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Earth Science

Geoengineering To Cool the Earth Becoming Thinkable 419

Posted by kdawson
from the well-less-unthinkable dept.
johkir writes "As early as 1965, when Al Gore was a freshman in college, a panel of distinguished environmental scientists warned President Lyndon B. Johnson that CO2 emissions from fossil fuels might cause 'marked changes in climate' that 'could be deleterious.' Yet the scientists did not so much as mention the possibility of reducing emissions. Instead they considered one idea: 'spreading very small reflective particles' over about five million square miles of ocean, so as to bounce about 1 percent more sunlight back to space — 'a wacky geoengineering solution.' In the decades since, geoengineering ideas never died, but they did get pushed to the fringe — they were widely perceived by scientists and environmentalists alike as silly and even immoral attempts to avoid addressing the root of the problem of global warming. Three recent developments have brought them back into the mainstream." We've discussed some pretty strange ideas in the geoengineering line over the last few years.
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Geoengineering To Cool the Earth Becoming Thinkable

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  • by CRCulver (715279) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Wednesday October 22, 2008 @08:09AM (#25466451) Homepage
    It's cool to see some of the speculation about the terraforming of other planets now applied to Earth. I fondly recall how one of the strategies used to warm Mars in Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy beginning with Red Mars [amazon.com] was spreading black dust to absorb sunlight.
    • by spazdor (902907) on Wednesday October 22, 2008 @08:20AM (#25466549)

      There was an excellent TED Lecture [ted.com] on the topic of geoengineering, given by David Keith. It's a little over 15 minutes but well worth the time, and it skips all the sci-fi platitudes.

    • by arpad1 (458649) on Wednesday October 22, 2008 @08:30AM (#25466631)

      That's nice in a science fiction story but in the real world hurricane modification research was curtailed because of the fear that unsuspected interactions would result in more damage not less.

      It seems to me that we shouldn't tinker with the entire atmosphere if we don't have a good deal of confidence we can control one of the constituent phenomena.

      • by MrNaz (730548) on Wednesday October 22, 2008 @08:37AM (#25466705) Homepage

        The real problem is the business of the process.

        There is too great an incentive for companies to dream up potentially damaging and idiotic ideas in order to secure lucrative government contracts to carry them out. The company then makes a large profit from screwing with the environment in a big way.

        It's the same mechanism that results in companies having an incentive to push the country into war; massive mega-contracts that result in huge gains to that company at the severe detriment of everyone else.

        Huge dollars going into mega projects like carbon sequestering attract morally bankrupt companies like Bechtel, companies who would strip mine the entire Amazon if they could make it profitable. They put together a reasonable sounding proposal, submit it to the bumbling idiots who call themselves our leaders along with a fat bribe and then go about reaping enormous profit using our tax dollars to fuck up the planet.

        There are few things that anger me more than the privatization of social responsibility.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by UNKN (1225066)
          "There is too great an incentive for companies to dream up potentially damaging and idiotic ideas in order to secure lucrative government contracts to carry them out. The company then makes a large profit from screwing with the environment in a big way." Not that it hasn't been done before, coal mining and every other resource gathering is/was done in a half assed manner.
      • by Tx (96709) on Wednesday October 22, 2008 @08:41AM (#25466745) Journal

        We don't know for sure the effects of anything we do to try and combat climate change. Even just reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses to what they were at some arbitrary time in the past does not guarantee that the climate will just go directly back to how it was, it's a lot more complicated than that.

        Taking the attitude you express would therefore lead to simply doing nothing, which seems to be a pretty close-minded view. You do what you can via modelling etc to try and predict the effects of any potential intervention. Then you try it on a limited scale, and try to confirm your models. If it seems good, you scale it up. Sure you can't 100% guarantee that you won't cause a disaster, but doing nothing is even more likely to cause a disaster, so the "do nothing" approach is pretty obviously silly.

        • by sleigher (961421) on Wednesday October 22, 2008 @09:32AM (#25467331)
          Don't listen to that guy. What he really meant is there is no try. Only do or do not.
        • by ebuck (585470) on Wednesday October 22, 2008 @09:44AM (#25467491)

          We've already done geo-engineering by putting the greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere in the first place. It requires less creative engineering to stop putting them up there, and we know that greenhouse gasses from (whatever) source raise ambient temperature. Therefore, not putting greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is a generally plausible solution, even if it means we have to change our lifestyle.

          Stuff like sprinkling the ocean with reflective material doesn't have a very well known effect because we haven't tinkered with the planet in that way. I'm just a lowly ex-Biologist, but immediately after reading the description, alarm bells are going off like wild.

