September 01, 2007
Cheap Climate Engineering Could Cool Earth 2 Degrees Celsius

Extreme outcomes from fossil fuels burning are probably easily avoidable at low cost.. Ocean iron fertilization would cool the Earth by increasing natural sulfur aerosal production which would increase cloud formation and planetary reflectivity.

July 24, 2007 -- Prof. Oliver Wingenter of New Mexico Tech and his colleagues propose a limited iron fertilization of the Southern Ocean as a means to stimulate the natural sulfur cycle associated with marine phytoplankton which could result in increased cloud reflectivity that would slow down global warming and possibly decrease sea level rise.

Wingenter and his research colleagues Dr. Scott M. Elliot at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Prof. Donald R. Blake at University of California, Irvine report their research findings in an article published online July 18 in the journal Atmospheric Environment, titled "New Directions: Enhancing the natural sulfur cycle to slow global warming,".

The scientists base their plan on their observations made during the Southern Ocean Iron Experiments (SOFeX) research expedition, the longest and most comprehensive ocean iron fertilization experiment to date, which was carried out in 2002 aboard three research ships in the Southern Ocean, between New Zealand and Antarctica.

The scientists who conducted the SOFeX experiment were looking for a cheap way to cool the planet by pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Instead they found a cheap way to pump a planet-cooling sulfide into the atmosphere.

Wingenter thinks we could delay global warming by 10 to 20 years at very low cost with iron fertilization of only 2% of the Southern Ocean. With just 30 ships and at most $100 million per year we could delay warming by 10 to 20 years.

"However, marine microorganisms not only consume inorganic carbon, but also produce and consume many climate-relevant organic gases," Wingenter continues. "The greatest climate effect of iron fertilization may be in enhancing dimethyl sulfide (DMS) production, leading to changes in the optical properties of the atmosphere and cooling of the region." Samples taken by Wingenter during SOFeX showed that the concentration of DMS increased about five times in the iron fertilized patch versus outside. Emissions of DMS are the main source of sulfate particle formation to the region and "seed" much of the cloud formation.

Wingenter and his research colleagues propose a limited fertilization of only about 2 percent of Southern Ocean---which would result in an estimated two degrees (Celsius) cooling of the region. A program of limited-scale iron fertilization in the Southern Ocean and perhaps a portion of the equatorial Pacific may have the potential to set back the tipping point of global warming from about 10 years to about 20 or more years," Wingenter estimates.

An iron-fertilization program of the scale envisioned by Wingenter and his fellow researchers would require about 30 ships, fertilizing the Southern Ocean with about 22 kilotons of iron sulfate, at an annual cost of anywhere between $10 million and $100 million, according to the article in Atmospheric Environment.

A program like this one could get tested at smaller scales and then scaled up very quickly as necessary. UC Irvine physicist Gregory Benford has proposed another cheap way to cool the planet as well. Cooling the planet down seems relatively easy. But I've yet to come across proposed engineering solutions for another consequence of atmospheric CO2 build-up: acidification of the oceans as atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolves into the oceans. What to do about that other than reduce CO2 emissions or accelerate the extraction of carbon from the atmosphere?

Writing in the Spring 2007 edition of the Wilson Quarterly scholar James R. Fleming argues that would-be climate engineers lack the ability to model all the side effects of climate engineering.

Yet thanks to remarkable advances in science and technology, from satellite sensors to enormously sophisticated global climate models, the fantasies of the weather and climate engineers have only grown. Now it is possible to tinker with scenarios in computer climate models—­manipulating the solar inputs, for example, to demonstrate that artificially increased solar reflectivity will generate a cooling trend in the ­model.

But this is a far cry from conducting a practical global field experiment or operational program with proper data collection and analysis; full accounting for possible liabilities, unintended consequences, and litigation; and the necessary international support and approval. Lowell Wood blithely declares that if his proposal to turn the polar icecap into a planetary air conditioner were implemented and didn’t work, the process could be halted after a few years. He doesn’t mention what harm such a failure could cause in the ­meantime.

