December 20, 2007
Scientists Consider Climate Engineering Option

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are rising more rapidly than in previous decades. In the face of this trend a number of scientists are looking at the risks and benefits of climate engineering.

Govindasamy Bala, an atmospheric scientist at the East Bay's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, discussed a climate model he recently completed. By putting aerosols in the stratosphere to reflect sunlight, he found the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth's surface could be reduced by 2 percent - enough to counterbalance the doubling of carbon dioxide. On the other hand, he emphasized, the climate reacted more strongly to the aerosols than the carbon dioxide, resulting in less global average rainfall.

"I don't think our understanding of the climate system is now complete in order for us to start with geoengineering," Bala said.

Could another technique combined with the aerosols boost precipitation? If so, what would do it? Cloud seeding? Methods to spray water into the atmosphere to get more water to evaporate? How to do that without using fossil fuels energy? Floating windmills to power water spray pumps?

But aerosols aren't the only way to address the problem. Ken Caldeira opposes using sulphate aerosols to cool the Earth but Caldeira and Govindasamy think reflecting light away with a physical reflective material might work better than an aerosol.

A few years ago, Dr Caldeira set out to disprove an idea put forward by Livermore physicists Lowell Wood and Edward Teller to cool the Earth with a sheet of superfine reflective mesh - similar in concept to orbiting mirrors.

In a computer model, Dr Caldeira and colleague Bala Govindasamy simulated the effects of diminished solar radiation.

"We were originally trying to show that this is a bad idea, that there would be residual regional and global climate effects," explains Dr Caldeira.

"Much to our chagrin, it worked really well."

But mirrors and other physical surfaces for reflecting light might also reduce precipitation.

My problem with the light reflection schemes is that they don't prevent higher CO2 concentrations from dissolving into the oceans to form a mild acid that acidifies the oceans. If that acidification is a problem then light reflection by itself doesn't address what might be the biggest problem with atmospheric CO2 build-up.

Pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere by seeding oceans with iron is another option. The iron would allow more algae to grow and the algae would convert dissolved CO2 into hydrocarbon materials, a portion of which would sink to the ocean floor. Dutch aquatic microbiologist Jef Huisman says iron fertilization to extract CO2 from the atmosphere seems a risky way to do climate engineering.

Asked about the research about to be conducted by Planktos, Professor Huisman said: I think it's an interesting idea as well as a dangerous idea. Interesting because we know that if we can increase the primary production and there will be a larger intake of carbon dioxide in to the ocean.

"But is also dangerous. Just as you fertilize on land you will change the eco-system. Whereas we have experience of what happens in a meadow, we have no experience of what would happen with the eco-system species composition in the ocean. What happens if you do large scale iron fertilization? We have no idea which species are going to profit or whether it will cause harmful algal blooms.

Professor Huisman predicts that once the iron goes into the ocean that there will be a strong increase in phytoplankton species.

"I would expect the small phytoplankton species -- that have a fast growth rate - will be there first," he said. "Secondly you would have slow plankton species that would catch up and start grazing on the phytoplankton species."

But you have to weigh risks against other risks. The Chinese and Indians aren't going to stop their rising consumption of fossil fuels unless either fossil fuels reserves start running out or we find cheaper alternative sources of energy. I am expecting oil and natural gas production to peak in the next decade. But coal reserves might be large enough (it is not clear) to melt the polar ice caps.

Big phytoplankton blooms could be harnessed in aquaculture. Create enclosed areas in the middle of oceans in areas where iron shortages prevent phytoplankton growth. Seed with iron. Put in fish. Let them eat the phytoplankton. Harvest the fish. Feed an unfortunately growing world population and extract CO2 from the atmosphere at the same time.

The way I see it we need replacements for fossil fuels regardless of whether Peak Coal is nearing. If Peak Coal is a distant prospect then we need alternatives because coal is a big conventional source of pollution (and I really wish the harm from conventional pollution got half the press that global warming receives since particulates and mercury really are bad for you). Cheaper alternatives to coal would displace coal and we'd get cleaner air and water. If Peak Coal is coming soon along with Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas then we need some other way to power civilization or else our living standards will plummet. Either way we need cheaper cleaner sources of energy.

