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Brute-Force Engineering and Climate

The eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 pumped so much sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere that New England farmers found their fields frosted over in July. Climate change, it seems, can be quick and overwhelming, at least on short scales. The eruption of the Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 cooled global temperatures for several years by about half a degree Celsius. Sulfur dioxide works.

So how about this: We send a fleet of airships high into the stratosphere, attached to hoses on the ground that pump 10 kilos of sulfur dioxide every second. The airships then spew this mix into the upper atmosphere, a aerosolized pollutant that, turning the skies Blade Runner red, shields the planet from the Sun’s heat. Call it geo-engineering, an extreme form of human climate manipulation that is the subject of a recent story in The Atlantic.

Into the Anthropocene

Writer Graeme Wood notes that our activities have been transforming the planet for centuries now, leading some to dub our era the ‘anthropocene’ period. Says Wood:

…humans have reshaped about half of the Earth’s surface. We have dictated what plants grow and where. We’ve pocked and deformed the Earth’s crust with mines and wells, and we’ve commandeered a huge fraction of its freshwater supply for our own purposes. What is new is the idea that we might want to deform the Earth intentionally, as a way to engineer the planet either back into its pre-industrial state, or into some improved third state. Large-scale projects that aim to accomplish this… constitute some of the most innovative and dangerous ideas being considered today to combat climate change.

For it turns out that the sulfur dioxide idea is just one among many. Scottish engineer Stephen Salter discusses a strategy to use a fleet of 1500 ships to churn seawater, spraying it high into the clouds to add moisture and make the clouds more reflective. Roger Angel (University of Arizona) proposes a series of huge electromagnetic guns in the upper atmosphere that would launch a Sun-shield made up of millions of Frisbee-sized disks to the L1 Lagrangian point, effectively scattering sunlight.

Freelancing Global Climate Change

The danger here, beside the unintended consequences that could so quickly attend such schemes, is that international cooperation on climate change could quickly be rendered irrelevant. Solutions like sulfur dioxide are cheap enough — $100 billion would be enough, Wood says, to reverse anthropogenic climate change entirely, and it might cost far less — that a single country could take on the challenge itself.

Wood turns to geophysicist Raymond Pierrehumbert (University of Chicago) for thoughts on possible unintended consequences of the sulfur dioxide strategy. The geophysicist reminds him of the Greek legend of Dionysius II, who to make a philosophical point suspended a sword over Damocles’ head from a single hair:

According to Pierrehumbert, sulfur aerosols would cool the planet, but we’d risk calamity the moment we stopped pumping: the aerosols would rain down and years’ worth of accumulated carbon would make temperatures surge. Everything would be fine, in other words, until the hair snapped, and then the world would experience the full force of postponed warming in just a couple of catastrophic years. Pierrehumbert imagines another possibility in which sun-blocking technology works but has unforeseen consequences, such as rapid ozone destruction. If a future generation discovered that a geo-engineering program had such a disastrous side effect, it couldn’t easily shut things down. He notes that sulfur-aerosol injection, like many geo-engineering ideas, would be easy to implement. But if it failed, he says, it would fail horribly. “It’s scary because it actually could be done,” he says. “And it’s like taking aspirin for cancer.”

A Carbon-Cutting Alternative

Cutting carbon emissions seems like a far preferable solution, and it’s one that Freeman Dyson suggested in a geo-engineering strategy he designed as far back as 1977, one that would create forests of trees engineered to be more effective at drawing carbon from the air, trapping the carbon in the topsoil. Other carbon-withdrawing schemes call for creating large towers whose grids would be coated with a chemical solution that could bind carbon-dioxide molecules. That one, by David Keith (University of Calgary), stashes captured carbon deep underground.

