe air. The schemes are all part ofa growing field

guidelines to regulate DNA experiments.

This time around, cloud physicists, legal

scholars

and

government

bureaucrats

debated the relativemerits of brighten ing clouds versus building artificialtrees.

In the end, the meeting-goers concluded

that geoengineering

research should

cautiously

climate

rent means

proceed,

broken

proves

of repair:

in

case

beyond

ratcheting

Earth's

the cur

down

fossil

fuel use.

Researchers have kicked around the

idea of large-scale

climate

manipulation

since at least the 1960s, when Soviet sci

entists suggested damming the Bering

Strait

as part

of a scheme

to warm

ria and free shipping lanes of sea

Sibe

ice.But

mainstream

scientific attention began

only

In

about

five years

ago.

a

2006

editorial

in Climatic

Change, atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen suggested that sulfate aerosols

might be used to intentionally cool the planet. Coming from a scientist who had shared theNobel Prize for helping

known

as geoengineering:

a subject

once

Gaugingpublicunderstanding Preliminary resultsfroma survey of 1,001 Americans suggest thatfew understand the term
Gaugingpublicunderstanding
Preliminary resultsfroma survey of
1,001 Americans suggest thatfew
understand the term "geoengineer
were
ing." When
participants
asked,
"Have you heard about geoengi
neering as a possible response to
global warming?":
Saidno
74%
Said yes but incorrectly
.
the term referred
_ thought
to geothermalenergy,
^3 ^\
/fk
green building or some
other issue
Said yes and described
geoengineeringcorrectly
10/
/0
as a way to artificially
cool the planet
SOURCE:ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ/YALE UNIVERSITY

taboo forall but the scientific fringe, but

now beginning

to go mainstream.

So far the tinkering happens mainly

in computer

models,

where

research

ers are trying to figure out geoengineer ing's potential side effects. Yet some

technologies are in the prototype stage,

governments

are

starting

to consider

geoengineering seriously and budding geoengineers are working out how to

proceed safely, and ethically, with real

world

experiments.

"It truly is asking giant questions which nobody really knows the answers

to," Keith

the whole

?

says

Earth."

"like

how

we

manage

In March, Keith and other experts met

ina dimly lit chapel-turned-auditorium

at the Asilomar

resort

near

Monterey,

Calif. In 1975, molecular biologists met

at

the

same

resort

16

I SCIENCE

NEWS

to write

landmark

I June 5, 2010

www.sciencenews.org

explain

away

how

the Earth's

man-made

protective

chemicals

ozone

ate

layer,

the idea gained some traction.

Geoengineers poked theirheads from

the closet tentatively at first.But soon, ideas multiplied.

Quick and dirty

Keith's spray planes fall into one of the

most

controversial

gineering:

solar

categories

of geoen

radiation

management,

meant to reflect sunlight away from the

Earth. As geoengineering

solar

radiation

management

schemes go,

would

be

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

effectof doubling carbon dioxide above

the warming

preindustrial

levels.

One obvious way to reflect light would

be to hang something shiny between 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.

A more popular idea among scientists

is to pump tiny reflective particles high

into the stratosphere, the atmospheric layer between about 10 and 50 kilome

ters up. To scatter lighteffectively, the particles need to be solid. But dispers ing solid bitswithout clumping is nearly

impossible, so one idea is to spray sulfur

gases

that turn

into solids.

Keith's

spray

erswould use amist of liquidH2S04, or

sulfuric acid, which forms small parti

cles of the right size effectively.

Volcanoes,

whose

emissions

have

long

been

known

inspired the

sols

as climate

to cause

temporary

chills,

idea of using sulfate aero

coolers.

The

1991

erup

tionofMount Pinatubo inthe Philippines released about 20 million metric tons of

z

cc

UJ

tn

z

UJ

o

cc

o

<

i

o

5

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ - d^^^^^^^H ^ ^ ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ cleansethe excess atmosphere
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
- d^^^^^^^H
^ ^
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
cleansethe excess atmosphere

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^h

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^h

FEATURE

I ENGINEERING A COOLER EARTH

sulfurous gases and cooled the planet by

half a degree

gineers wouldn't

for more

need

than a year. Geoen

to spray that much,

because particles shot directly into the

stratosphere would coolmore efficiently

than volcanoes.

To

reflect

2 percent

of

incoming light,geoengineers would need to spray between 1million and 5million

metric

tons of sulfur

each

year.

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

environmental

even

bigger

question,

effects

scientists

are

an

say. For

one thing, sulfur spraying would lead to whiter daytime skies and bolder, redder

sunsets, because

scatter

off aerosol

of the way

particles.

