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?

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Also—supposedly the rest of this article (which I can't read) claims that, "one kilogram of well placed sulfur in the stratosphere would roughly offset the warming effect of several hundred thousand kilograms of carbon dioxide."

Interesting. I don't know how long that offset would last, though. Or what it would take to get that sulfur "well placed."

posted on Tue, 09/01/2009 - 4:50pm
Pam Googe's picture
Pam Googe says:

I a m trying to find out what all the stars in triangle configurations are. I know there is a summer triangulation but this is 7 triangles in the SE sky,somewhat high up ,looks like 7 planes but stationary all night. What is it ? I'm 55,have watched the skies my entire life,though no expert. I have never seen so many and there were more in the eastern sky. What the heck?

posted on Mon, 10/19/2009 - 10:57am
mdr's picture
mdr says:

Pam, you seem to have placed your question on an unrelated post, but regardless of that we need a bit more information from you. From what location are you viewing the night sky? North America? South America? Australia? The Artic or Antarctic? It makes a difference where on Earth you're looking at the sky. Not only that but the view of the sky from say, Drumheller, Canada, is not the same view you see from Key West, so you need to be fairly specific with your location.

Time of viewing is also critical. Due to Earth's rotation, the Moon, stars, and planets all appear to move across the sky during the course of the night, so you need to give us at least an approximate time of when you saw these stars at the sky locations you mentioned. The same objects seen in the eastern or southeast skies at 9pm will be located in the west and southwest skies at 4am.

Also, just about any three stars can form a triangle. Maybe you're referring to the constellation Triangulum? But because you mention the number 7, I wonder if you don't mean the Pleiades. It's hard to answer your question without more information.

posted on Mon, 10/19/2009 - 12:42pm
space time temperal operator's picture
space time temperal operator says:

what caused it....................... but what caused it?????

theroys are just that iagree that a mass amount of asteroids impacted on breakup the possibility that the imperfection of them is just another factor to add to their destruction... slow ability to adapt they were pushed passed their limits. survival of the ?

posted on Fri, 10/23/2009 - 12:57pm
 medcinman's picture
medcinman says:

Sounds like a very expensive non sterile bandage over an unclean gaping seriously infected wound. From shooting ourselves in the foot! Hey we could use all that sulphur! As an antibiotic. I may have just uncovered healthcare in the midst of 90 percent of our diseases are lifestyle choice related. But what do you expect from a race that fits the definition of a pathogen , With the earth as host. Microbial balance has been one of the few constants in a variable world. With a track record dating back as far as we can determine! Interestingly, they can heal the earth from the bottom of the food chain up! Now, that's economical efficiency. See Dr. Higi, Japan, microbial research. Of course this has nothing to do with CO2, other greenhouse gasses, cyclic change, u & ur choices, or global warming. Not!!! Troubleshoot to root cause not symptoms. Physician, heal thyself! So be causual & choose now to be a healing balancing unit or suffer the fate of a pathogen! I know u won't look it up (I said causual, not casual) so hears the definition of pathogen: any culture of 4groups(bacteria,virus, worms, ? ) which, upon colonizing a host, reproduces @ such a rapid rate that it threatens not only the existence of the host, but the sure demise of the culture itself. So, it sends out a emissary toward the end looking for a new host in the vast micro- cosmos. Not very synchronistic.or synergistic (give & take relationship) ( what is the space race?). Hey Unit, Microbes are the smallest functioning units of life.

posted on Thu, 04/05/2012 - 12:48pm

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