Ponder the implications when any one of the 38 people on the planet who have $10 billion or more in private assets could try to reverse climate change single-handedly. There’s one more Fermi solution — technological civilizations run afoul of their own technology as the cost of tackling massive projects drops to the point where individuals or small groups can destroy an ecosystem while attempting to fix it. Is a game-changing technology to fix climate change worse than the problem? Perhaps a more judicious view is that a technological big fix is what Wood calls “…the biggest and most terrifying insurance policy humanity might buy — one that pays out so meagerly, and in such foul currency, that we’d better ensure we never need it.”

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Denver June 19, 2009, 10:05

    If I bought into this anthropogenic global warming (new ice age, whatever) nonsense, and I do not, I would suggest that perhaps the least costly and most effective “large scale” project that could be undertaken to cool the planet would be to paint rooftops and roadways white (change the planet’s albedo).

    It is obvious, at least to Dyson, that CO2 is the least of the “green house” gases and its effects are lost in the “noise” of methane and water vapor (except in high deserts where there is little of either).

  • philw1776 June 19, 2009, 12:15

    I’m skeptical about AGW’s intensity as hyped by the media and sadly by many involved scientists. The concern is based upon computer climate models which from my experience I distrust. Think of all the financial geniuses and their recent debacle with financial derivative etc. models.

    I’m glad scientists are brainstorming possible climate engineering alternatives should something non-linear occur with current climate but I’m even more concerned and skeptical about likely unintended consequences. I suggest that detecting and monitoring the atmospheres via spectroscopy of the nearest 100 HZ planets ecosystems (assuming there are any) might give us some hard data to run against future climate models. What an ‘ecological’ and ‘green’ incentive for space observatories culminating in a super TPF!

  • Tim June 19, 2009, 12:52

    Pumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, at any altitude, would do nothing to abate either the carbon dioxide problem or the ocean acidification problem. Quote the opposite, we would not only have to worry about carbonic acid but also about sulfurous acid; after all, the sulfur would not remain in the atmosphere for ever!

  • amphiox June 19, 2009, 13:19

    Denver, I don’t think the total surface area of cities and roads is large enough, relative to the earth’s total surface area, to make much of a difference. Somehow changing the albedo of our farmland, might. But then again we must consider that the dominant natural contribution to the earth’s albedo are the oceans and the clouds, and any human activity that doesn’t impact on these two isn’t going to be that substantial in the grand scheme of things.

    Climate engineering with respect to cooling the planet will be essential if humans intend to continue living on earth into the distant future, as the sun continues to increase in luminosity, of course, assuming we survive that long at all.

  • kurt9 June 19, 2009, 16:00

    Good point. We’ve seen how computer models made by Wall Street people have got us into this economic mess. Why should we believe that the computer models made by climate “scientists” have any more validity?

    Also, even if AGW is real, why is it a problem? I think warmer climates are good. I would like to see palm trees in Wyoming and see the Spokane-area lakes become sub-tropical paradises. There have been times when the world was warmer than it is now in historical time periods, and we prospered them most during these periods. The Medieval Climate Optimum was one, the Roman period was another.

    If AWG is not real, we should create it so that it can prevent the next ice age. There is no reason to believe that AWG would be bad.

  • andy June 19, 2009, 17:24

    I do like the way we’re willing to state that because some computer models fail, the whole lot of them must be bogus, while at the same time believing in the Singularity and mind uploads into computers and magic pixie dust like that. I guess computer models of the human mind must be different and special.

    On the other hand, neat strategy to out the climate change denialists. Yes, clearly all the signs are that the ice sheets are growing rapidly and the world is cooling… quick! stop the ice age!

  • Adam June 19, 2009, 17:55

    Of course real geoengineering would be to cover the whole planet in a shell which has variable reflectivity. Thus we dial it up as the Sun’s insolation increases. Easy fix. But watch out if the shell breaks…

  • Adam June 19, 2009, 18:04

    On anthropogenic Greenhouse. I first read about it in “New Earths” by James O’berg and it’s a real possibility – certainly Climate Change is real. But I am sceptical that the proposed cures are going to work. There may not be enough coal, oil or gas to significantly alter the carbon dioxide levels to the degree that worst case “Business as usual” models describe. We need to use the relatively cheap energy now to develop replacements for fossil fuels NOW before they run out and we start doing dangerous things like having wars over what’s left. I believe technology CAN beat AGW before 2050 by replacing fossil fuels and we owe it to the future to not blindly continue using them like there’s no tomorrow… or else there won’t be. Not a tomorrow worth having.

