The world needs a back-up plan to combat climate change using some long-controversial techniques, earth scientists told the UK’s Independent in a recent poll. The failure so far of international action to halt the growth of emissions has cast doubt on nations' ability to meaningfully address climate change. As a result, 54 percent of the scientists polled by the newspaper now embrace the pursuit of geo-engineering technologies that intervene directly into the natural cycles of the earth.

These methods include stimulating algae growth in oceans to take CO2 out of the air and pumping water vapor or sulphate particles into the air over oceans to keep sunlight from getting through, which would (theoretically) decrease global temperatures. The possible technologies also could involve more alien interventions, such as sending mirrors into space to deflect sunlight from Earth.

All geo-engineering technologies have serious problems and uncertainties, and just about all of them have been frowned upon for at least a decade. But the psychological climate might be adjusting itself to match geological conditions. Though temperatures in 2008 were slightly cooler than average, earth scientists recorded more unstable weather patterns, which cause more extreme and unpredictable events along the lines of hurricanes and tornadoes.

Virtually all climate scientists agree that any “plan B” would require lots of research and experimentation to guarantee that the carbon uptake initiated by any geoengineering projects doesn’t throw any other ecosystem out of order. The geoscientists agree, too, that these technological interventions should be seen as a last resort, not as a replacement for conventional methods of combating climate change, such as adopting clean energy alternatives. Even so, the idea of fertilizing the ocean with iron filaments to promote plankton blooms may be moving ahead the fastest. Der Spiegel reports that a ship will sail this month to Antarctica, where an Indian-German team will stimulate the largest artificial algal bloom to date. Algae, which suck carbon dioxide out of the air as they grow, require certain sets of nutrients to bloom in large quantities. The most limited of those nutrients is iron, so the plan is to dump iron particles in regions of the ocean that meet all the other conditions needed for algae to grow. A Silicon-Valley based company, called Climos, has also carefully been conducting test fertilizations in the hopes of building support for its algae scheme. As the clean tech trends of 2009 unfold, we'll keep an eye on whether these fairly extreme technological fixes gain more funding and support.

Story by Sandra Upson. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in January 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2009

Geoengineering getting a second look?
Skepticism on geoengineering technologies may be clearing up and heading toward better solutions.