Well, readers Alex and Brock both draw my attention to one possibility: 200 kilowatt Toshiba micro nuclear plants might bring cheap nuclear power to small communities, big buildings or city blocks.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 December 20 10:41 PM  Climate Engineering


Comments
Julian Morrison said at December 21, 2007 3:10 AM:

One of the more interesting ways I've heard would be to use refractive blown-glass bubbles. Refraction avoids picking up any heat or momentum from the light it's diverting, and a large quantity of bubbles could be blown from a compact feedstock of liquefied glass.

rsilvetz said at December 21, 2007 8:21 AM:

CO2 is not a problem. Can we understand that every single bit of all this is just scare-mongering? That every piece of data to come out of the UN and UN-sanctioned research is not reliable and has been shown several times to have been either wrong or omitted or falsified to change the scientific reality. There's no "hockey stick" increase. Greenland is still covered in ice. That the cause is solar is known from the fact that the rest of the planets in the solar system are warmer.

Got that? It's impossible to dodge these facts now. The Great Barrier reef has been around thru a hell of a lot of Co2 changes. It will continue to be.

I will even quote that silly rag WorldNetDaily -- "Hundred's of Scientists Reject Global Warming" Finally we are seeing the rational get some forum...

Carlos said at December 21, 2007 11:15 AM:

Ultimately, the solution is to put less of the problematic gasses into our atmosphere. Stopgap solutions of geo-engineering are simply not going to work as predicted; there are too many variables.

Lyle said at December 21, 2007 11:18 AM:

What would convince you rslivetz? Anything?

By the by, now that the sun is reaching a solar minimum, solar studies have shown solar alone does not explain our current rise in global temperatures. See http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v448/n7149/full/448008a.html

This is on top of previous studies (back in '99) that showed it could be part of it, but not all of it. See http://www.giss.nasa.gov/research/news/19990408/

Finally, relying on anecdotal evidence regarding planetary bodies warming isn't convincing for a number of reasons (see http://www.badastronomy.com/bablog/2007/04/29/is-global-warming-solar-induced/ or http://malaysia.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20071216052508AA7mjrm).

rslivetz, please back up your arguments. Refute the other side's rebuttals. State what your criteria for being proved right or wrong is. However, I must say that the stating of a few out of context facts, words like 'scare-mongering,' and claiming a global conspiracy of falsification of scientific data just isn't very convincing.

Loki on the run said at December 21, 2007 11:55 AM:

Personally, I think a warmer planet would actually be better, and fewer humans would die ...

Moreover, we have solid evidence that the planet did not enter thermal runaway even when there were much higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Increased precip (due to higher temperatures) and increased CO2 helps provide for increased plant growth, which pulls down CO2 levels.

Also, I'm with rslivetz on the scare mongering.

Paul F. Dietz said at December 21, 2007 1:44 PM:

CO2 is not a problem. Can we understand that every single bit of all this is just scare-mongering?

One can reach such an 'understanding' only by so filtering the actual evidence that one approaches a psychotic break with reality.

David Weisman said at December 21, 2007 1:53 PM:

I'm pretty sure if fish eat plankton and people digest fish, the CO2 has made its way back into the ecosystem.

In terms of orbiting mirrors, or reflecting materials, has anyone done any engineering? As far as I know, getting (presumably very thin) reflectors into a stable orbit, (presumably by spacecraft, you can't launch a mirror in a cannon) might be more expensive and difficult than huge cuts in Co2. Julian Morrison seems to have solved some of these problems - his plan has got to be better than giant mirrors of very thin foil which astronauts have to launch into orbit without crumpling. I still want to know how much the plan would cost though. The questions below may apply as well.