Another

question,

at least

the sun's

rays

at first, was

whether spraying sulfur in the strato

spherewould, like sulfur pollution from power plants, cause problems with acid

rain and air quality. But where

in the

atmosphere

sulfur

is released

makes

a big difference, says physicist Jason Blackstock of the International Institute

for Applied Systems Analysis in Lax

enburg,

Austria.

"The

sulfate

particles

thatwe would put in the stratosphere would be the same as thosewhich cause

acid rain now," he says. "But by putting

Cool but different Models suggest that

injecting aerosols

into the stratosphere

would

change temperature and precipitation invari able patterns. Shown are worlds with C02 levels

doubled since preindustrial times, without (left)

and with (right)geoengineering.

Temperature

change,

in degrees

Celsius

-.50 .50 ?M^msm^^
-.50 .50 ?M^msm^^

^^"^^2^1

Precipitation

in millimeters/year

^^T^T^^^)-.25 .25 .50^^T^^^~
^^T^T^^^)-.25
.25 .50^^T^^^~

change,

them higher, theystayup longer because

they're

above

the clouds,

which

means

they aren't raining out as acid rain all

the time."

A different problem is that aerosols

can

damage

the

stratospheric

ozone

layer. Chemicals

carbons,

cans

and

or CFCs,

known

once

as chlorofluoro

common

have

in spray

depleted

in partic

refrigerants,

the ozone layer globally, and

ular

over

Antarctica.

Now

that

CFCs

are being phased out by a global treaty,

ozone

has

been

slowly

recovering.

But

spraying enough sulfate aerosols in the

stratosphere to push back the effectsof

by 40 years would delay

the recovery of theAntarctic ozone hole

globalwarming

by about 30 years, according to a 2009

paper in the Journal of Geophysical

Research-Atmospheres.

even

An

more

worrying

potential

effect

is on precipitation,

says meteorol

ogist Alan Robock of Rutgers University inNew Brunswick, N.J. Injecting sulfur gas could reduce rain delivered during

the Asian

and

African

summer

mon

soons, which 2 billion people rely on for

growing food,by asmuch as 15 percent,

Robock and his colleagues reported in

in

theJournal ofGeophysical Research

2008.

That

would

make

the new

aver

age rainfall "the equivalent of theworst

monsoon

produce

now,

bad monsoon

year

and weather

years with

would

precip

itation much

lower

than

that," he

says.

In principle, injecting sulfur in the rightway could minimize precipita tion changes, says climatemodeler Ken

Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution

for Science in Stanford, Calif. Inject

ing aerosols uniformly around the

globe would

of global precipitation patterns than focusing injection at the poles, a strat egy some have suggested for saving the ice caps, Caldeira reported in February inSan Diego at a meeting of theAmeri

result in less disruption

can Association

of Science.

neered

the one we're

In

climate

for the Advancement

fact, he

said,

a geoengi

would

seem

more

like

used

to than would

a

cli

mate with doubled C02 levels. Still, he

noted,

to cause

"stratospheric

some

damage

aerosols

in some

are

likely

places."

18

I SCIENCE

NEWS

I June 5, 2010

www.sciencenews.org

Seeing white Another way to reflect light would be to

harness

the Earth's

built-in

tors, clouds.

And where

there

solar reflec

are clouds,

there

could

be more

clouds

?

or

at least

whiter

ones,

some

researchers

say.

One leading geoengineering

idea is

to spray

a mist

of seawater

over the ocean tomake

into clouds

them whiter

and

brighter.

Sea-salt

particles

in

the

spray

would

add more

"seeds"

to

the air on which water vapor could

condense,

forming

amplifying

process.

the natural

cloud

A fleet of 1,500 remote-controlled spray ships could whiten clouds enough tooffsetthe warming created by doubled

C02, says engineer Stephen Salter of the University of Edinburgh inScotland. He

and JohnLatham of theNational Center

for Atmospheric Research in Boulder,

Colo.,

even

developed

a working

proto

type spray ship. One

comes

challenge:

rain.

So

along with clouds

seeding

patterns,

can

as

also

new

cloud

affect

precipitation

computer model

studies by Latham

and

colleagues

show.

In simulations

of

cloud seeding across 20 to 70 percent

of

the

ocean's

surface

area,

less

pre

cipitation fell at the equator but more

fell over

the Amazon

over a 20-year

period,

last year

inEnvironmental

region

the team

on average

reported

Research

Let

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

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

ice, temperature

and

precipitation at desired

levelsat the same

time. "You could optimize the planet to

produce

a sea-ice

like

today's,

precipitation

but

would

distribution

that

then

temperature

be off," Rasch

looks

and

says.

What's more, reflecting light is no

permanent

solution.