  • philw1776 June 19, 2009, 18:07

    Some of us have some skepticism of the Singularity and Moravec mind downloading ‘and pixie dust like that’ as well. Not to say that any of the items discussed could not possibly occur.

    Back to the topic at hand, we know so little fundamental science about complexities like climate, that active mitigation of putative climate change might well produce side effects worse than the change itself. Our understandings are more empirical than mathematically calculation derived, q.v. particle physics. We need other real universe examples to test and possibly falsify our theories. Therefore the case for a very agressive detection and observation of extrasolar planetary spectra of Earth like planets in HZs.

  • DamienT June 19, 2009, 20:42

    Any of these could make for a great James Bond movie with a twist.
    A multi-billionaire is suspect in a possible plot for global domination so Bond is sent in. He stops the secretive plot only to realize the plan was the last hope to save the ecology and he doomed the world… Or Bond is defeated does not stop the secretive plot allowing the world to be saved.
    I think it would make for better anything I have seen of 007 movies lately at least.

  • amphiox June 20, 2009, 12:43

    Kurt9 – You’re joking right?

    Palm trees in Wyoming tomorrow means deserts where Palm trees are today. Palm trees growing well in Wyoming means wheat and corn NOT growing well in Wyoming. Palm trees in Wyoming means malaria, yellow fever, killer bees and fire ants in Wyoming, among other things.

    Human civilization depends on temperate climates. All our domestic animals and plants are temperate species. There’s a reason why all our most successful, enduring, and densely populated historical civilizations were based in temperate areas and not subtropical ones.

    The worse case scenario for global warming (anthropogenic or not) is the End Permian Mass Extinction. In fact all 5 of the big mass extinctions, (even K-T with the Chixculub meteor), are associated with intense periods of natural global warming and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions from volcanoes.

    The best case scenario for global warming is probably the mid Eocene, when earth was a warm, wet, verdant paradise, teeming with biodiversity and probably biologically more productive than today. BUT most of the USA was under water then, and NONE of the familiar species of plants and animals we depend on for survival were around then, and these are all temperate and interglacial adapted forms. I’m personally fairly confident that humans would be able to adapt and thrive in a climate like that, but the transition here to there would be hell. Major population shrinkage would be unavoidable and many of our favorite allied species would not make it with us.

  • Athena Andreadis June 20, 2009, 13:54

    Amphiox, you said most of what I wanted to say. I take it for granted that people who comment on this site are science-literate because they’re advocates of space exploration. Comments that echo the previous administration’s distortion of geological data show a deep disconnect with reality on several levels.

    There is no reasonable doubt left that carbon emissions have increased dramatically and are affecting global climate. Global warming does not mean that the changes will be uniform. I also agree that the proposed shortcut solutions will have severe side effects (acid rain, ozone depletion, “snapback”). There is no easy band-aid for this, curbing carbon emissions is the real solution.

  • george scaglione June 20, 2009, 13:54

    well guys more and more i suspect that…something…is going on with the weather.i live in new jersey and it seems we have had nothing but a succession of rainy days for most of may and june with not one day in june of 90 degrees or better.i actually begin to wonder? thank you one and all. george

  • david lewis June 20, 2009, 17:46

    Warmer temperatures aren’t necessarily good.

    The earth would adapt, over a time scale that wouldn’t be of much use to us. Humans would probably survive so long as we don’t use weapons like nukes in conflicts for diminishing resources. But it would almost certainly distract us from other things – like interstellar travel.

