Stories tagged geoengineering

Oct
16
2012

A plankton bloom: Not the new bloom off of Canada, but this is what it looks like. The green stuff in the water is sucking up carbon dioxide and doing ... we don't know exactly what else yet.
A plankton bloom: Not the new bloom off of Canada, but this is what it looks like. The green stuff in the water is sucking up carbon dioxide and doing ... we don't know exactly what else yet.Courtesy NASA
Have you ever wanted to change the world? Of course you have. Who hasn’t? Even JGordon, world renowned for being more or less satisfied with his immediate surroundings, keeps a list of Things I Will Change When I Am King.

Some sample items from the list:
31: No more cake pops. What a joke.
54: Round up the jerks, make them live on Jerk Island.
55: Make sure Jerk Island isn’t actually an awesome place to live.
70: Transform Lake Michigan into biggest ball pit. Cover dead fish with plastic balls.
115: More eyepatches.
262: Regulate burps.

I think you get the idea. As Tears for Fears almost said, everybody wants to change the world.

And we do change it. We change it in a huge way. Cumulatively, the tremendous force of the human race has drastically altered the face of the planet, from oceans to atmosphere. But a lot of that change is sort of accidental; we don’t mean to affect the acidity of the oceans or warm the atmosphere, but we like driving around, making things, using electricity, and all that, and the byproducts of these activities have global effects that we can’t always control.

The notion that we could control these effects is called geoengineering. So we’re accidentally causing global warming … what if we could engineer a global solution to actively cool the planet. We’re causing ocean acidification … what if we could chemically alter the oceans on purpose to balance it out? The trick would be to balance out the positive effects of geoengineering with the potential side effects … if we could even figure out what those side effects are.

Geoengineering is necessarily a really large-scale thing, so for the most part it’s been limited to theoretical projects. But it’s been pointed out that some geoengineering projects would be within the capabilities of not just international bodies or individual countries, but corporations or even wealthy individuals. The Science Museum of Minnesota even has an exhibit on just this possibility: What would you do if you had the wealth to literally change the world?

But there are rules against that sort of thing, and it’s potentially really, really dangerous. So no one would actually do it in the real world ever, right?

Wrong!

Apparently someone did do it. Back in July.

A guy named Russ George, in partnership with a First Nations village, is thought to have dumped about 100,000 kilograms of iron sulfate into the ocean off the Western Coast of Canada. Why iron sulfate? Because iron sulfate is an effective fertilizer for plankton, the microscopic plant-like things in the ocean. The idea is that if you could cause massive growth in plankton, the plankton would suck up a bunch of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere before dying and falling the ocean floor, taking the CO2 with it.

The first part of the plan seems to have worked: satellites have detected an artificial plankton bloom about 6,200 square miles large off the west coast of Canada (which is how the operation was discovered).

George was hoping to make money selling carbon credits gained from the CO2 captured by the plankton, and he convinced the First Nations group involved to put about a million dollars into the project, telling them that it was meant to help bolster the area’s salmon population.

The thing is, it’s really hard to say what dumping almost half a million pounds of iron sulfate into the ocean will do, besides capture some CO2. And, what’s more, it looks like it was illegal: conducted as it was, the operation violates the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity and the London convention on dumping wastes at sea. Whoops.

So does this spell the end for individually funded geoengineering projects? Or has George’s scheme just opened the door for similar operations?

And, more importantly, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Are people like George taking big steps toward addressing human-caused global change? Or are they creating what I like to call “Pandora’s Frankenstein*”?

Weigh in in the comments, and let us know what you think!

(*My friend Pandora has a pet chinchilla named Frankenstein, and he is horrible. I can’t wait until that chinchilla dies.)

Nov
17
2011

Sweet Mongolian ice: What can't it do?
Sweet Mongolian ice: What can't it do?Courtesy Nswanson
Wait, JGordon!! Before we go any further, I have something to ask you.

Yes, JGordon?

How is ice our ancient friend?

Because it soothes our hot tempers, and it makes strong drinks more palatable.

And hotness? Why is it our enemy?

Because it makes us uncomfortable when we have it, and it makes us feel unattractive when we don’t.