Like

a celebrity

addicted to painkillers, a planet hooked

o X

CO

<

cr

Stratospheric aerosols Small particles ofsulfate W\lgr/Tj f7\ %^I " or other materials ^ Space reflectors
Stratospheric aerosols
Small particles ofsulfate
W\lgr/Tj f7\
%^I "
or other materials
^ Space
reflectors
*
suspended inthe upper
atmosphere toreflect light.
are ^i^4i]^/j^
Orbiting disksreflect
LfjA'
%gP sunlight.
Cost:
Cost:
<
Effectiveness:
Effectiveness:
Timeliness:
^
^
^
A;
: Direct
air capture
is sucked
from
Ocean
fertilization
Cloud
C02
seeding
the air and stored
seas
with iron
ships create
a
Spray
n
sti
Seeding
m u ateI
s p aI n kton
m
i
st of seawate
r that
iffecttwr^^ u nde rgro un d, i
effect the ocean
or as solids.
to suck
clouds.
_effect
up more C02.
brightens
Timeliness
Cost:
Slow-acting
Cost:
Cost:
and/or slow
Fast-acting
and/or quick
, to deploy
Effectiveness:
Effectiveness:Effectiveness:
to deploy
Timeliness:
Timeliness: Timeliness:<

CO

Q

Five

ways

to save

the

planet

The United Kingdom's

Royal Society

both how quickly a technology

(cooling power) and timeliness

(considering

has

could be deployed

rated geoengineering

techniques

according

cause

and how fast itwould

to cost, effectiveness

cooling).

on sulfur particles or cloud seeding

would need to keep itsfix coming to stay

cool; turnoffthe juice, and temperatures

climb right back up. And any

agement plan does nothing to counteract

solarman

other

ecosystem-wide

changes

caused

by rising C02

levels, such as the ris

ing acidity of the oceans as they absorb

more

C02.

So most

scientists

say these

methods would work only as a stopgap to head offtheworst effectsof warming

while greenhouse gas levels are brought

down

by burning

Slow but sure

As

an

champion

alternative,

carbon

less fossil fuel.

many

dioxide

researchers

removal

?

tak

ingC02 fromthe air using any of a num

ber

of materials,

such

as

sodium

hydroxide. This solution is essentially

permanent,

it keeps

oceans

from acidify

ing and ithas few side effects.But it is

expensive and couldmean findingstorage

for billions

of tons of carbon-containing

stuffeach year (SN: 5/10/08,p. 18).

Klaus

Lackner

of Columbia

Uni

versity and Calgary's Keith have both

designed air-capture systems.Using dif

ferent

industrial

processes,

each

system

would absorb and separate out C02 from

the

air. That

pure

stream

can

be

stored

in geological formations,

carbon

capture

and

storage

power plants being tested

as is done

systems

in theUnited

in

for

States,

Canada

and

elsewhere.

At the Asilomar

meeting, that he plans to build an

prototype

over

the next

few

Keith

announced

air-capture

years. Each unit could lock up 100,000

tons

than

of C02

$100

per

per

year,

ton. At

a

at

that

cost

rate,

of more

absorb

ing all the C02 that theUnited States

emits

each

year would

cost more

than

$580 billion annually and take 58,000

air-capture

units.

More

realistically,

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

capture

devices

in a 10,000-square-foot

Tucson facility through a partnership between Columbia and the company he

cofounded,

Global

Research

Technolo

gies. The company estimates thatwithin

www.sciencenews.org

two years its prototype unitswill capture a ton a day for less than $100 per ton.

to

Machines

aren't the only way

absorb

C02.

Some

researchers

are work

ing on fertilizing ocean plankton with

iron to stimulate

their

growth,

enhanc

ing natural C02 uptake. Other scientists are looking into using large pipes to

churn

face

nutrient-rich

for the same

waters

effect.

to

the

sur

Several

launched

recent

years,

private

companies

have

iron fertilization efforts in

but with mixed

results.

One

killed its project when facedwith envi

ronmental

concerns,

while

another

faces

about

howmuch carbon dioxide is sequestered

by plankton sinking into the deep ocean and how much is returned to the atmo

continuing scientific questions

sphere

as plankton

decompose.

Moving

Despite

ahead

such uncertainties,

public

inter

est in geoengineering has snowballed in

recent months.