    It’s not like we don’t have examples of other cultures in the past doing something to their environment and having it come back and bite them.

    I really really question the use of the term ‘homo sapiens sapiens’ for our species.

  • Wowbagger June 20, 2009, 20:57

    Climate change is of little importance, especially if temperature gets warmer from where we’re right now. Life would adapt easily to that, and the increase of rainfall from a higher temperature would certainly mean an increase of biomass all over the world. At least on land.

    What ecosystems will never adapt to, however, is the more directly destructive human activities, such as deforestation. I understand most of the reason people talk about climate change is because people are adapted to follow social trends, but we must focus on the priorities.

  • Denver June 20, 2009, 22:45

    amphiox, why not? All major metropolitan areas already suffer a heat island effect. By lowering the albedo of the city this heat island effect should be moderated. Second, most weather monitoring stations reside within this heat island. Feel free to research this but a significant number of the North American weather monitoring stations started life in rural areas but were eventually surrounded by urban growth. As time passed and the cities grew, the avg. reported temperature from these stations increased. Global warming? Or local warming through infrared radiation? By reflecting more of the sun’s energy perhaps we will benefit from more accurate temperature reporting. At least the reported temperature differences between areas of the same latitude and weather pattern would lessen.

    Many questions remain to be answered about the climate. We are told that vast amounts of humanities endeavors must be brought under the thumb of government. Before we give away what little liberty we have left let’s make sure it is actually necessary.

  • kurt9 June 20, 2009, 23:19

    Nope, I’m serious. Also, a warmer Earth is a wetter Earth. That’s because there is more energy in the atmosphere which, in turn, makes for more evaporation and rainfall. I stand by my point that a warmer Earth is a better Earth and that we should do whatever we can to bring this about.

  • Paul Titze June 21, 2009, 5:59

    Hi everyone,

    I’ve thought of the root cause of global warming being an overpopulation of people on Earth. The more people there are in a given area, more resources are required, more livestock, chop down more trees to make room for more houses, one can go on and on… the environmental solutions put forward are positive but I’m in the opinion this will only delay when things get bad and isn’t a permanent solution for our long term survival on this planet, am I wrong?

    The way I see it:

    1) Reduce significantly the population growth on the planet (not a popular answer)
    2) Offer realestate on another Earth-like planet to get more breeding room with a cheap transport solution from this solar system.

    Think option 2) is the best solution…

    Cheers, Paul.

  • T_U_T June 21, 2009, 6:58

    To the sulfur cooling idea. i think, when we would face only two possibilities. Either that, or significant portion of earth population dies of starvation. We should do it. First, reduce temperature by sulfur dioxide, and then drain the excess co2 out of atmosphere. There are however two risk factors.
    First, that, because we keep earth cool, denialists will persuade lot of people that AGW is a scam, and prevent us doing the more costly part – carbon neutral infrastructure and co2 capture.
    Second, after they succeed in keeping us pumping shit in our atmosphere, they force us to discontinue the SO2 cooling, because it cost money, and, AGW is a scam anyway. And then, permian extinction 2 is the best we can hope for.
    In short. There are thre major sources of threat to our survival.

  • T_U_T June 21, 2009, 9:01

    kurt9 : “more evaporation and rainfall.”
    Yay ! More hurricanes, and less normal rainfall in former temperate climates.
    This is exactly what we need. Oh wait.

  • T_U_T June 21, 2009, 9:06

    Paul Titze.
    Most of the overpopulation are near subsistence farmers in rural china and india. And they are co2 neutral. And the most co2 production is in developed countries who struggle to maintain breeding at at least replacement level. This is the opposite of what we would observe, if major source of AGW were overpopulation

  • T_U_T June 21, 2009, 9:07

    wowbagger : “Life would adapt easily to that, ”
    As testified by the permian extinction. Too bad we would be not around to observe the adaptation anymore

  • amphiox June 21, 2009, 11:53

    Denver, I don’t disagree with your arguments, but I simply don’t think that currently enough of the earth’s surface is urbanized for such efforts to make a big difference. In the future, if the urbanized portion of the planet increased, then maybe, but then we have the question of whether or not such large scale urbanization would be a good thing or not.