I see. But don’t you think that was a long title for a blog post?

Maybe. Don’t you think that anyone whose time is at all valuable will have stopped reading by now because of this needless discussion?

Touché.

OMG! What were we even talking about? I’m a little out of sorts because I was up all night killing the rats in my apartment. You think that’s weird? How about this: this morning, there were no dead rats to be found! It could be that they were only playing dead, or it could be that, like Obi-wan Kenobi, striking them down only caused them to become more powerful than I could possibly imagine, and also to vanish.

Or it could be that too much heat and not enough cooling ice in the apartment caused me to hallucinate the whole episode. However could that be remedied?

Well, the country of Mongolia has an idea. Or, more specifically, it’s capital city, Ulan Bator, and a local engineering firm have an idea: create mini-glaciers to place around the city. The idea behind the mini glaciers isn’t so much to prevent rat hallucinations (although that’s definitely a bonus) as it is to combat the effects of global warming and the city’s urban heat island (cities, with all their paved surfaces and heat-absorbing materials, tend to heat up more than the surrounding countryside). This could reduce the need for energy-hungry air conditioning in the city. The melting ice could potentially also be used to supplement the area’s drinking water and irrigation needs.

But how are the sons and daughters of the Great Khan going to pull this off? You can’t just hallucinate a gigantic block of ice into being. I should know.

The plan is to make a sort of mini-glacier naturally in the winter, using river ice. Typically, ice on a body of water won’t form more than a few feet thick, because at that point the ice itself insulates the water below from the cold above. But in situations where the water can be forced up through cracks or holes in the ice, it will form more ice on top, adding layers until the ice is many meters thick. These giant sheets of ice, called “naleds” or “aufeis” can last well into the following summer, as they slowly melt away.

The Mongolian engineers are planning on helping naled formation along by regularly drilling holes in river ice, so water can flow more freely up to be frozen. The block or blocks of ice produced will then be transported to the city, where they will … be cool, I guess.

The project will begin this winter, and if it’s successful, it could be a model for small-scale geoengineering (if that’s not an oxymoron) in northern cities as global climate warms. While glaciers and permafrost area will likely shrink, annual naled formation will continue. The project engineers think that naleds could also be used to actually repair areas of damaged (thawing) permafrost.

The articles on the project don’t get very specific on the size or placement of the naleds, but I suppose it’s also possible that, if they cover enough area, they would increase the city’s albedo—objects with high albedo reflect more light and absorb less of it, which means that they will heat up less in sunlight.

I’m afraid that my hot apartment hallucinations will force this project out of my memory by tomorrow, but it would have been interesting to see what sort of results come from it, and whether other countries pick the idea up as a cost effective method for dealing with rising summer temperatures. But I’ll leave that up to you, Buzzketeers. And to you, JGordon, my hot friend.

Sep
03
2009

An electromagnetic gun: What's it for shooting? Disks, mostly.
An electromagnetic gun: What's it for shooting? Disks, mostly.Courtesy ScienceApe
Oh, you thought I forgot about the Geoengineering Extravaganza I promised, after just one entry? Did JGordon forget? Or is he just demonstrating a tremendous lack of respect for the Science Buzz audience?

Neither, respected friends, neither. First of all, I’ve never forgotten anything in my life. (This is in case anything I do eventually relates to someone else owing me money.) And I think I’ve demonstrated my respect for y’all over the years.

No, what happened was this: on Tuesday evening, my sock caught on a nail sticking out of my kitchen floor, and I went down like a redwood. Dried or decomposing pieces of food cushioned the fall for most of my body, but I’m afraid my face landed squarely in the mousetrap, which I had just baited with fresh poison. Luckily the trap pinned my lips shut before I ate too much of the poison, but I mix some potent poisons, and it only took a little to put me out.

My poisons are designed to remove a mouse from consciousness for anywhere from a week to several months, long enough for me to shave them, and ensure that they wake up somewhere frighteningly unfamiliar, like Thailand, or inside of someone recovering from major surgery.

At any rate, I was out for almost all of yesterday. It’s good that I woke up when I did, because I was covered with mice, but I’m afraid I just never found the opportunity to do another geoengineering post.

