Geoengineering: a bad idea whose time may come

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 3:46 PM GMT on December 19, 2008

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Yesterday, at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), climate change scientists discussed the risks and benefits of deliberately altering Earth's climate through "geoengineering". One measure of the concern scientists have about Earth's climate could be gauged by the standing-room only crowd of 200 that packed the presentation room. The eleven speakers at the session laid out some radical and dangerous ideas for deliberately altering Earth's climate. They uniformly cautioned that the uncertainties and dangers of implementing any of these schemes was high, but that geoengineering may be necessary if efforts to control greenhouse gases fail and the climate begins to undergo rapid and destructive changes.

David Keith presented the results of a week-long workshop held earlier this year that brought together ten of the world's experts on geoengineering. He emphasized that even if we stopped emitting CO2 today, the possibility of dangerous climate change capable of causing a "climate emergency" may still be higher than 1%, thanks to the tremendous inertia of the heat stored in the oceans. Of course, we're not going to stop emitting CO2 today. Dealing with a future climate emergency is technically feasible, if we inject large quantities of sulfur into the tropical stratosphere via aircraft, artillery, or tethered balloons with hoses. Sulfur injection into the stratosphere is considered to be the leading candidate for geoengineering, since nature has done this many times via volcanic eruptions, and we have some idea of what to expect. As I reported in a blog post earlier this year, the idea is being championed by Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen.

One problem with injecting sulfur into the stratosphere is that it tends to settle back to the surface in about ten months. A. V. Eliseev explained that in order to keep global temperatures under control in a world with ever-increasing CO2 emissions, we would have to inject an ever increasing amount of sulfur into the atmosphere. His computer model results showed that if a funding lapse occurred in, say, the year 2075, the atmosphere would rapidly warm by 5-9°F (3-5°C) over most of North America, Europe, and Asia, within a decade of cessation of the geoengineering efforts. The resulting shock to ecosystems would be extremely dangerous to civilization.

Richard Turco of UCLA estimated that injecting enough sulfur in the stratosphere to properly geoengineer the climate would require 3000 aircraft sorties per day, and cost $50-$100 billion per year. Model results he presented showed a large amount of uncertainty as to what might happen, and he cautioned that there was "no guarantee of success, and failure would be catastrophic".

A. Robrock of Rutgers disagreed with Dr. Turco, and estimated that the cost of injecting the required amount of sulfur into the stratosphere would by less that $5 billion per year, provided the U.S. military would let scientists use 167 of the existing fleet of 522 F15C Eagle jets to do the job. After all, he reasoned, why wouldn't the military want to use their aircraft to confront our enemy (global warming?) High-altitude fighter jets would be required to do the job, since ordinary jetliners cannot fly high enough to penetrate into the stratosphere. He cautioned that such a fleet of aircraft would have to fly three missions per day, and their exhaust gases would probably cause significant destruction of Earth's protective ozone layer. Furthermore, modeling studies show that we don't know what size particles to make, where to put the sulfur, and what uneven effects the efforts might have on Earth's climate. He concluded, "there are many reasons not to do geoengineering".

A more ecological approach to geoengineering was presented by Phil Rasch of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and by Jim Haywood of Britain's Met Office Hadley Center. They proposed building a fleet of wind-powered ships known as Fletter vessels (Figure 1) that would spray large amounts of sea salt into the air in regions where there are existing stratocumulus clouds. The sea salt would act as nuclei around which moisture could condense, making the clouds more reflective. A fleet of approximately 66 of these vessels would be required to seed the clouds over 30% of the globe, to balance a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. However, they cautioned that while this solution would be relatively cheap, the technology to implement this scheme would be difficult. Furthermore, studies performed with climate models showed that the resulting climate shift would not be uniform, and many areas would experience drought. In particular, Dr. Haywood showed the possibility of severe drought in the Amazon rain forest and in the Southwest U.S.