There are signs among the geoengineers of an overconfidence in technology as a solution of first resort. Many appear to possess a too-literal belief in progress that produces an ­anything-­is-­possible mentality, abetted by a basic misunderstanding of the nature of today’s climate models. The global climate system is a “massive, staggering beast,” as oceanographer Wallace Broecker describes it, with no simple set of controlling parameters. We are more than a long way from understanding how it works, much less the precise prediction and practical “control” of global ­climate.

Fleming also wonders who should control a climate engineering effort. The effects of climate engineering would create large numbers of both winners and losers. Cooling via engineering efforts would improve farming in some regions and make it much harder in other regions. Cooling would change costs of heating and air conditioning and air conditioning and change which structure designs are ideal in many areas.

Assume, for just a moment, that climate control were technically possible. Who would be given the authority to manage it? Who would have the wisdom to dispense drought, severe winters, or the effects of storms to some so that the rest of the planet could prosper? At what cost, economically, aesthetically, and in our moral relationship to nature, would we manipulate the ­climate?

But these questions which Fleming raises can already be raised about existing human activity. We build cities and cities cause severe thunderstorms. We plow fields on a massive scale to grow crops and farms reduce cloud cover and rainfall. In fact, humans might already have engineered the planet's climate thousands of years ago via farming and forest destruction that might have prevented an ice age. The difference with the modern would-be climate engineers isn't necessarily the scale on which they want to act. Rather, they want to intervene on purpose in a system to partially cancel out the effects of interventions we've already done by accident.

Given that our current industries, technologies, and lifestyles already generate lots of side effects and external costs (and not just due to climate effects) I do not see why we should oppose climate engineering just because it will inflict costs on some. If we took that approach on all environmental questions we'd have to abandon modern technology and force a huge contraction in the size of the human population. In many cases those costs will effectively come from returning a local environment to a state more like it would be absent human intervention. Though that would not always be the case.

Update: Climate cooling measures such as Gregory Benford and Oliver Wingenter propose can be implemented so quickly that we can wait to see whether global warming becomes a big problem before trying these methods. But it would be helpful to do research on these proposals to measure their effects and get a better handle on what undesirable side effects would arise from their use.

The best response I can see to rising CO2 levels is to try harder to develop cheaper substitutes to fossil fuels. Research that produces energy that is both cheaper and cleaner would give us the best of both worlds.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 September 01 03:25 PM  Climate Engineering

David Govett said at September 1, 2007 6:42 PM:

Global warming has delayed the next ice age by 500,000 years, experts say. So by all mean let's cool the earth and hasten mile-deep glaciers over North America.

aa2 said at September 1, 2007 8:19 PM:

The progress doubters arguments against climate engineering are quite funny. They say the climate system is far too difficult for us to understand.. yet they are the same ones arguing they know so much about global warming 50 years into the future. Which brings up what I've always felt about most global warmists.. they are fundamentally anti-progress, being afraid of climate change is just a weak excuse by them, for us to roll back development.

My position is I really doubt carbon dioxide global warming.. but if it does happen we need to use more advanced technology to deal with it. I honestly didn't think we would be able to intervene so easily in some of the ways the scientists are talking about though.

Guillaume Theoret said at September 1, 2007 8:19 PM:

Having a way to quickly cool down the earth is great, but do we have a way to warm it up equally quickly should we end up going too far?

Russ Mitchell said at September 1, 2007 9:07 PM:

Carbon reduction can be achieved through charcoaling. Mix the rest with organic fertilizer to produce terra preta do indio. HUGE gains on that front, if the resulting soils are used in places where the soils are currently exhausted.

rsilvetz said at September 2, 2007 9:46 AM:

Look, global warming is the attempt to create "a global problem" so that global governance can be shoved down our throats with the UN folks in charge.

In reality, we know that the world isn't even as warm as when Caesar was emperor. In his time, Britain had a wine industry. Hell, Greenland(!) is still covered in ice and people forget that a scant number of centuries ago there was Northern polar circumnavigation route. Is it getting warmer? Sure it is. Ever since the so-called Little Ice Age. This is a good thing.