          These particles will be exposed to one of the world's largest food chains, possibly poisoning one of the greatest stores of bio-mass in existence. Life will probably manage to struggle on, but even a reduction in bio-mass in the ocean has a very profound impact on the land dwelling population of the world.

          We already have significant problems with mercury content of many types of edible marine life. They don't eat a lethal dose at any given time, but their bodies accumulate the poison until it presents problems for their predators. Such systems of poison storage causes collapses of the predators first, which then cause blooms of the prey, which then cause mass extinctions of the prey due to starvation. In this respect, animals are like humans, willing to watch the whole species go to hell in a hand bucket as long as they can exploit the environment for everything its got.

          Even if they're plastic particles, plastics leech phenols which seem to cause some health problems. Even if they're 100% inert (perhaps ceramic?) small particles are deadly in their own right. Particular atmospheric pollution does it's damage whether you get it from living in a city or other means, some people can't get enough of particular pollution so they take up smoking ;)

          I wonder if the researchers have considered how easy it would be to live, work, sleep, and eat in a house where every interior surface was covered with a fine layer of glitter.

      • by amorsen (7485)

        It seems to me that we shouldn't tinker with the entire atmosphere if we don't have a good deal of confidence we can control one of the constituent phenomena.

        Excellent. Stop using cars and electricity, the rest of us will be right behind you, I promise...

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Hatta (162192)

        Just look at how our attempts to control forest fires have backfired. If you stop forest fires, where's all that fuel going to go. If you stop hurricanes, where's all that energy going to go?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Immoral? Immoral? Geoengineering is a moral issue? Since when did Global Warming become a relig--

      Oh, wait...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 22, 2008 @08:14AM (#25466493)

    Never a more apt tag in the whole of the internet.

  • Are we really so arrogant that we'd attempt something on so large a scale with so little hard fact to back up such a plan? This is insanity. The hard core environmentalists will have gone too far if this comes to pass.
    • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

      by aurispector (530273)

      God help us. Nothing of this sort ought ever be attempted. If CO2 causes global warning, then cut back CO2. There's enough argument about THAT without introducing a whole new variable the mix. Whacky untestable schemes have no place outside of science fiction. Anyone with aspirations toward geoengineering needs to be shot for the greater good of humanity.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Goaway (82658)

        The concern is that we won't cut back CO2 enough (and looking at the current state of things, this is quite likely), and we need a backup plan.

        But gee, maybe you're right, that kind of thinking sure makes you deserving of nothing but death, doesn't it?

    • by IPFreely (47576)
      Hell yes.
      Whenever we do anything on this large a scale, it's always completely by accident and totally without a plan and with no facts at all. How could anyone suggest that we actually start applying a few facts and a plan to something we are already doing?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 22, 2008 @08:14AM (#25466501)

    To act like sunglasses... or moving the Earth back from the Sun a little bit.

  • Paging Dr. Kynes... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Eli Gottlieb (917758) <eligottlieb AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday October 22, 2008 @08:16AM (#25466515) Homepage Journal

    Who knows what will happen to important sea-life species if we go spreading reflective dust in the oceans?

    This is Earth; we have more than Shai-Hulud to preserve.

  • by IndustrialComplex (975015) on Wednesday October 22, 2008 @08:16AM (#25466517)

    But what could possibly go wrong?

    It seems that a lot of our problems are caused by the introduction of small particulates into the air and water. And once we figure out how to reflect 1% of the sunlight and eventually reduce our own greenhouse emissions I have to wonder one thing.

    How do you turn it off when we are 'cooler'?

    In actuality, I'm wondering a lot of things, but I'm fairly confident that dumping millions of barrels of reflective particles into the ocean is something that will not be high on a popularity poll.

    Of course, I'm one of those evil people who isn't as concerned about global warming. Not because I don't believe it exists, but because a lot of the cure appears to be worse than the symptoms. How much will it cost to relocate costal communities over a 50-100 year timeframe, and how much will it cost so that we won't have to do that. Those are some of the answers I want addressed.

    I could spend 3 million dollars to make my home hurricane proof, or I could move to Montana.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 22, 2008 @08:21AM (#25466555)

      There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.
      I dunno why she swallowed that fly,
      Perhaps she'll die.

      There was an old lady who swallowed a spider,
      That wriggled and jiggled and wiggled inside her.
      She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.
      But I dunno why she swallowed that fly -
      Perhaps she'll die.