The aerosols might actually turn out to be the best of a very troublesome group of options, so lets consider them problems seriously. Like global warming, I'm pretty sure rain will be reduced in some areas more than others. Even if millions of lives are saved globally by preventing famine due to crop failure, if one or two poor countries suffer the brunt of the bad side effects of our planetary engineering, we will have done it to them more or less deliberately for what we considered the greater good. Imagine if someone did that to us - who knows, in a hundred years China might. Even predicting which regions will be affected how is tough, and we can hardly compensate until we do.

I'm as contrarian as the next guy, but I have to go with the mainstream media on sulfate pollution. If China builds coal plants that harm the Chinese people, some of whom benefit from economic growth and some of whom don't, that's bad. If they promote global warming which harms people who have no say in the government (not even living there and having the choice of trying to overthrow it) and no benefit from any power produced, that takes it to the next level.

Bob said at December 21, 2007 2:06 PM:

Russell Seitz suggests that early 20-th century shipping dumped megatons of iron into the sea annually. They burned hundreds of megatons of bunker coal, which is ~2% iron. The ash generally went up the smokestack.

I find that interesting as people suggest causing algae blooms by fertilizing the oceans with iron. Perhaps we've already done it, and we're now feeling the results of the switch to bunker oil...

Cheers,
--Bob

Skeptical said at December 21, 2007 2:49 PM:

Rsilvetz and others unconcerned about global warming:
You paint a rosy picture; more, healthier plant life, deserts blooming, less old men having heart attacks shoveling snow, milder winters for us all. That sounds like a great world to me too. But what do you intend to do about rising sea levels worldwide? I don't want to take in a few tens or hundreds of millions of refugees from flooded out areas of Europe, Africa and Asia.
Global warming needs to be combatted, not necessarily because it is bad but because of the societal changes rising sea levels could bring.

Fly said at December 21, 2007 5:53 PM:

I see two problems with geo-engineering solutions:

First, difficulty modeling what will happen. Presently there are over twenty "accepted" climate computer models. Most of these models make similar predictions about long term average global temperatures. However, the "particulars" of the models vary widely. One model shows clouds having a strong effect while another shows a minimal contribution. There is no regional consistency between models. All of the models suffer from coarse resolution, wide areas with varying topography are modeled with a single data point. None of the models account for all of the factors known to affect climate, e.g., variations in solar radiation, clouds, ocean currents, surface topology and ground cover, CO2 recycling by land and ocean life, etc. I suspect that the models have been tuned to give the results their designers (or their bosses) expected. Without good global climate modeling tools, geo-engineering makes little sense. Eventually the models will improve. Different models will agree not only on broad averages but more importantly at the regional and local level. At that time it would be good to have several well-understood and tested geo-engineering methods.

(Some evidence of global warming does not depend on computer simulation. Post industrialization rises in CO2 levels have been well documented. Satellite observations have shown global average temperatures rising over the last decades. But without good computer models we don't know what causes the temperature changes and whether CO2 levels will continue to rise and whether temperatures will continue to rise with increases in CO2 levels.)

Second, geo-politics. Russia depends on fossil fuels for its wealth. Russia would significantly benefit from higher global average temperatures. If China significantly reduces its growth rate, internal dissent would increase and possibly threaten the ruling regime. Suppose a nation does geo-engineering and computer climate modeling shows that another nation suffers. How would the conflict be resolved? The interests of the world nations are not aligned.

I'm in favor of technology, combined with market forces. Support basic energy research and fund limited demonstration projects. Streamline the regulatory and environmental lawsuit hurdles facing nuclear power plants. If a carbon tax is used, the receipts should be used to fund energy research and demo projects. Building codes should require moderate-to-aggressive insulation and energy efficiency standards depending on cost/benefit. Don't apply carbon caps or "smoke and mirror" carbon trading schemes. Don't fund pork barrel corn-based ethanol projects.

My basic philosophy is that increased world GDP leads to faster technology growth and more wealth available to implement technological fixes. Policies that significantly reduce GDP growth put the world at greater risk. (E.g., we would also be less able to deal with threats such as asteroids, super volcanoes, or a deadly virus.) For selfish reasons, I don't want lowered GDP growth to reduce the rate of biomedical advances that could lead to rejuvenation therapies in my lifetime.

