Mad Science for Melting Ice Caps

Climate change is real. If you are a non-believer, the recent episodes of drought, heat-waves and crop shortages should change your mind. Geoengineering may be the right answer to the climate change dilemma, as it offers temporary solutions to prevent global warming events. If you think blasting sulphur into the atmosphere while artificially “whitening” our trees sounds like the latest sci-fi thriller, it does. But you’re wrong. Geoengineering projects are being considered right now. They are small scale and pose minimal risk to the public, especially in relation to the risks of climate change. The Harper government has thrown the precautionary principle into the furnace. It is time for some “radical” measures.

Climate change will not be disappearing from the headlines anytime soon. This was guaranteed by Harper’s dismissal of the Kyoto Protocol along with his slashing of environmental funding.  Protests and lobbying are not directing change quick enough for some scientists.  These individuals are gearing up for direct action by manipulating the climate on a global scale to avoid catastrophic climate change.  According to John Shepherd, a Research Fellow in Earth System Science at the National Oceanography Centre at the University of Southhampton, geoengineering is defined as “deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planet’s environment to counteract [man-made] climate change”. Geoengineering projects have now been coined as “Plan B solutions” by researchers. Scientists in the field have narrowed their study to two important categories; removing carbon dioxide and reducing solar radiation.

David Keith and James Anderson of Harvard University have drafted a plan to fly a giant balloon over New Mexico in the coming year. The experiment will spray chemicals that reflect the sun’s radiation in hopes of cooling the planet. Their motivation comes from observing volcanoes, and they want to replicate the cooling reaction a volcano has when it shoots sulphur into the atmosphere. Their experiment is similar to a UK University collaboration dubbed “The SPICE project”. This team tried to eject reflective particles into the atmosphere by using a balloon. Although this project had the best intentions, it was cancelled. The controversy surrounding it and public outcry resulted in the SPICE project being terminated. Keith and Anderson promise to continue this valuable research.

They aren’t the only ones getting in on the fun. A team of scientists at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine research has dumped seven tonnes of iron sulphate into the southern ocean, which has been diagnosed as iron deficient. The addition prompted a massive bloom of phytoplankton (a tiny plant drifting in the ocean) in the first week. By the third week this bloom died off, sinking to the bottom of the ocean and taking atmospheric carbon with it. Heading this study is Professor of Biological Oceanography, Victor Smetacek. When questioned about the negative outcomes of his own experiment, he offered that “doing nothing is the worst option.” The carbon may sit still on the ocean floor for only a few decades or, according to the German team, it may stay for centuries. Either way, it is getting carbon out of our air. Smetacek believes that it is possible for one gigatonne of carbon dioxide to be removed from our oceans each year by iron fertilization. Although scientists believe our current emissions are eight times that amount, it is a great place to start reducing the effects of climate change. What other options are we left with?

The European Geosciences Union has issued a direct warning that geoengineering could have devastating effects on our environment. A press release in June of this year claimed that methods, such as the one to be deployed by Keith and Anderson, could reduce global rainfall patterns up to 20 percent. Their research was based on four computer simulations that model Earth. They tested different patterns of sunlight reaching Earth, and how they would be affected by engineered mirrors sent into the atmosphere.  All the risks should be considered when planning to combat climate change with technological solutions. It would be a lot less complicated to just lower our carbon emissions and cut our losses. Apparently that world is not in the foreseeable future, so should we leave our fate to chance? I am in favour of taking control, even if it means altering the Earth.

One of the basic tenets of science is the “precautionary principle”. This principle simply states that without scientific evidence to prove that geoengineering is safe for human beings and the environment, we should be cautious. If scientists agree that there is a possible risk they should take measures to protect the public. This new research is cautious, if a tad radical, and the scientists own their responsibilities.