      There was an old lady who swallowed a bird;
      How absurd, to swallow a bird!
      She swallowed the bird to catch the spider
      That wriggled and jiggled and wiggled inside her.
      She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.
      But I dunno why she swallowed that fly -
      Perhaps she'll die

      There was an old lady who swallowed a cat.
      Imagine that, she swallowed a cat.
      She swallowed the cat to catch the bird ...
      She swallowed the bird to catch the spider
      That wriggled and jiggled and wiggled inside her.
      She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.
      But I dunno why she swallowed that fly
      Perhaps she'll die

      There was an old lady who swallowed a dog.
      What a hog! To swallow a dog!
      She swallowed the dog to catch the cat...
      She swallowed the cat to catch the bird ...
      She swallowed the bird to catch the spider
      That wriggled and jiggled and wiggled inside her.
      She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.
      But I dunno why she swallowed that fly
      Perhaps she'll die.

      There was an old lady who swallowed a goat.
      Just opened her throat and swallowed a goat!
      She swallowed the goat to catch the dog ...
      She swallowed the dog to catch the cat.
      She swallowed the cat to catch the bird ...
      She swallowed the bird to catch the spider
      That wriggled and jiggled and wiggled inside her.
      She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.
      But I dunno why she swallowed that fly
      Perhaps she'll die.

      There was an old lady who swallowed a cow.
      I don't know how she swallowed a cow!
      She swallowed the cow to catch the goat... She swallowed the goat to catch the dog...
      She swallowed the dog to catch the cat...
      She swallowed the cat to catch the bird ...
      She swallowed the bird to catch the spider
      That wriggled and jiggled and wiggled inside her.
      She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.
      But I dunno why she swallowed that fly
      Perhaps she'll die.

      There was an old lady who swallowed a horse -
      She's dead, of course.

    • by Chrisq (894406)
      After we have done so much to clean up particulate pollution too. Bring back the smog.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by tonytnnt (1335443)
      The thing that makes Earths Systems Science and Climate Science so complex is how much they interact with each other. Changing one thing (such as the albedo, which is the scientific term for how much sunlight is reflected) can cause many other things to change which may amplify the effect, or stall the effect. For example, just quick thinking off my head, increasing the albedo of the earth by putting particles in the air would decrease global temperatures. This would increase the area of the polar ice caps.
    • by Goaway (82658)

      Gee, you could try actually reading the article and seeing if it answers any of those questions for you.

    • by delt0r (999393)
      Costs vers benefits. Thats exactly what we should be talking about. "cleaning" up CO2 emissions is *not* free. But then *not* cleaning up emissions isn't either. Unfortunately this topic is much more about ranting than informative discussion. Even from people who should know better.

      Personally however, our climate models need to be a lot better before we go dumping Gigajoules of perturbations into the system.
    • by CastrTroy (595695)
      What use is moving to Montana if we are unable to produce enough food because of changing climate conditions?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Ambitwistor (1041236)

      If it's stratospheric aerosol injection, you turn it off by stopping the injection. All the aerosols will precipitate out within a few years. That's actually the problem with it: it's too easy to turn off. If we fail to keep it going (bad side effects, lack of political will, economic crisis, militarization, etc.), then the counter-cooling rapidly disappears and we abruptly get all the warming we'd have otherwise seen, all compressed into a very short period of time. That's potentially far worse than e

  • by CuteSteveJobs (1343851) on Wednesday October 22, 2008 @08:20AM (#25466539)

    > they considered one idea: 'spreading very small reflective particles' over about five million square miles of ocean, so as to bounce about 1 percent more sunlight back to space

    Or we could just pollute less? It's less risky than turning the Earth into a big science experiment.

    There's another risk: That the same same people promoting "Clean Coal" (a big hello to you Australia) hop on this bandwagon as another reason not to do anything?

    • And West Virginia here in the states. I am presuming that "being green" and "clean" with coal means simply removing the toxic chemicals which would normally be spewed into the atmosphere as part of the burning process. I haven't quite figured out how they are claiming to be "carbon neutral." That one must have required some pretty creative accounting.

      If we put as much thought into addressing the problem rather than the symptoms, we'd be a good deal further along. And although I'm happy to be paying less at

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Who is "we" anyways? Everything you purchase has an environmental cost. The system and electricity you used to post on /. has an environmental cost.

      So it's a choice, enjoy life now and make it as comfortable as possible, or stress your life away because of 'global warming' and other natural events that scientists have little understanding about. Life on Earth will end. Will humans be here when that takes place. I seriously doubt it. If we eek out a 100 million years, I'll be surprised. A nice sized caldera

  • So, just as the Earth enters a significant cooling trend (~20-30 years of cooling, at least) we should consider something to make it cool even faster?

    It's my opinion, after considerable research, that we don't yet know enough to make long-term climate predictions, MUCH LESS BASE POLICY ON THOSE PREDICTIONS!

    It's disheartening that both US Presidential candidates have bought into the CAGW hype for the time being...

