Why is it that some of the best human minds are so focused on what they can achieve in the name of science that they seldom contemplate whether or not they are helping or hurting our ability to exist on planet Earth?
In a lengthy story for USA Today, Dan Vergano reveals the many and varied plans of scientists at the forefront of geoengineering plans for our fragile mother:
Scientists call it “geoengineering,” but in plain speak, it means things like this: blasting tons of sulfate particles into the sky to reflect sunlight away from Earth; filling the ocean with iron filings to grow plankton that will suck up carbon; even dimming sunlight with space shades.
Each brings its own set of risks, but in a world fretting about the consequences of global warming, are these ideas whose time has come?
With 2010 tying as the world’s warmest year on record and efforts to slow greenhouse gas emissions looking stymied, calls are rising for research into engineering our way out of global warming — everything from launching solar shade spacecraft to genetically engineering green deserts. An international consortium of 12 universities and research institutes on Tuesday, for example, announced plans to pioneer large-scale “ocean fertilization” experiments aimed at using the sea to pull more greenhouse gases out of the sky.
Once the domain of scientists’ off-hours schemes scrawled on cocktail napkins, such geoengineering is getting a serious look in the political realm.
“We’re moving into a different kind of world,” says environmental economist Scott Barrett of Columbia University. “Better we turn to asking if ‘geoengineering’ could work, than waiting until it becomes a necessity.”
A National Academy of Sciences’ best estimate has global warming bumping up average temperatures by 3 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions that are largely responsible, most from burning the modern economy’s main fuels, coal and oil, look set to continue to rise for the next quarter-century, according to Energy Information Agency estimates.
“That’s where geoengineering comes in,” says international relations expert David Victor of the University of California-San Diego. “Research into geoengineering creates another option for the public.”
Geoengineering takes its cue from the natural experiment that actually had made the only dent in global warming’s rise in the last two decades — the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, which blasted more than 15 million tons of sulfur dioxide 21 miles high, straight into the stratosphere. The stratosphere suspended those sulfur particles in the air worldwide, where the haze they created scattered and reflected sunlight away from the Earth and cooled global atmospheric temperatures nearly 0.7 to 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit in 1992 and 1993, before finally washing out, according to NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies estimates. Firing about half that much sulfur into the stratosphere every year for 30 years would help stabilize global warming’s rise, National Center for Atmospheric Research climate scientist Tom Wigley estimated in a much-debated 2006 Science journal report.
Humanity would effectively become addicted to sky-borne sulfates to keep the cooling on track…