Figure 1. A conceptual picture of Flettner spray vessel with Thom fences. These wind-driven vessels have vertical spinning cylinders that use the Magnus effect to produce forces perpendicular to the wind direction. Anton Flettner built a ship using this technology that crossed the Atlantic in 1926. The proposed geoengineering Flettner vessels would sail over ocean regions covered with stratocumulus clouds and make the existing clouds whiter by spraying small salt particles into the air. Image is copyright J. MacNeill 2006. For more information on these vessels, see Salter at al., 2008, "Sea-going hardware for the cloud albedo method of reversing global warming", Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society A, 366, Number 1882, pp3989-4006, 13 November 2008.

Katharine Ricke of Carnagie Mellon University cautioned that the foreign policy community has virtually no awareness of geoengineering issues, and would be totally unprepared for the possibility of some country deciding to unilaterally attempt a geoengineering program on their own. She suggested that an effort needs to be made to promote international agreements on geoengineering, perhaps including binding treaties.

Jeff Masters

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Sunshine is available for ALL pirates here on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

There be girls (canadian) in the water..... got to pick better geography.....LOL
Member Since: July 18, 2007 Posts: 30 Comments: 26536
Quoting smmcdavid:
Vostok ice core data... is there any reason to believe it's not accurate?


Is it just faith that it should be believed?
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Ice core infoLink
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Quoting presslord:
"Seriously" what?


To post 120...
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In regards to GEO engineering The Hippocratic oath has a line that says "first do no harm".......might be something to consider here.
We have thought a lot of things were benign, DDT for example --only to find out later...often at the expense of nature, that we were wrong

What I do not like about this... is we have no LONG VIEW of the repercussions of our actions
Member Since: July 18, 2007 Posts: 30 Comments: 26536
Gotta help the boss be back later....blondeness don't hamper me...I was on page 3.
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Vostok ice core data... is there any reason to believe it's not accurate?
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To play devil's advocate - how accurate were the land and sea temps in the late 1800's? (especially out over the vast Pacific?)

Also - who was tracking co2 emissions 400 years ago?

Also - who can prove that carbon dating works?
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Quoting Skyepony:
MichaelSTL~ FL is the nations winter food basket. It's good growing year round, save the occational 'cane wiping the crops out. The better arguement would be we don't need it going under, though we may pave over the last of the farms 1st..

Very interesting the SSH anomilies you posted earlier. I check them from time to time & that's disturbing...
LOL...Actually west Broward County is over 7' above mean sea level. Meaning Lauderhill,Plantation, etc. will be beach front property. Here in N Fla I'm 182' above mean sea level. Actually most of Fla will survive the 6' rise in sea level that "conservative science" predicts. There are indeed figures that show a cascade of devastating levels, but I'm not convinced.
Please tell me where I'm wrong. I'm a conservative ol' fart, but my mind is open.LOL
Member Since: September 11, 2008 Posts: 9 Comments: 10030
"Seriously" what?
Member Since: August 13, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 10458
Seriously...?
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# 114 Yellowstone is due for an eruption. That would be bad though. Shepherd....Didn't you mention the hotspot moving under a more stable area? Does anyone have a link for that data?
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well....be that as it may....the average around here right now is too dadgummed cold...
Member Since: August 13, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 10458
Quoting presslord:
I can disprove global warming right now....just come to my house....wife has it like a beer cooler in here....

LOL, that does not disprove global warming! Global warming is about averages, but we don't experience averages, we experience the extremes that are changed by a change of the average.
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I'm gonna lock her out of the thermostat....
Member Since: August 13, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 10458
I suppose at some point after sea levels and temperatures rise further, as they have during previous warm periods in Earth's history there will likely be another ice age. Hopefully it won't come on too fast. (Graphs seem to suggest slower cooling that warming. Also, I can't afford a better wetsuit.)
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I can disprove global warming right now....just come to my house....wife has it like a beer cooler in here....
Member Since: August 13, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 10458
I don't think we should alter the Earth's climate any more than we have already. Even if we reduce our emissions to zero by 2050, there would still be a ~70% chance of a climate emergency if nothing is done to intervene. Maybe we need a volcano to cool everything down, because paradoxially the aerosols emmited by anthropogenic sources have masked the effects of global warming by about 20%.
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This is a much better graph to make your arguement. You can see that CO2 levels (which correlate with temps) are both higher than they have been in the last 400 thousand years.