    Kurt9, as per my comment about the Eocene, warm periods in earth’s history have been biologically productive, to a point. But only up to a point. Research the End Permian and End Triassic mass extinctions. Natural global warming, at a rate much lower that AGW today, but over much longer and a larger net temperature increase, is the primary suspected cause for both. A similar situation is believed to have stressed the Cretaceous ecosystem to the breaking point just before the Chicxulub impact. The efficiency of photosynthesis drops with higher temperatures, as does the O2 carrying capacity of water, while increased weathering means a higher rate of oxygen reacting out of the air and getting incorporated into rocks. The most bioproductive areas on our planet today are POLAR oceans, BECAUSE they are cold.

    Our species rose to dominance because we adapted well to an ice age. Our civilization was made possible by an interglacial climate. Life on earth is pretty robust, and has flourished in a wide variety of climates. But it isn’t life that is the concern, it is the specific milieu of life that includes humans and the species we depend on for survival. The transition from one climate state to another has ALWAYS been accompanied by mass death. Humans are a pretty adaptable bunch, and I suspect we would adapt and survive such a transition, but at what cost? And if we can avoid such a cost by changing our behavior, we shouldn’t we?

  • george scaglione June 21, 2009, 12:54

    paul titze : you are a man after my own heart! your solution number two above is great!!!! been talking alot of late of hoping star ships will be developed alot faster!! hope that we here are making some kind of positive difference. thank you your friend george

  • amphiox June 21, 2009, 17:59

    If we could reliably reduce the total solar radiation falling on the earth either with high atmospheric interference, or some shielding/mirror system in space, and we could guarantee that this system would continue to work for a long, long time, then it might actually be a good idea to increase CO2 levels in the atmosphere in order to increase the net bioproductivity of the earth, and to delay the point in time when falling CO2 levels in response to increasing solar radiation causes photosynthesis to crap out.

    On the other hand, if we did this, and our shielding system then failed for some unforeseen reason, we would be so, so screwed.

    Another option would be to move the earth outward from the sun. Though I suspect that when (if?) we get the tech to do that, then ‘climate’ wouldn’t be that much of a worry anymore.

  • loga rhythm June 22, 2009, 1:39

    It seems crazy that we can build the LHC, or, stop a laser beam within a Bose-Einstein-Condensate and alter the quantum states of atoms, -and yet still we are lumbered with cars that are powered by ICE (internal combustion engines)! Can’t we develop 21C engines that are “quantum-powered”? What about water-powered vehicles? [A reduction in the water-exhausts, compared with H20 inputs would satisfy ‘Conservation of Energy’.] What about developing and implementing new ultralightweight yet extremely strong materials? etc.

    The role of *clouds* in climate change has been underestimated imo. Regarding precipitation from clouds (rain) much research has been done, but, as far as i’m aware it is still not known why promisingly-low conjoined alto-cumulus clouds can float right over vast tracts of countryside and not deliver a single drop of water. Hence droughts in many regions. In other places: floods and horrific storms. Essentially, we don’t understand the weather very well. We can’t predict it very far ahead. Perhaps if we understood these things more we could help manage the ecosystem better. While clouds may insulate/warm the earth by night, on the other hand, they reflect sunlight by day…

    …i feel there needs to be a multifaceted approach to climate change

  • Adam June 22, 2009, 4:22

    Moving planets always seems a tad drastic. Chaos has a way of biting back.

  • WLS June 22, 2009, 5:23

    A warmer Earth is *not* a better Earth. According to some scientists, the biosphere was at its peak of activity some 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous era. Since then, it has been going downhill, due to: higher temperatures caused by increased solar insolation. Ward and Brownlee’s “The Life and Death of Planet Earth” details this.