The U.S. House

of Repre

sentatives held hearings to learn about

geoengineering inNovember and March,

June 5, 2010

I SCIENCE

NEWS

I 19

FEATURE

I ENGINEERING A COOLER EARTH

and the Government Accountability

Office

ment.

has

launched

In September

a major

2009

assess

the Royal

Society, theUnited Kingdom's

leading

scientific body, called for ?100 million

in government funding for geoengineer ing research over the next 10 years. The

society isalso leading a study, in coopera tionwith the Academy ofSciences forthe

Developing World

and theEnvironmen

talDefense Fund, that late this year will

issue

recommendations

geoengineering

research.

for regulating

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

group

has estimated that a civilian version of a

could be adapted for less

U-2 spyplane

than $10 million to spray a ton of sul

fur.That amount of sulfur is less than

Desperate times and desperate measures As climate researchers have grown increasingly alarmed byvanishing sea ice
Desperate
times and desperate measures
As climate researchers have grown increasingly alarmed byvanishing sea ice
and faster-than-expectedgrowth in greenhouse gas emissions, geoengineering
has become less of a laughing matter inscientificcircles. "Emissions reduc
tionalone is not going to cause the Earth to start cooling this century,"says
Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie InstitutionforScience
in Stanford, Calif. Even if
all C02 emissions stopped today, he says, temperatures would increase for
decades, ifnot centuries,warming the Earth by at least another halfa degree
Celsius as oceans slowly release stored heat.
Withouta dramatic turnaroundin emissions, C02 levelswill probably overshoot
targets scientists consider safe, says Steve Schneider, a climate scientist at
Stanford University.Today's atmosphericC02 level is380 parts permillion,
compared with280 ppm in1850. Schneider has long advocated a 350 ppm
goal?already
surpassed?but
~30l?^7?^?'?'?'?I P
, No emission
cuts
even 450 ppm, a typicaltarget
~2.5"
/
in international negotiations, is
& /
Low geo_^?^~~-sa~1*
"
fast approaching (SN: 12/5/09,
/
2
Aggressive emission cuts
1.5
* /
I
q
p. 16). Geoengineering methods
8 10-
^x/
might work "as a temporary
To
0.5-
y
/
//
Mid geo
S
palliative measure you would
//
use to hold the peak down,
e
o.o -^X/x?
^
? ?-^IHigh
geo
while you'reworking on carbon
-0.5 I-1-1-1-1
i
i-1
removaland tremendously
2000 2050
2100
2150
T-
2200 2250 2300
2350 2400
Year
increasing
mitigation,"
he says.
Implementing differentamounts of geoen
The idea of using geoengi
neering to "shave the top" off
gineering (low, medium or high approaches
shown here) would result in differing
a temperaturepeak stirsmixed
amounts of predicted temperature rises.
Rob JacksonofDuke University in Durham, N.C.
feelings. "Deep down, Ithink
it'sa bad idea,"says ecologist
"Butwhat are we going to do? I
can
see
scenarios
now where
we
don't
have
any other choice."
Scientists don't agree on whether geoengineering should be seen as part
of an ongoing global temperaturemanagement plan
or only as a possible
last-ditcheffort.But many do agree that geoengineers need to get cracking
now
on
research
and
development.
"What happens ifin2040 or 2060 temperature increases are so high that
crops are failingthroughouttropical regions and billions of people are threat
ened with famine?" Caldeira says. "We'd better try to understand
ifthere is
something we could do, because there's no other way to realisticallystop the
this century." ?Erika
Earth from warming during the course of
Engelhaupt

20

I SCIENCE

NEWS

I June 5, 2010

www.sciencenews.org

one-millionth the amount proposed for

altering climate, so such an experiment would be used only to test themechan

ics of spraying and perhaps study atmo spheric chemistry.

But

sulfur

spraying

even

raises

major

a small

questions,

amount

such

of

as

what could gowrong andwho is respon sible if something does. No international

authority is in charge of saying whether Keith can do such an experiment. AtAsi

lomar, scientists called for the develop

ment of voluntary guidelines

treaty or law that

because

there is no major

clearly

covers

geoengineering.

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 themore you know how to do it, the

greater the possibility that someone

will

do

it," says M.

Granger

Morgan,

an

applied physicist who heads a research

program at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh that examines

University

solar radia

tion management.

"I don't

want

to

see

theworld do this; Iwant to abate emis

sions,"

he

says.

"But

I think we're

at

the

point where itwould be amistake not to

better understand what might be pos sible orwhether it might work."

Then again, not fiddling with the

climate

is just

as

scary

to some.

"We

know the risks of C02 are serious too,"

Keith

geoengineering a lot like chemotherapy, inhis view. "Would you prefer to avoid eating

said at Asilomar.

That makes

carcinogens

or have

chemotherapy?"

he asks.

"Everybody

would

rather

avoid

the carcinogens, but if you already have cancer you might prefer chemotherapy to dying, even though chemo will leave you sick andmake your hair fallout."

And,

of course,

always work ? and sometimes

the patient.

chemotherapy

doesn't

itkills

Explore more Read the RoyalSociety's geoengineer ingreport at http://royalsociety.org/

geoengineering-the-climate/

o

o CM

o

UJ

o CO

_1 LU

g

ill

o

cc

_

o CO