Courtesy ScienceApeOh, 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.
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.)
Courtesy D. HarlowEver 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?
Courtesy Meredith P.
We've all heard about global warming, the undeniable fact that the Earth's temperatures rose (dramatically / sharply / noticeably – take your pick) from 1980 to 1998. (We've heard considerably less about the equally undeniable fact that from 1999 to present temperatures have held steady or even dropped, but never mind.)
We've all heard that carbon dioxide, released into the atmosphere when we burn coal, gas or other fossil fuels, is the (only / primary / most important) source of the warming. (The Earth also warmed during Roman and Medieval times, when fossil fuel consumption was vanishingly small. But never mind.)
And we've all heard how this warming is going to bring about floods, drought, storms, extinctions and other ecological disasters if we don't reduce out carbon output by (the end of the century / 2020 / tomorrow afternoon).
Those first two points can be tested through observation and experiment. The last one cannot. It's a prediction about the future, and you cannot observe something that hasn't happened yet. But you can always bolster your position by accurately predicting the past.
Now, that may seem like a waste of time – I mean, it's the past. We know what happened. But that's what makes it such a great laboratory. Y'see, scientific predictions are based on models. Scientists take all those observations and experiments, put them in a computer, and see where the trends lead. You can test the model by taking observations from some point in the past, crunching the numbers, and seeing if the results match what we know happened next.
And that's exactly what Richard Zeebe, James Zachos and Gerald Dickens did. In an online article published by the journal Nature Geoscience, these three scientists took the model used by climate researchers to predict future global warming and applied it to an episode of past global warming. Specifically, they looked at a well-studied period 55 million years ago when the Earth's temperature rose dramatically. They plugged the data from that warming into the model used to predict current warming, and they found....
It didn't work. The climate models being used today were unable to duplicate known conditions from the past. They weren't even close – the results were off by about 50%.
Emily Latella, call your office.
Courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture
While every other industry in the world seems to be tanking and going to visit their loyal bankruptcy lawyer, science and the genome project is on top!
The cost of sequencing has drastically decreased over the past few years and now smaller institutes can afford to contribute to the genome project. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has recently opened a new research center in Norwich, England to aid farmers in the face of climate change.
Their main overarching goal is to help boost food production for future generations. They take seriously the threats of climate change on the global food sources. As such the institute is hoping to develop crops that are more resistant to harmful insects and can withstand severe drought. Outside of issues surrounding climate change there is great interest on the board to develop new strains of vegetables that will contain compounds that reduce the incidence of some cancers.
With more institutes like the one in Norwich and affordable genome sequencing we may well survive the terrors of climate change!
Last January, Bryan praised Barack Obama’s inaugural address for promising to make decisions based on observation, data and statistics. Bryan also said,
We will keep a watchful eye over the next four years to make sure that science policy adheres to the agenda and principles that our new president has set out.
So, how are things going so far?
Last week, the White House released a new report on climate change. Roger Pielke Jr., professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, says the study is seriously flawed. He finds the report relies on data that is old, narrow, non-peer reviewed, second- and third-hand, and contradicted by more recent, peer-reviewed studies. He specifically objects to claims that global warming is leading to more natural disasters. Such disasters are Dr. Pielke’s specialty, and he argues there is no such trend.
Back in February, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said that global warming was going to destroy agriculture in California. Dr. Pielke (who is becoming something of a one-man band in reigning in the more outrageous claims of global warming) picked apart that one as well.
In March, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar removed gray wolves in the northern Rockies from the Endangered Species list. This action was first proposed by President George W. Bush just before he left office, but suspended by the incoming administration. Two months later, they decided that Bush was right to accept the unanimous recommendation of Fish and Wildlife scientists.
Mark hates it when I point out stuff like that…
The Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) has the answer to such questions and much, much more. Over the past four years, CReSIS has been developing technologies, conducting field investigations and compiling data to help understand the rapid changes in the polar ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland. In conducting this research, their vision is to one day understand and predict the role of polar ice sheets in sea level change.