  • Rather than putting reflective particles in the Oceans, why not put reflective sheets on land? Giving the world's least hospitable deserts a tin foil hat would do a lot less damage to the ecosystem (since there isn't much of one there), and would be a lot eaiser to reverse if things go wrong.

  • Here is a geoengineering idea meant to address the concern of ocean levels. In the USA, we have death valley. Death Valley is huge. Check it out on a map sometime. My idea is to dig a trench/pipe from the ocean to death valley (the wacky part of this idea) and beginning filling it up. Eventually, we would have death valley lake and a new rush for lake front property.

    It is wacky, it is silly...its mad science!

  • by jgarzik (11218) on Wednesday October 22, 2008 @08:47AM (#25466805) Homepage

    As has been noted [blogspot.com], geo-engineering requires massive amounts of hubris and luck.

    Geo-engineering is the act of fighting pollution... with yet more pollution!

    And when you intentionally try to change a planet-wide system, all manner of unintended consequences will occur.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Lord Ender (156273)

      Since the dawn of agriculture we have been doing geoengineering whether we called it that or not.

  • How about just laying down huge fields of white stuff... like styrofoam only that doesn't get dirty as fast. There's probably some inert-ish byproduct from things we're making anyway that could be used. Seems like that could reflect a couple % back pretty easy, and if something went wrong we could always fix it.

  • Want to reflect a lot of light back? Require all new homes to go up with white roof coverings, with exception for shake shingles. All the rest are capable of being white. Likewise, require parking lots (esp. malls and wallmarts) to have loads of trees every couple of rows. These trees would be required to be a canopy type. Or paint the lot with white. In addition, can we make white asphalt? Not just a paint, but a dye? I would guess that it is possible. The simple fact is, that if we start now, then we can
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by gad_zuki! (70830)

      Im a little skeptical of this solution. The percent of the earth that is parking lots and building tops is actually incredibly tiny. Once you start leaving the developed areas its nothing but nature and ocean.

      Im sure you can reflect some light, but assuming that this little amount of light will translate into anything that affects global warming seems like a big assumption to me.

      Not to mention the cost of digging up the earth and extracting all the white pigments and producing various amount of white paint.

  • by I.M.O.G. (811163) <spamisyummy@gmail.com> on Wednesday October 22, 2008 @08:57AM (#25466907) Homepage

    The company Planktos [planktos-science.com] was showcased on modern marvels that claims they can have a tangible impact on global warming by mixing iron dust into ocean water then spreading it over plankton blooms.

    The iron draws plankton to the surface to feed on the iron dust, and the plankton also absorbs the CO2 out of the air. They claimed 1ton of iron could take tens of thousands tons CO2 out of the atmosphere. Not directly related to the article, but its on topic.

    You can watch the story on modern marvels [youtube.com]

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Red Flayer (890720)
      This idea (ocean fertilization with iron and/or urea) has been bandied about for some time, and it has its own problems... which, IMO, require further study in limited deployment. These problems include:

      Surface blooms that create low-oxygen zones
      Toxic algae blooms
      Starvation of coral beds
      Disporportional stimulation of diatom growth (diatoms are not as good a food source for copepods as algae, and in high concetrations cause gill problems in fish)

      Some of these issues can probably be resolved (e.g., blooms
  • Population (Score:3, Insightful)

    by BigBlueOx (1201587) on Wednesday October 22, 2008 @09:36AM (#25467379)
    When I was born, the estimated human population of this planet was 2.5 billion, give or take a hundred million. Today, the estimated human population of this planet is 6.7 billion, give or take a hundred million.

    Yes, the number of humans on this planet has more than doubled in my lifetime! And we wonder why we are affecting the global climate??

    The solutions are obvious. Up to now no one, including me, has had the balls to seriously consider implementing them. Eventually somebody is going to seriously consider implementing them and probably sooner than we expect. Interesting times, indeed.
  • by toby (759) * on Wednesday October 22, 2008 @11:06AM (#25468657) Homepage Journal

    the island is almost entirely comprises human-made trash. [google.ca] It currently weighs approximately 3.5 million tons with a concentration of 3.34 million pieces of garbage per square kilometer, 80 per cent of which is plastic.

    Due to the Patch's location in the North Pacific Gyre, its growth is guaranteed to continue as this Africa-sized section of ocean spins in a vortex that effectively traps flotsam.

  • by Torodung (31985) on Wednesday October 22, 2008 @04:12PM (#25473531) Journal

    This in from the future of an alternate timeline: The standard protocol for terraforming experiments such as these is to always have a backup planet, with complete infrastructure in place, in case something goes wrong.

    I don't think we're going to meet that requirement for many decades to come. Experimenting with global systems is ill advised at best until we have somewhere else to go in the event of a failure.

    --
    Toro

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