There is a chance that the economic costs of AGW could outweigh the costs of implementing a worldwide cap on greenhouse gases. Even so, I don't see how the world community can force nations to comply. On average the signatories to Kyoto have not reduced CO2 emissions. Nor do I expect China, India, Brazil, or Russia to voluntarily reduce emissions whether they sign a treaty or not.

My blue sky plan is to have factories take CO2 from the atmosphere and manufacture carbon-based blimps whose top surface is coated with solar cells and whose bottom has microwave antennas for beaming power to surface distribution centers. The high atmosphere blimps would be steered to areas where cooling was desired. Today this isn't feasible, in twenty years the world should have both the technology and the manufacturing capability. Carbon sequestering, cooling, climate control, and power generation in one package.

(PS Contrary to Al Gore, most climate models predict modest sea level rises for the next century. Coasts already rise and sink due to continental drift, changes in the glacial ice layers, and local depletion of water aquifers. If you have technology and wealth you can protect your shores or move. If you are poor, life sucks.)

Fly said at December 21, 2007 7:00 PM:

"Refraction avoids picking up any heat or momentum from the light it's diverting,..."

Appears to contradict Newton's 2nd and 3rd Laws of Motion?

Randall Parker said at December 21, 2007 7:48 PM:

Loki,

Putting Florida and other coastal areas under water would cost us big time.

There are a few questions here with regard to CO2:

1) Are we going to warm the planet?

2) If we do will how much will that mess things up? The ice melting seems like a really bad problem.

3) CO2 acidifying the oceans. A problem? Seems like it.

Skeptical,

Regards rising sea levels: What we really need is to keep Antarctica and Greenland really cold while letting other areas warm up. Keep the ice locked up. But enjoy the warmth in much of the world. How about space shields that reduce light on the poles only?

This would tend to make winds blow stronger though.

David Weisman

Some of the biological materials from the fish farms would drop down in the ocean even if we harvested fish.

Russell Seitz said at December 21, 2007 11:54 PM:

Bob said at December 21, 2007 02:06 PM:

Russell Seitz suggests that early 20-th century shipping dumped megatons of iron into the sea annually..... Perhaps ....we're now feeling the results of the switch to bunker oil...

No, Bob, that's a conclusion almost worthy of Rslivetz the Dim.

The reason the prehistory of ocean fertilization requires study is to stock the scientific arsenal to deal with the contingency of responding to CO2 driven change when and as it arises.
Merry Christmas
Russell Seitz

Ps to rslivitz

you will find a sidebar link on my blog to Kerry Emmanuel's atmospheric science primer.

Kerry is the guy down the hall from Dick Lindzen at MIT, and his old professor finds no fault with what you will read in it.

Bob Badour said at December 22, 2007 4:23 PM:

Hire the Dutch to protect the mess they left in Manhattan.

If CO2 causes the polar ice to melt, the polar ice will help dilute the acidity of the CO2. Problem solved.

(Except for that whole flooding Florida and the coasts part, which is where the Dutch come in.)

Dave Gore said at December 23, 2007 9:29 AM:

If it works, carbon sequestration by plankton sounds like an ideal solution to me. But easy solutions are anathema to luddites:
'In a joint statement in August 2006 Greenpeace, the WWF and Friends of the Earth said: "Carbon offsets should only be seen as a last resort" and that "purchasing offsets can be seen as an easy way out for governments, businesses and individuals to continue polluting without making changes to the way they do business or their behavior".'
They don't even want the idea to be tested. These are the same people who feared cold fusion would work.

Branford Smythe-Forbes said at December 23, 2007 1:32 PM:

Are we in full panic mode yet? No? Okay, RP, keep going. The more panic we can cause, the more money I can skim from carbon trading, along with my friend Al. Keep it up, boys!