  • JD June 22, 2009, 5:44

    I would recommend against broaching this subject here. You’ll get to high a percentage of AGW trolls who’ll espouse their vitriol concerning those despicable, try them for treason and execute them, deniers. Of course the deniers (should I say realists) will fire back.
    I estimate 3~4 more years for current trends to finally gain traction in the national arena and this whole sorry two decades of silliness will be forgotten as quickly as possible. Hopefully new interests will emerge that might have some meaning in reality. I’d really like to see a new program of space development before I become worm food.

  • T_U_T June 22, 2009, 13:17

    this discussion is full of denialists, and I can not even defend myself because their posts come through censorship but not mine. So this is my last try.
    Instead of trying to answer their nonsense all by myself, I simply link to a page where someone else answered them all. At once. http://scienceblogs.com/illconsidered/2008/07/how_to_talk_to_a_sceptic.php

  • Administrator June 22, 2009, 13:27

    T_U_T writes:

    I can not even defend myself because their posts come through censorship but not mine. So this is my last try.

    The comment policy here is clearly stated: ” Only those comments that are directly related to the post in question, use appropriate language and are not abusive to others will be posted.”

    All of your posts but one have gone through, as has your latest because it is not as abusive in tone. Civility counts.

  • andy June 22, 2009, 13:28

    Space travel is not an option for moving significant proportions of the world’s population. For starters, it’s too energy-expensive getting people out of the Earth’s gravity well. Paul Titze’s solution 2 is fantasy.

    As for geo-engineering solutions, they only make the ocean acidification problem worse (in that people will think it’s ok to keep the carbon levels rising for a bit longer, resulting in more carbon dioxide being dissolved into the oceans and hence worse conditions for calcareous organisms, whose importance to the planetary biosphere should not be overlooked).

    As for those who invoke Freeman Dyson, first read up on the logical fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam. And if you actually read what Dyson has said (e.g. here), it would appear that he disagrees with the specific predictions of climate models, but does agree with the notion that human activity is altering the climate. He regards it more as a set of localised changes rather than a single global change though. But hey, “Freeman Dyson says AGW is bunk” is a lot easier to sell as a headline than the subtleties of what he actually said.

  • kurt9 June 22, 2009, 14:09

    Given all the ranting and raving here, perhaps we should regard AWG as not appropriate polite conversation, much like discussions about race-based differences in cognitive ability.

  • Athena Andreadis June 22, 2009, 14:25

    The fallacy of appealing to the testimony of an authority outside his special field that Andy alluded to is very relevant here. Many famous names (Crick, Hoyle, Pauling, Penrose, to name just those who come to mind immediately) lent their name to crackpot theories they fell in love with. The tendency to use soundbites for complex issue is another problem, for both politics and science.

    Yet a third is posting anonymously or under handles, which lets people be as uncivil as they feel like. The link to Scienceblogs that T_U_T posted manages to escape all of these problems and perhaps should be required reading for anyone who posted a response to this entry. I, for one, have found Paul’s site a refreshing haven that combines both scientific knowledge and social civility — and wish to retain that unusual combination.

    It’s true that natural events, from volcano eruptions to minute shifts of the Earth’s orbit, can alter climate dramatically. Nevertheless, there is no reasonable doubt that at this timepoint humans are contributing decisively to climate change. As others pointed out, life in general is resilient. Not so human life, and high technology even less so.

  • T_U_T June 22, 2009, 14:31

    You are right kurt9, AGW is as a scam as racial equality is. I would also add the evolution scam, and the round earth scam.

  • Administrator June 22, 2009, 16:37

    Thank you for the kind words, Athena. Both sides in this debate have now gotten in their shots, but as we seem to be headed for more rancor (based on back-channel comments), it’s probably time to call this thread closed and move on to other topics. We’ll return to global warming in the future, I’m sure.