Until now.

So, let us continue with the “forget about the greenhouse gases, and just cool this place off, now!” theories. That is, those theories that could reduce the amount of absorbed heat (from the sun) rather than reduce what’s storing the heat (greenhouse gases). It’s called solar radiation management, and it includes a wide range of potential projects. And I shall now introduce you to several, starting with the most weaksauce of them, and moving on to something with giant space guns.

When I call something “weaksauce,” I don’t mean to imply that it’s a bad idea, only that it doesn’t involve huge guns, or giant sulfur-spewing zepellins. Sort of like how cool roofs are weaksauce. Cool roofs have come up on the Buzz before. The idea is that by simply having lighter-colored roofs, more sunlight and heat is reflected back away from the Earth. And, aside from the planet heating up a little less, your house heats up a little less too, so you don’t have to use as much energy on air conditioning, and the power companies don’t have to burn as much coal, etc. Pretty neat, huh?

Unfortunately, it’d be pretty tricky to get enough people to have reflective roofs for it to make much of a difference to global temperatures—otherwise the cooling would just be local, and who cares about that, right? Plus… no giant guns, or anything.

Not like the plans to build a sunshade in space. They have guns.

Remember that season finale episode of The Simpsons, where Mr. Burns built a giant metal shade to block the Sun from Springfield? I hope you do, because some scientists are actually proposing something like that, but on a larger scale, and in space. Like, massive mirrored satellites. Or there’s the plan mentioned in this Atlantic article (which I’ve linked to before)—A professor at the University of Arizona proposes building 20 giant electromagnetic guns (rail guns?), each more than a mile long, with the purpose of firing Frisbee-sized ceramic disks into space. Each gun would fire 180,000 disks a minute, 24 hours a day, for 10 years. At that point, there should be enough disks suspended “at the gravitational midpoint between the Earth and the Sun,” that sunlight headed toward Earth would be significantly scattered… lowering the planet’s temperature. Unfortunately, the technology for these guns doesn’t exist, it would be really expensive, and it would kind of last forever. Also, one gets the feeling that this professor is just trying to make a point. On the other hand… giant disk guns.

And then there are the middle ground plans, like cloud enhancement. The idea there is to make the clouds puffier and whiter by blasting seawater up into the air with special ships. These nice, white clouds would, again, reflect more sunlight away from the Earth, cooling things down. It shouldn’t last forever, and who doesn’t like puffy white clouds? Unfortunately, it ain’t cheap, and as with all most of the other solar radiation management plans, we don’t know exactly what all the repercussions would be. Clouds are just clouds, right? Yes, but clouds affect how much rain we get, and who gets it, and how much plants photosynthesize, and so forth and so forth. And the plan is slightly less gunny than the space-sunshade thing.

Next time we’ll move on to “carbon-removal projects.” But right now I have to get the taste of mouse blood out of my mouth. (It’s an ingredient in the poison.)

Sep
01
2009

A nice refreshing belch from Pinatubo: Repeat?
A nice refreshing belch from Pinatubo: Repeat?Courtesy D. Harlow
Ever want to change the world?

No, I’m not talking about the awesome drums and bass album you’re working on. And I’m not talking about your new theory of about time and mountains and stuff. And I’m not talking about your award winning bowel movements.

I’m talking about shaking the heavenly spheres until they throw up a little. I’m talking about jamming your boot into the nearest orifice until the planet cries uncle. I’m talking about pinning its arms and slapping its belly until it forgets its own name in frustration. I’m talking about changing the world.

Sure, it’s sort of supervillain territory. And it used to be that you’d need a bad childhood and some sort of superpower, or maybe a giant laser for this sort of thing. But these days… these days you don’t even need to be super-mega-rich to tear the planet a new one; you only need to be super rich. And it could be that the planet needs a new one torn.

We haven’t really talked much about geoengineering here on Buzz, which is weird, because it falls under both “quick fixes” and “things that might look awesome,” categories I very much appreciate. This is why I prefer to deal with hangnails by shooting them off, and why my dog has painted-on zebra stripes. (The “quick fix” there was spray paint being used to make him look less stupid.)