The idea that a 5th decimal place change in CO2 concentrations given the absolute concentrations of the gas somehow affects global temps is poppycock and should be called so. To actually be worried about is to put scientific mysticism at center stage because Chicken Little's everywhere think we are going to burn up in 50 years. And you know that too -- back when schools taught to think -- you might remember someone teaching the import of water vapor to the process. You might also want to do the back-of-envelope calculation of what water vapor does in terms of heat content, infrared absorption and reflection, and how freaking much of it is in the air (hell, it rains, sometimes even in Southern Cali!), and realize its first order effects swamp CO2 by 2-3 orders of magnitude. The direct implication is that at most CO2 can't be responsible for more than 1% of the current change in temp even IF it does what the alarmists claim. So unless you can stop the oceans from evaporating in response to solar output, and last time I looked, the majority of the Earth's surface is ocean, global warming will go along its merry way, oblivious to us.

This makes the posted article most interesting, since it actually addresses the consequence of evaporation, which is cloud cover. It might even work! I find the farming comments most intriguing...

Use your own heads. Just as the flapping of butterfly wings doesn't cause hurricanes, neither does CO2 cause global warming. Both assertions arise from sensitivity of the differential equations of the models to initial conditions. In The Real World®, there is something called damping, which everyone experiences in the bathtub when they make a wave and watch it dissipate. In The Real World®, in systems with large drivers, e.g. the sun, water vapor, orbital oscillations in the form of nutation and precession of the Earth [this last is actually responsible for the Ice Ages], it's silly to think a 5th decimal change in CO2 does anything at all.

I don't expect this silliness to end in my lifetime, but someone has to keep repeating reality in the hope that someone may listen someday.

Loki on the run said at September 2, 2007 2:21 PM:

Why would we want to reduce the warming that is happening? Species diversity is greater during warmer times.

In any event, it seems likely that we will be worried about global cooling in a few years time.

Tj Green said at September 3, 2007 3:10 PM:

It`s cause and effect and feedback. The more computational power we have,the less chaotic everything is.

realist engineer said at September 3, 2007 4:11 PM:

It seems there's a widespread belief that people who are sceptical that "climate engineering" will both work and be without unacceptable side-effects are all against progress. There might be a group for which this is true, but there is at least one person (me) who is an actual research engineer who doesn't want to put all our eggs in that basket because quite often research doesn't match up to the initial reports (particularly when those reports are used to get further grants or make press releases on the internet). Often research produces something different from what you thought it would, and in the world of human economics providing what you've produced is saleable it doesn't matter if you didn't solve the original problem. That's not the case in climate engineering; the original problem must be solved. By all means keep looking at both existing and new climate engineering to develop them, but don't assume because of a couple of papers and some musings on the internet that it's 100 per cent certain to work and you can declare the matter closed.

pete said at September 4, 2007 3:19 AM:

rsilvetz reminded us of damping.

The example of watching a wave in the bath tub dissipating, I'd substitute with another scenario.

Everyones seems to be concerned about a couple degrees of warming.
But it is the atmospheric disturbances, caused by a combination of warming and deforestation, we should be most concerned with.
Actually, as you all know the cause of any wild weather is the uneven distribution of atmospheric humidity and temperature.

Forests have a damping effect on the formation of wild weather.
Trees are known to break the wind - they reduce the effects of barometric pressure differences.
Back to rsilvetz's bath tub: pull the plug and watch the vortex form.
Any obstacle right in the beginning will stop it from becoming a proper one.
Try to stop it when in full swing - it'll be harder.
Why do the most destructive winds form over the seas? Well, the atmospheric vortex has time and room to build and no obstacles right from the beginning.

Continue to deforestate and the result will be a magnification of effects caused by an otherwise benign slight increase in global temperatures.

Anyone thinking about using the antarctic as a global fridge just think twice about this.
Increased atmospheric pressure differentials will be created by such action and the spin offs will create even more havoc in the tropics and subtropics.
Adjusting the temperature everywhere on our planet by whatever measures - maybe yes.
Trying to counteract global warming through local countermeasures - probably no, or maybe yes, if in connection with massive worldwide reafforestation.

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Bobo said at March 2, 2012 2:54 AM:

Maybe we could artificially release the dimethyl sulfide above the earth's deserts in large quantities. Could this increase the rainfall in arid regions for farmland use?

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