October 12, 2002
The Future Prospects For Climate Engineering

Razib from Gene Expression has beaten me to posting about this Scientific American article on the proposed use of phytoplankton to take CO2 out of the atmosphere in order to prevent global warming:

Working from this theory, Green Sea Venture postulates that fertilizing 16 million square miles of the Southern Ocean with 8.1 million tons of iron would zero out the world contribution to atmospheric CO2 increases from burning fossil fuel--2.2 gigatons of carbon per year. "The potential of the oceans is so great that we ought to do the experiments that allow us to decide whether or not it is a worthwhile undertaking for climate control," says Lee Rice, president of the company. "But the scientific data are not conclusive." No one has yet been able to measure how much carbon sinks into the deep ocean, because the detritus sinks slowly. So that is the focus of an, as-yet-unscheduled, 5,000 square mile fertilization experiment, which the company would help fund. "In addition," says Rice, "there is a real gap between the scientific clarity and how to do this practically, since you do need to verify how much carbon has been sequestered in order to get paid." His investors, he asserts, are willing to wait for science's judgment about whether commercial activity is warranted.

However, I want to post on this because I want to use it as a jumping off point to talk about an issue that I think is worth thinking about: future prospects for climate engineering. The most dramatic experiments made in climate engineering have been with the attempts to control hurricanes in Project Stormfury:

It was on the heels of Hurricane Camille barreling into the Gulf Coast regions of Mississippi and Alabama when Hurricane Debby was seeded on a couple of occasions over the two day period of August 19-20, 1969. Each time the storm was seeded, sustained winds were reduced significantly.

The first time, winds dropped 31 percent while the second time, they only dropped 15 percent. The apparent success with Debby helped fuel new projects, and improvements in technology. In particular, Hurricane Hunter aircraft, which went up dramatically during the 1970s.

Ultimately though, Project Stormfury was cancelled in 1980 since the team was unable to clearly ascertain whether or not the seeding efforts were really causing storms to weaken, or the systems just became victims of the environment around them. Nevertheless, the work done did bear some fruit as forecasters and scientists alike were able to learn a great deal from their research, and it has helped them improved forecasting accuracy.

The NOAA web site has a graphical depiction of Project Stormfury Hypothesis. Here's another article on Project Stormfury. My own take on the skepticism expressed in the article is that science is all about experimentation. If an attempt at cloud seeding was attempted on a much larger scale (say bump up the seeding by a couple of orders of magnitude) using today's technology then the seeding approach could be much more thoroughly tested.

Some people are going to oppose climate engineering because, for reasons that are religious in character, they believe that humans do not have the right to intervene in nature to cause climate scale changes. Others will oppose it out of fear of unintended consequences. However, even if we reject the sort of moral philosophy that views natures as something that should not be tampered with and even if we may some day know enough to be able to predict all major consequences there will still be another argument against climate engineering: any intentional shift in weather that causes changes in one place will cause changes throughout the world. As a consequence of those changes (no matter how large or small) there are bound to be winners and losers throughout the world as well. For instance, a slight increase or decrease in rainfall in other countries will either increase flooding or lead to a reduction of crop yields.

Of course industrialization is already causing small scale climate changes around the world. Greenhouse gases are only one of the ways that this is happening. Agriculture and cities change how much dust gets generated and, as was demonstrated by the airline shutdown in America after the 9/11 attacks, jet contrails change temperature ranges. Many other examples can be cited. But these activities are carried out for reasons other than intentional climate change and most governments support the right of their own peoples to carry out these various climate-changing activities. Few human activities are currently carried out for the sole purpose of climate change (cloud seeding for rain being the only one I can think of). So people will still draw a distinction between intentional and unintentional climate change.

One might be able to argue that climate engineering to dampen the energy of hurricanes would cause changes that are smaller than the changes we are already causing. However, unless the dampening down will reduce the hurricane into a mild storm the danger is that the hurricane might change course and in doing so cause damage to different towns and cities. The problem is that while the total amount of damage may be less the people who suffer it will claim they have a right not to have artificially induced damage inflicted on them as a consequence of reducing a much larger amount of damage elsewhere.

So does that mean that climate engineering is beyond the realm of political feasibility? I can see one reason why the vast bulk of the population of many countries may decide to support it: to reverse a sudden, large, and painful change in the climate. I've previously posted a link on ParaPundit.com about the possibility that the Atlantic Conveyor that brings heat up from the Gulf Stream to keep the North Atlantic and Europe much warmer could stop running if the salinity of the north Atlantic drops too low (and as you can see by clicking thru it is dropping).

It is not clear at this point that human greenhouse gas emissions are what are behind the changes in the north Atlantic salinity. We must bear in mind that large climate variations happen naturally. The Atlantic Conveyor may stop running and start running for reasons unrelated to human activity. Still, if it did stop running lots of people would decide that human activities at least contributed to the event and hence they would conclude that the event was "unnatural" (ignoring that humans are part of nature and that it is false to believe that consciousness and sentience makes us unnatural). The ability to label a large and sudden climate change as "unnatural" would open the door widespread support for an unnatural intervention to get the Conveyor running again.

It is my view that any large sudden change in climate will be labeled as unnatural. Never mind that large sudden changes in climate happen for natural reasons (ie not as a consequence of activities carried out by humans). Human impacts on the world are large enough that any large climate change can plausibly be blamed on human activity. The objections to climate engineering therefore are easier to overcome because in many cases climate engineering can be portrayed as an attempt to reverse what humanity has caused. This makes the future prospects for climate engineering much more likely that they might seem at first glance.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2002 October 12 02:57 PM  Engineering Large Scale


Comments
Steve Merrick said at September 28, 2005 2:05 PM:

I've been following some of these grand schemes for saving the Earth from the harsh forces of nature for some time and I never cease to be both amused and alarmed that supposedly intelligent, rational beings would even consider some of these grand hair-brained schemes.

Consider for example "Project StormFury." While I seriously doubt that man could ever influence the course or intensity of a major hurricane; assuming we could, the question is: should we? Hurricanes serve an important role in regulating climate and relieving excessive heat rise in the oceans. If we suppressed hurricanes, might that not contribute to a rise in mean ocean temperatures? Who knows what Pandora's Box we would be opening? Hurricanes serve as a sort of pressure-relief-valve to keep ocean temperatures from rising too far relative to the air. If we were successful in suppressing this mechanism, might that not lead to a potential increase the strength of major convective ocean currents like the Gulf Stream? Might that not contribute to rapid melting of the polar ice cap? Consider what would likely happen if we suppressed the first series of tropical storms in a season and the surface temperature of the Gulf of Mexico correspondingly rises several degrees above their normal limits. Vast amounts of energy beyond normal would thus be stored in the ocean water that would have to be dissipated somehow. Might that not have the potential for spawning a catastrophic superstorm? Might not correspondingly excessive sea temperatures lead to increased adverse biological consequences such as red-tides and fish kills?

...And this nutball idea to create a permanent artificial ring or cloud in orbit around the world to protect the Earth from "global warming" would almost certainly lead to our extinction by turning the world into a giant iceball, if successful. Even if GW is real, shading the Earth and reflecting away a percentage of the Sun's energy could not help but have drastic, permanent adverse impacts on the Earth's climate and ecosystem.

These ambitious climatologists might be sincere in their good intensions, but remember how the road to hell is paved...

Steve

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