Geoengineering Ourselves a New Crisis

It always amazes me how even reputable scientists leap at the possibility of geoengineering earth to avert the worst effects of climate change without realizing that only time will reveal the ultimate effects of man's tinkering with the natural world.

This audacity is in opposition to the scientific method, which requires collecting data via observation and experimentation, and the formulation of hypotheses which are again tested by any number of criteria until demonstrated correct.

The method seems to have gone awry (in the last few decades, anyway) at the experimentation stage. Experimenting does not mean taking the planet hostage until it is compelled to deliver the desired results or implode trying. It means creating small-scale experiments, whose impacts are equally small and manageable, until enough knowledge is gained to safely proceed.

Bringing in the entire planet, or a whole ocean, at the first stroke is like trying to prove a particular acid doesn't burn by bathing in it, and a recent experiment aimed at sequestering carbon dioxide by growing algae (via seeding the ocean with iron particles) is not only a spectacular failure but an example of how not to conduct a scientific experiment.

geo3 A little background: a group of German and Indian scientists, at the behest of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, seeded ten tons of ferrous sulfate in the Antarctic Ocean off the southern tip of Argentina in January in the hopes of creating an algal bloom. The result was a success; the algae bloomed. What the scientists didn't anticipate, and could not have predicted, was the type of bloom. The algae were tiny haptophytes, and not the larger diatom algae which are most successful at sequestering carbon dioxide. Their second predictive failure occurred when tiny, shrimplike creatures called copepods arrived to devour the bloom, leaving nothing behind but icy waters.

The scientists sailed home with egg on their faces. The ocean, too huge to be affected by a few tons of iron, returned to normal, but had the dumped ingredients been launched into the planet's atmosphere, as some geoengineering specialists recently suggested, the result would have likely been further thinning of the ozone layer, which is only now beginning to repair itself after decades of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, were banned by the Montreal Protocol.

These CFCs have been replaced by hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs (and hydrochlorofluorocarbons, or HCFCs), which are just as dangerous to the ozone layer, and President Barack Obama, under the guidance of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Ca.), hopes to amend the Montreal agreement to gradually ban HFCs as well.

Aerosolized iron particles would, in addition to impacting the ozone layer, alter planetary weather patterns, and probably not for the better. At best, this form of geoengineering would cause interminable clouds, reducing sunlight not only in those areas too hot for comfort but also in cooler areas where summer crops rely on sunlight. What it would do for people's moods is obvious to anyone who has lived through a long, Northern winter. There wouldn't be enough Valium on the planet to stabilize society.

Another method suggests using deflector shields (solar shields or satellites in space) to divert sunlight away from the Earth's surface. According to researchers, computer modeling suggests a mere eight-percent diversion would counteract our current carbon emissions. This is all well and good, but like Solaren's proposal (to launch space-based solar panels and sell the electricity to PG&E on contract via radio frequency transmission) seems more like pie-in-the-sky futurism than a viable solution, given the costs of sending anything into orbit and guaranteeing its performance afterward. It's not like Solaren can send a technician up to fix the system every time something fails, as it surely will if the Mars Rover is any indication.  

Another quick-fix involves carbon dioxide sequestration in rocks or in the ocean. One recent proposal, called "PurGen," proposes a 500 megawatt, coal-fueled facility in New Jersey which will pump carbon emissions through a 100-mile, underground pipeline to a point 70 miles off the Atlantic Coast, and from there to a dept of 2,200 yards beneath the Atlantic Ocean.

The cost is $5 billion, and the sequestered emissions - up to 10 million tons annually - seem like a good idea, but like the U.S. Department of Energy's now-defunct FutureGen plant, the technology is unproven, expensive and highly controversial. In fact, carbon sequestration projects aimed at permitting more coal-fired generation reminds me of the fairy tale about the King's new clothes; a lot of hype and public hypnosis that doesn't cover the unlovely, naked truth: coal is dirty. 

Unfortunately there is no intergovernmental body that has the authority to regulate geoengineering projects in the private sector, so proposals aimed at carbon sequestration, climate modification, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) continue to emerge, with the potential to have serious effects not only on the planet but on all the denizens thereof, including man.

One of these days, I suspect, someone is going to come up with a quick fix that breaks everything.

Other related features on Celsias:
Rock n' Roll: Is Pumping CO2 Into Peridotite a Good Idea?

Geoengineering, Sequestering Crops, Another Bad Idea


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4 comments

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Charles M. 110°

There is a difference between engineering and science. There is also a big difference between different sciences.

The "hard sciences" such as physics and chemistry, use the "scientific method" hypothesis, observation, experimentation, refinement of hypotheses... in a never ending circle. In these sciences there is no such thing as "proof" and the bar for acceptance of a hypothesis is very high.

Many of the "soft sciences" like biology and climatology are largely devoid of the "scientific method" because it is very difficult, if not impossible, to make a controlled experiment. All the science in global warming is like that: there is no way to set up a "control" and "experiment" and see the difference because (a) there is only one Earth and (2) the experiments would take too long.

Instead most of these soft sciences use far weaker methods such as statistical methods to try to infer correlation, indication and causation and the barrier of acceptance is very low.

It is probably wrong to say that the scientists returned home with egg on their faces. Science should be an exploration for knowledge. If they did not get what they expected then that is not a failure. It is still knowledge gained.

The attitude that they should have egg on their faces undermines science. This is the attitude that causes scietists to become dogmatic and not modify their viewpoints even in the face of evidence.

I agree fully with your concerns on the big sun shades. It just ignores too many variables and assumes that it is OK to reduce energy by shading the Earth.
Putting some parts of the Earth in shadow would very likely create temperature differentials. These create wind. Probably not a good idea.

Covering a "mere 8%" of the world in anythgng is a monumental engineering challenge - way bigger than any engineering project ever undertaken. It would require immense energy and pollution in the building and launching of the infrastructure. That would probably cause more damage than most of our current pollution.

Any large geoengineering projects should only be undertaken if they are reversible. What happens if we find that all our assumptions are wrong?

Written in May 2009

I agree with your last paragraph wholeheartedly; projects should only be undertaken if they are reversible. I would add the caveat that "reversible" must encompass the concept of "completely".

Written in May 2009

M V Bhaskar (anonymous)

>" ....the algae bloomed. What the scientists didn't anticipate, and could not have predicted, was the type of bloom. The algae were tiny haptophytes, and not the larger diatom algae which are most successful at sequestering carbon dioxide."

We have a solution on how to make only Diatom Algae bloom.

Instead of using only Iron, a combination of Silica, Iron and other micro nutirents should be used.

We have developed the right mix of all these in nano size and its available under the brand name NUALGI.

In fact Nualgi can be used anywhere, from home aquariums to oceans.

best regards

Bhaskar
www.kadambari.net

Written in May 2009

That is excellent, MV Bhaskar, but until scientists can accurately determine the long-term effects of forcing algae blooms in oceans, I remain convinced that most geoengineering proposals are inherently dangerous.

Written in May 2009

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  • Posted on May 25, 2009. Listed in:

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