Scientists propose a Plan B to cool the planet through geoengineering
But are we willing to live without blue skies?
Mon, Nov 02 2009 at 12:18 AM
Love the blue skies that greet you on a sunny day? Don’t get too used to it. Scientists have proposed a last-resort solution to climate change. It involves engineering the upper atmosphere to cool down, and this will result in a planetary haze.
Recently, experts came together at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a seminar called "Engineering a Cooler Earth: Can We Do It? Should We Try?" Scientists discussed two key geoengineering approaches to cooling the Earth’s atmosphere: removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reflecting the sun's rays away from Earth. However, both lines of attack have complications.
Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere involves using the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide. However, this solution requires a large amount of time. Further it will continue the already accelerated acidification of the seas, damaging corals and shellfish.
Reflecting the sun’s rays away from the Earth seems to be the preferred choice. It works by putting large amounts of sulfur in the air, as volcanoes do. Scientists cite the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, which cooled the planet by 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit. And so, scientists are seriously weighing this Plan B option, which would include lobbing aerosols via high-altitude military jets into the atmosphere — notably, at a cost of several billion dollars a year.
But what would putting sulfur in the sky do to the planet? Sure, we’d have a cooler Earth, which would include reduced or reversed melting of ice sheets over the Arctic sea and increased plant productivity. But scientists predict this could mean more droughts in Africa and Asia, more acidification in the oceans, more ozone holes in the Arctic, and reduced solar energy production.
And in a move that would likely frustrate astronomers and freak out the world — a layer of haze would lessen blue skies and obstruct the heavens.
Even so, the American Meteorological Society has endorsed this geoengineering as a viable option. "Geoengineering will not substitute for either aggressive mitigation or proactive adaptation … but it could contribute to a comprehensive risk management strategy to slow climate change and alleviate some of its negative impacts."
Others worry that this Plan B solution might undermine the existing efforts to stop global warming. The Institute of Physics, a nonprofit with 36,000 members, released this statement: "Climate geoengineering at scale must be considered only as a last resort … There should be no lessening of attempts to otherwise correct the harmful impacts of human economies on the Earth’s ecology and climate."
Nonetheless, government officials are considering the ideas. As House Science Committee spokesman Alexandria Dery Snider told msnbc.com, “Geoengineering may … be a stopgap to buy us some time, if we find ourselves in a dire situation." This Thursday, the House Science Committee will hold its first hearing on the implications of geoengineering.