A total of five multi-disciplinary teams work together to conduct research allowing for efficient and well-coordinated progress. I took a closer look at the Satellite Measurements team and the instrumentation they’re using is quite fascinating. The instruments provide high-resolution information on everything from topography to temperature to surface melt. When comparing how these parameters change over time, the team can determine their effects on sea level, identify potential mechanisms controlling that effect, and then create computational models that explain these changes. You can even follow the field experiments that the center is currently conducting at their blog.
On top of all of that, CReSIS is also helping to inspire, educate and train K-12, undergrad and graduate students by encouraging the pursuit of careers in science and engineering as well as offering a variety of research opportunities. My personal favorite is the Ice, Ice, Baby lessons activities. Who cares if its designed for K-8 students! If you’re looking for something to do on a rainy day, I highly recommend making glacier goo. You can learn a lot while making a mess!
Courtesy Mark RyanIs the wind being knocked out of the sails of the wind energy industry? A study to be published this summer in Journal of Geophysical Research seems to be pointing that way. Wind measurements in the Midwest and eastern parts of the United States in particular have shown a decline in the energy source.
Two atmospheric researchers, Sara Pryor (no relation to Science Buzz’s own Liza Pryor – or is she?) of Indiana University, and her co-author Eugene Takle, a professor at Iowa State University say their research shows a distinct drop in wind speed in areas east of the Mississippi River, especially around the Great Lakes. Wind speeds there have diminished 10 percent or more in the past decade, and an overall decline in wind has been taking place since 1973.
Global warming may be the cause. Differences in barometric pressure drive wind production. In a global-warming environment, the Earth’s polar regions warm more quickly than the rest of the globe, and narrow the temperature difference between the poles and equatorial regions. That reduced difference in temperature also means a reduced difference in barometric pressure, which results in less air movement (wind).
Peak wind speeds in western regions of the US such as Texas and portions of the Northern Plains haven’t changed nearly as much. Pryor speculates the reason the Great Lakes area shows the greatest decrease may be because wind travels more slowly across water than ice, and in recent years there’s been less ice formation on the Great Lakes. Changes in the landscape such as trees and new construction near instrument stations may have also skewed the research. Still, wind speed studies done in Europe and Australia showed similar declines there, adding credence to the Pryor and Takle findings.
There are detractors to the study. Jeff Freedman, an atmospheric scientist with a renewable energy-consulting firm in Albany, N.Y., says his research has revealed no definite trend of reduced wind speed. And even though research hasn’t been published yet, some climate models studying the effects of global warming seem to agree with Freeman’s findings.
But if Pryor’s and Takle’s study proves to be true, it could mean big losses to the wind energy industry, since a 10 percent drop in peak winds would mean a 30 percent change in how wind energy is gathered.
According to the Global Humanitarian Forum, the number of deaths “that result from the spread of disease, malnutrition and natural disaster caused by climate change” is roughly 300,000 people per year.
Read more about it here.
If your answer is "Nothing, yet," then you might consider stopping by the museum.
Minnesota's Water Resources: Impacts of Climate Change
Dr. Lucinda Johnson, National Resources Research Institute, University of Minnesota-Duluth
Thursday, April 9, 2009
7 - 8:30 pm in the Auditorium
Over the past 150 years, Minnesota's climate has become increasingly warmer, wetter, and variable, resulting in undeniable ecological impacts. For example, more recent changes in precipitation patterns combined with urban expansion and wetland losses have resulted in an increase in the frequency and intensity of flooding in parts of Minnesota. Learn about exciting new research which will develop a prediction model for future climate changes specific to Minnesota, and discover its potential economic and civic impact.
Check it out.
Two recent headlines:
Because, y’know, if you can’t win an argument through reason, and you can’t win it through fear, you can always fall back on that old standby, force.