And did you not read my posts... I agree with you, just not your methodology or attitude.
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Here in S. Ontario, we had about 7 inches of snow today (about 18 cm), on top of the 7 cm already on the ground (3 in). We could get a half metre by the New Year. Snowdrifts are 2 ft (60 cm) high!
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#106 Guess it usually isn't as bad as we think it is going to be.
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Quoting presslord:
Neil Cavuto just used 'snow in Vegas' to refute GW...now...there's some high minded discourse for ya....
OMG press...Say it ain't so.
I wish I could say "that's just Neil being Neil" but Holy Cow I'm shattered with that one. LOL
Member Since: September 11, 2008 Posts: 9 Comments: 10030
109. BtnTx
Quoting MichaelSTL:
Also, it is true that temperatures globally are lower this year than in recent years, but not by that much; the following also explains why (notice the bottommost graph labeled "Nino 3.4 SST"):



Also notice what has been happening during the most recent few seasons, after a decrease early this year (some people have been trying to tell you that it has been something more than it actually is, even flinging around stuff like "An ice age is imminent!"). The following also shows the same thing (notice where the coolest temperatures have been; on the other hand, notice which areas have been warmer than recent years):



So what are you proposing that we do?
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I believe the Earth has warmed up the past 20 years...but I was around in the 70's when we all were fearful of Global Cooling and Black Rain which was going to kill us all.. people were freaking out over all that, which went the other way in a few years to be forgotten.

I know the Earth is warming, and I love the Earth and think we should care for her better than we do.. but I also think things happen in the enviornment and in nature and we have to just live with it, not try to change it.

enough,
thanks everyone who stood up for me even if you disagree with my thoughts.. and they are thoughts...I am not a scientist either.

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Hey gamma... good for you. Just to clear things up... I do believe in global warming or "climate change" and I do believe that we are contributing to it. I, however, don't believe that anyone should be attacked for stating their opinion.

I participated in a global warming debate recently and one subject that came up was whether or not their is a scientific conscensus. I believe that there is. There will always be people, some very intelligent, that don't agree with the majority.
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Quoting theshepherd:
Re 74 Michael
No sweatyda Miss seflagamma.
Millions??? of scientist? OMG..ROFLMAO
That's just Michael being Michael.
Sometimes he goes over the edge with his super egotistical name calling as he frolics hand in hand with Gavin through the liberal forest called " I can insult you if I want".
You are a well known sweetheart on this blog and a Merry Christmas to you my dear.
I personally believe that the earth is in fact undergoing climatic changes, but not being one of the "million" scientists I state my feelings as opinion. I welcome the alternative.
Please give me comfort for the outlook of my grand youngins'.



thanks, we were thinking the same thing at the same time!!! and thank you.. and Merry Christmas to you and yours!
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102. Skyepony (Mod)
MichaelSTL~ FL is the nations winter food basket. It's good growing year round, save the occational 'cane wiping the crops out. The better arguement would be we don't need it going under, though we may pave over the last of the farms 1st..