Geoengineering is engineering on the global scale; it’s changing the planet to solve some problem. What if we could, for instance, stop global warming without changing our energy-hungry lifestyles? What if it was as quick and cheap as spray-painting the dog?

The thing is, many geoengineering projects would be quick and easy (relative to, say, transitioning the planet to renewable energy). But, like spray-painting the dog, geoengineering comes with the potential for serious problems. If we’re spray-painting the dog instead of washing him, we have to keep spray-painting him forever, or else one day we’ll have an obviously incredibly unwashed dog on our hands. And what sort of health problems might a spray-painted dog unexpectedly develop? And can we get used to living with a dog that is spray-painted?

(Bryan Kennedy posted a link to an article about these issues this summer. Check it out.)

Consider these problems with me as we turn away from painted dogs, toward the wide world of geoengineering. In the coming days, if I remember to, and if I’m not feeling too lazy, we will meet some possible geoengineering scenarios. And, remember, these aren’t totally sci-fi—they’re very possible (for the most part). The question is, do we really want to do them?

And so, geoengineering day 1: A fart like you wouldn’t believe.

Y’all know what killed the last dinosaurs, right? Yes: loneliness. But how did they get so lonely? It was that, ah, meteorite thing, right? A big space rock smashed into the Earth, boom, no more dinosaurs. But it’s not like all the dinosaurs got smashed by that falling rock. Most of the trouble came after the impact. Vast quantities of dust were thrown way up into the atmosphere when the space rock hit the planet… and it stayed up there for a while. The affect all that dust had on climate is pretty complicated, but, if we boil it way down, it basically blocked sunlight, and made the world a shadier, colder place for a while. Lots of plants couldn’t live in colder, darker conditions, so they died. And the dinosaurs couldn’t live without those plants, and so they died. (Again, it’s more complicated than that, but…)

And now… now we have a situation where, in the coming decades, the world may be getting much hotter than a lot of organisms can survive for very long. We aren’t hoping for an asteroid or meteorite to smash into us, of course, but is there another way to fill the sky with sun-blocking particles?

Yes. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines exploded, blasting millions of tons of sulfur into the sky. All that sulfur, and other tiny particles from the eruption (called aerosols), reflected lots of energy from the Sun back into space. Because it’s solar energy that provides the heat for global warming (greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide just trap the heat here), the Pinatubo eruption is thought to be responsible for temporarily lowering global temperatures by about 0.5 degrees Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit). That might seem like only a small drop, but a few fractions of a degree change in temperature worldwide can have a big affect on climate, and when we think about how it was caused by just one eruption… We could do it too! We could change the world!

One of the major ideas in geoengineering is to essentially recreate the Pinatubo eruption. Over and over again. Factories on the ground could pump tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, where it would bond with water vapor and condense around floating dust, blocking solar radiation from heating the planet. (This article envisions zeppelins hovering 12 miles up, tethered to factories by SO2-carrying hoses.)

The project might cost only tens of billion dollars (small potatoes when talking about changing global climate), and it might actually work… but then what? What happens once the dog has been spray-painted?

Some scientists are concerned that all that SO2 in the atmosphere could damage the ozone layer, which protects us from UV radiation from the Sun. (After Pinatubo erupted, the ozone layer suffered temporary but significant depletion.) Others point out that the project would do nothing to remove greenhouse gases, so that once the sulfur settled back down to Earth, we’d face very sudden temperature rises again; we’d have to continue to block out the Sun until we could decrease our production of greenhouse gases. The main thing that could happen is, well, we don’t totally know what would happen. It’s unlikely that a solution like this would only lower global temperatures, but exactly how it would affect other aspects of the climate and life on the planet is unclear…

Is it worth it? Should we pump the skies full of sulfur gas, even if we don’t understand everything that could happen because of it? What if it was the only way to hold off a “tipping point”? (Many climate scientists are concerned that gradual global warming will lead to a “tipping point,” after which warming accelerates rapidly. Thawing frozen tundra, for instance, might release vast amounts of trapped methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.) Or do you think geoengineering would distract us from addressing the basic causes of climate change?

Any thooouuughts?