Randall Parker said at December 23, 2007 5:51 PM:

Dave Gore,

Practically speaking here are the possibilities:

1) We come up with really cheap energy sources that displace hydrocarbons from the market. For example, something cheaper than coal electric so the Chinese stop adding 90 GW of coal electric capacity per year.

2) The Chinese and Indians keep ramping up coal usage no matter what we say. In that case, at some point we really will need to do climate engineering or ocean engineering.

3) We hit Peak Coal soon enough after Peak Oil and Peak Natural gas that CO2 emissions start going way down.

I'm betting on item 2. But maybe Nanosolar's manufacturing method can make item 1 happen. It is not clear to me when we'll hit Peak Coal. But I think it'll be in this century.

Branford Smythe-Forbes,

The Euros don't need my help to rationalize why they should send cash to Russia and China.

Bob,

I suspect Florida is too big to encircle in a flood wall. I'd like to see a price tag for the project.

Bob Badour said at December 24, 2007 6:15 PM:

We can live without Florida. It's just a matter of choosing our battles wisely.

mike o. said at December 28, 2007 11:35 PM:

and while were at it perhaps we could introduce cane toads to australia, to help control insect populations. every single time humans try to control nature with direct force, it has adverse, sometimes opposite effects. see if you can think of something good we tried to do, with disastrous side-effects. let the expert handle the problem, nature is the expert.

Bode Bliss said at December 30, 2007 6:39 AM:

The whole climate debate is sillies, gone dramatic, gone insane. The real problem is population. If there were only 200 million humans on Earth, we'd just move them around to more favorable areas as climate changed. To think humans can engineer climate when they can't even regulate population is the insane part.

Bode Bliss said at December 30, 2007 7:31 AM:

As to micro-nuclear energy generators, I'm still waiting for nuclear cars, and wristwatches.

Hundreds of scientist disagree w/ global warming:
Hundreds of scientists disagree

One of the UN panelist said 18,000 years ago during the depth of the last iceage the ocean was at it's lowest level in the last 150 million years it has no where to go , but up.

They just completed the longest icecore ever in Antarctica and it covered 5 interglatials(an interesting read if you can find it).

The interglacial prior to the one we are in was extremely short 10,000 years. Two interglacial ago the western Antartic ice sheet collapsed, and oceans rose much higher than today.That interglacial was 30,000 years long, and the Arctic ocean was ice-free. Three interglacials ago, the glacial and interglacial cycles were almost even at 50,000 years each. We are still in an Ice Eon with 16 interglacials thus far. 80% of Earth's history there were no ice caps at the poles, and the high oceans covered the now plains with inland seas. Normal for Earth would be no icecaps.

Back in the 70's all the talk was 'The iceage is coming' now all the talk is 'a Venus climate doom is waiting in the wings'. Recent reports on Sun activity points to a powerful Sun cycle culminating in 2011. Oh you will hear the doom and gloomers howling and see them drooling then. Solar scientists have pointed out that the Solar Max scheduled for 2022 will mild. A return of glaciation and harsh winters is predicted. Then you'll hear the global warming scientists say we are going into an iceage, because these are the scientists who never want to be wrong.

The defense dept. published a report that compared global warming to a drastic cool down circa: the one 8,000 ya and 12,000 ya.

Global warming would be inconvenient with some loss of life due to changes in rainfall and bigger storms, but a cool down as in 8,000 ya would cost millions their lives and a cool down as in 12,000 years ago would cost billions of lives and possibly end civilization.

I'd choose gradual warming over the other two anyday. This interglacial will likely be longer than the last. I've heard predictions of 30,000 years. Still the iceage will return someday. I hope for future generations sakes they have defused the Population Bomb by then.

Randall Parker said at December 31, 2007 4:09 PM:

Bode Bliss,

I agree with you that overpopulation is the real problem.

To anyone who disagrees: Human expansion is already driving an increasing number of other species extinct even without global warming. Who cares what temperature the Amazon is if all the trees are cut down? Do the birds and monkeys get more affected by a few degrees increase in temperature or by total destruction of their habitats?

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