Last-ditch Ways To Survive Climate Change

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Here are some strategies researchers have put forth to hack the planet and combat climate change.

  • Geoengineering is a term that refers to technology that can alter Earth’s natural cycles to cool down the planet. It’s being increasingly discussed as a potential way to address climate change.
  • Putting mirrors in space, capturing carbon dioxide, and seeding clouds with particles are all ways of manipulating weather or the atmosphere.
  • But some scientists and politicians think geoengineering could damage the planet or lead to war.

Oceans are hotter than they’ve ever been in recorded history. Ice Sheets are melting at unprecedented rates. Sea-level rise threatens countless species, coastal cities, and local economies.

As researchers’ warnings about the consequences of climate change get more dire, some scientists and politicians are suggesting we do more than just curb our greenhouse-gas emissions — they want to hack our climate.

The technical term for this is geoengineering.

The concept evokes fantastical images of weather-controlling satellites, giant space mirrors, and carbon-sucking tubes. But some techniques for modifying Earth’s atmosphere aren’t in the realm of fantasy.

In fact, discussions about manipulating the atmosphere to cool the planet are growing increasingly mainstream. Climeworks, a company that captures carbon dioxide from the air, opened its first commercial plant in Switzerland in 2017. Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s largest incubator, has requested proposals from geoengineering-focused start-ups. And some political candidates,including presidential hopeful Andrew Yang, think the US needs to beat other countries to these technologies.

But other experts are less than convinced that these planet hacks are a good idea.

“The side effects may be almost as bad as the disease you’re trying to cure,” author and environmental activist Bill McKibben told Business Insider. What’s more, McKibben said, geoengineering does little to address other problems that arise from greenhouse-gas emissions, such as ocean acidification.

Here are some potential geoengineering methods that have been proposed so far.

There are two main types of geoengineering. The first is carbon capture, which entails removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is becoming widely accepted as a safe and potentially effective climate-change-fighting tool. Many people see it as a way to simply undo the changes that human activity is already causing.

Power plants in the US and Canada have already started utilizing CCS to lower their emissions. In the fall of 2014, the Boundary Dam Power Station near Estevan, Saskatchewan became one of the first power stations in the world to successfully use the technology.

According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, 21 commercial-scale carbon capture projects are operating around the world, and 22 more were in developmentas of 2017.

In some cases, CCS technology can also prevent carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere at all. Instead, carbon dioxide that’s created when coal burns or electricity is generated can be captured in a plant, then transported and stored somewhere else.

One of the biggest issues with these carbon-capture technologies, however, is figuring out where to put the carbon dioxide after it’s captured.

According to the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, storage sinks for captured carbon are typically deep underground in depleted oil and gas fields.

A Saskatchewan-based carbon storage effort, the Weyburn-Midale CO2 Monitoring and Storage project, has successfully moved and injected stored carbon into two depleted oil fields.

In 2008, a facility on an island in the Barents Sea stored nearly 4 tons of carbon in an offshore subsurface reservoir.

Captured carbon could also get stored in containers filled with carbon-dioxide-eating or converting algae and bacteria.

These storage units are sometimes called bioreactors. A company in Quebec City, Canada called CO2 Solution has genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to produce enzymes that convert the carbon dioxide into an alternative form called bicarbonate.

According to a 2010 study, algae ponds are also effective at naturally capturing carbon through photosynthesis.

Another major planet-hacking strategy is solar geoengineering, which involves injecting particles or clouds into the sky that reflect sunlight back into space.

This is also called solar radiation management or albedo modification. (Albedo is the term for how much light or radiation is reflected back from Earth’s surface.)

Ultimately, solar geoengineering aims increase the amount of solar radiation that gets reflected out into space from Earth in order to cool down the planet.

But none of these technologies have gotten off the ground yet, so to speak. In fact, most are so controversial that they haven’t even been tested.

This volcanic effect could be mimicked via a technique called stratospheric aerosol scattering. This involves injecting the upper atmosphere with tiny reflective particles like sulfuric acid or aerosols.

The idea is that these particles would reflect some sunlight away from Earth and back into space.

Harvard University’s solar geoengineering research program is currently trying to model how clouds of such particles in the atmosphere would behave using small, steerable balloons.

The research program also suggests that we could brighten marine clouds so they reflect more sunlight. (The closer an object’s color is to white — or the brighter it is — the more light it reflects.)

Mirrors, of course, also reflect sunlight. So some scientists have floated the idea of putting giant mirrors in space.

In the 2000s, a scientist named Lowell Wood from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory suggested that a giant space mirrormade of aluminum mesh could combat climate change. But he warned that the device would need to be 600,000 square miles in area — about the size of Greenland — to do any good. That would probably be prohibitively expensive.

“It would be like a window screen made of exceedingly fine metal wire,” Wood explained to Popular Science in 2005.

More than a decade later, the idea of a space mirror is still hypothetical.

Other Ideas:

Eliminating or thinning some cirrus clouds —a type of cloud that sits high in the atmosphere and absorbs radiation — could be another way to send heat back into space.

Cloud seeding is a way to make it rain or snow by dropping silver ions into the atmosphere.

In general, any geoengineering project or proposal that involves tweaking the delicate chemistry of Earth’s atmosphere and its cycles faces enormous opposition.

Many scientists are particularly concerned about solar geoengineering experiments because most models predict that the effects will be felt differently around the globe, even in spots far from the initial location. For example, if solar geoengineering technology gets deployed in the southern hemisphere, that could impacts ocean temperature and wind speeds, leading to more hurricanes in the northern hemisphere.

Plus, a failed geoengineering technology could leave Earth’s atmospheric chemistry irreversibly altered. We could end up damaging the ozone layer, for example, which protects us from harmful ultraviolet radiation.

Yet some scientists and politicians are already warning that geoengineering could lead to war.

“I’ve got a list of 27 reasons we shouldn’t do it,” Alan Robock, an environmental science professor at Rutgers and an expert on geoengineering, previously told Business Insider.

He worries a rogue country could pull the trigger on an atmospheric-transformation project that affects the entire world. The resulting conflicts with other nations could ultimately could escalate to nuclear war, Robock said.

Andrew Yang echoed similar concerns. If China start playing with atmospheric modifications on its own, rather than as part of a global initiative, Yang said, he expects the worst.

Yet some scientists and politicians are already warning that geoengineering could lead to war.

Eliminating or thinning some cirrus clouds —a type of cloud that sits high in the atmosphere and absorbs radiation — could be another way to send heat back into space.

Eliminating or thinning some cirrus clouds —a type of cloud that sits high in the atmosphere and absorbs radiation — could be another way to send heat back into space.

Generally the options listed are too irreversible, too risky or not really feasible.  The best plan at this time is to accelerate known steps to reduce emissions and become more responsible about our management of the planet.

This article was condensed from an article in the Business Insider publication for Dr. David Jensen


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