Can we engineer a solution to climate change?

By Roddy Scheer
Can we engineer a solution to the climate crisis?
Can we engineer a solution to the climate crisis?

Dear EarthTalk: Are there any realistic geoengineering solutions to our climate woes and why haven’t we started employing them yet?     

-- Angel Monroe, Miami
     Geoengineering our way out of the climate crisis is something so drastic that no one really wants to admit it might be our only hope. But while cutting down on our air miles and switching over to a Prius can’t hurt, at least a few green leaders are getting on board with the concept of geoengineering as one weapon in an arsenal that includes improved energy efficiency and transitioning to renewable energy sources.
     In his 2016 book A Farewell to Ice, Peter Wadhams of the University of Cambridge’s Polar Ocean Physics Group lays out several different scenarios that utilize geoengineering techniques to stave off cataclysmic climate change.
    First and foremost on his list is direct air capture of CO2—"something the whole world should be putting its research money into”—where we literally vacuum the offending pollution out of the air. Wadhams thinks this is the most logical approach and one we can get started on right away if there is enough political will to get it funded.
    Another potential geoengineering save involves unleashing a fleet of salt spraying ships around the world’s coastlines that would pipe ocean water hundreds of feet skyward, spraying clouds with salt crystals to reflect more sunlight upward and away from the Earth’s surface. University of Edinburgh engineers have already designed a prototype fleet of ships to serve as a model for larger efforts.
    So-called sparkle blasting balloons are another tack in the armed battle against global warming. Researchers are proposing sending hot air balloons (or airplanes or even artillery shells) into the sky to shoot or spray sulfuric acid or sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere where it would combine with pre-existing water vapor to form sparkly aerosols. When dispersed by the wind, these aerosols would surround the globe with haze that could reflect an estimated 1 percent of solar radiation back into space.
    Yet another geoengineering climate hack involves constructing a supersized space mirror (or reflective mesh) that could be launched into the Earth’s orbit to protect the planet by reflecting some of the sun’s rays skyward.
    And no discussion of climate geoengineering would be complete without mentioning carbon sinks. For instance, we could “fertilize” barren sections of open ocean with iron to stimulate the production of CO2-sucking algal blooms and other photosynthesizing marine life. “When the algae die, they sink to the bottom of the sea, taking carbon with them,” writes Jennifer Santisi in E – The Environmental Magazine.
    Of course, each of these techniques has potential side effects and unintended consequences, not to mention extreme costs. Researchers are cautiously attempting to work out some of the kinks before we need to implement these solutions on a widespread scale.
    Meanwhile, environmentalists worry that geoengineering remains a distraction and that we must “keep our eye on the ball” regarding trimming our carbon footprints. That said, it is nice to know that scientists have a few Hail Mary plays up their sleeves if we ever need them.


   Farewell to Ice

   Iron Hypothesis


   Companies recycle plastic from oceans

   How do we solve the e-waste problem?

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