Very interesting the SSH anomilies you posted earlier. I check them from time to time & that's disturbing...
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#97 True. However, the graphs include a baseline for the statistical average temperatures. From what time period are the baselines calculated?
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Re 74 Michael
No sweatyda Miss seflagamma.
Millions??? of scientist? OMG..ROFLMAO
That's just Michael being Michael.
Sometimes he goes over the edge with his super egotistical name calling as he frolics hand in hand with Gavin through the liberal forest called " I can insult you if I want".
You are a well known sweetheart on this blog and a Merry Christmas to you my dear.
I personally believe that the earth is in fact undergoing climatic changes, but not being one of the "million" scientists I state my feelings as opinion. I welcome the alternative.
Please give me comfort for the outlook of my grand youngins'.
Member Since: September 11, 2008 Posts: 9 Comments: 10030
ROFLMAO,

I knew Michael would come after me with both of his liberal Man Made Global Warming Attack Arms a flying! LOL


Thanks SM and Amy! and Tornado! LOL

I always believed if one has to attack someone else with insults to make themself look good; that is the person with the problem, not the person he attacked. I have enough self confidence in myself... plus I knew he could come flying.. there are another few I expected also..but most of them would have been a little more polite.

Michael has been known to be a hot head and not very nice when he gets all riled up.


The last I heard even the scientist have not agreed on any of this so I understood it was still open to debate and not a done deal.
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I don't think you can look at graphs for the last year to make your arguements for or against global warming. This, if it is happening, occurs over much larger periods of time. I just don't think that those graphs by themselves contribute good data.
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Neil Cavuto just used 'snow in Vegas' to refute GW...now...there's some high minded discourse for ya....
Member Since: August 13, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 10458
94. Skyepony (Mod)
Global Nov temps are out..

NOAA: Global Temperature for November Fourth Warmest on Record

Hey Vort~ Just because it snowed in Nevada doesn't change the N. Hemisphere being way behind on it's snowfall:)

NCDC's are out today. Turned out 2nd & 3rd coldest Nov for the Stratosphere.
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#85 I agree....I beleive that our impact is mostly negative on the Earth and that we have to come together to deal with the issue. No need to push anyone away.

BTW I have enjoyed your posts as some of the most concise argument on the web to prove GW exists.

I am glad you are here to cut through rhetoric.

As we say in extension, if you change the attitude, behavior, or practices of one person out of one hundred...you have done well.
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Quoting charlottefl:
Ok, so I'm gonna drop my two cents in the bucket on this one. IF climate change is indeed occurring (not saying it isn't), and we unintentionally have begun certain climate related events, what happens when we intentionally try and fix something we don't understand well? I'm thinking this idea has caution tape all around it.


I agree completely!
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Ok, so I'm gonna drop my two cents in the bucket on this one. IF climate change is indeed occurring (not saying it isn't), and we unintentionally have begun certain climate related events, what happens when we intentionally try and fix something we don't understand well? I'm thinking this idea has caution tape all around it.
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Quoting theshepherd:
UN???...You first.


Oh wow! Well if the United Nations could use a death ray device it could get millions/most of us at the same time. If not all of us as Planet Earth would do so well with out all of us humans messing it up. After all this planet was created for ?
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I've eaten tomatoes, corn, watermelon, cucumbers, onions, and many other veggies grown in Florida. It just grows earlier in the year (and sometimes a 2nd season). Plus, there are lemon, grapefruit and oranges as well!
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Barry... no problem. I agree with you that we need to do what we can. And that's really all we can do.
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LOL... I think you are clueless

STL...that was uncalled for...Gamma never insulted anyone on here...try and show a little compassion dude...
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#81 sorry....blonde.....duh

I was still thinking about saving a few trees. Scientists...plaques...framed degrees...Half the population of the US has little faith in the "liberal" science community. My bad.

Point is...lets leave the world better than we found it. I try to teach my cub scouts that and they are in second grade. This isn't a political debate as much as an ethical debate. I hope we can all agree that burning millions of tons of stuff pollutes the Earth and there has to be a better way.
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Wow. Michael, you are kind of hostile. I thought this blog was supposed to be for discussion, not ridicule.
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Quoting BtnTx:
It is becoming very obvious that the only way to solve this Global Warming problem is that we have the UN set up a lottery to enact MASSIVE SUICIDE/DEATH OF 95% OF HUMANS. Problem Solved
UN???...You first.
Member Since: September 11, 2008 Posts: 9 Comments: 10030

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About JeffMasters

Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.