Geoengineering: should we pump sulfur into the stratosphere?

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 3:43 PM GMT on February 13, 2008

Professor Paul Crutzen, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for his work on the Antarctic ozone hole, has proposed an emergency geoengineering solution to cool off the planet: dump huge quantities of sulfur particles into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight. His paper, "Albedo Enhancement by Stratospheric Sulfur Injections: A Contribution to Resolve a Policy Dilemma?" was published in the August 2006 issue of the journal Climatic Change. A recent editorial in the New York Times by Ken Caldeira called for more research into geoengineering schemes like this to cool the planet, proposing that 1% of the $3 billion federal Climate Change Technology Program should be spent thusly.

Dr. Crutzen proposes that balloons or artillery guns could propel burning sulfur into the stratosphere, where chemical reactions would convert the sulfur to highly reflective sulfate aerosol particles. This is the same process that occurs when a major volcanic eruption throws sulfur high into the atmosphere, cooling the planet. The 1992 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines cooled the Earth by about 0.5┬░ C the following year. Crutzen estimates that a lesser amount of sulfur would be required to compensate for a doubling of carbon dioxide, and that the cost of lofting the required sulfur into the stratosphere would be about $132 billion. These costs would be per year, since the sulfur only stays in the stratosphere about a year.

Could it work? Sure it could. Volcanos periodically pump huge quantities of sulfur into the stratosphere, cooling the planet. Wunderblogger Dr. Ricky Rood shows a nice plot in his blog this week showing how three major volcanic eruptions in the past 50 years have cooled off the planet. Are there problems with the scheme? Yes, many:

1) The climate might undergo substantial and disruptive changes. Evaporation from the oceans would lessen, changing precipitation patterns. The sulfate aerosols would warm the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere, changing the stability of the atmosphere. This would affect thunderstorm activity and large-scale weather patterns. Increased warming of Europe and Asia in winter has been noted after volcanic eruptions, for example. A 2005 study tied an increase in greenhouse gases and sulfur particles to drought in the Sahel region of Africa. Increasing greenhouse gases and sulfur particles even further might intensify drought conditions there.

2) The small sulfur particles might settle into the upper troposphere, where they might act as condensation nuclei for the formation of cirrus clouds. An increase in these high cirrus clouds may warm the planet, since they keep heat from escaping to space.

3)Stratospheric sulfur causes destruction of the protective ozone layer. The 1982 eruption of the El Chichon volcano reduced ozone by 16% at 20 km altitude at mid-latitudes. Decreased ozone would result in an increase in ultraviolet light at the surface, potentially increasing skin cancer rates.

4) Acid rain would increase.

5) The scheme would do nothing to reduce CO2, and the oceans would continue to acidify. The rate of acidification of the Earth's oceans is causing concern that regional collapses of the food chain may occur later this century.

6) A sudden collapse of the effort to keep firing sulfur into the stratosphere, due to the lack of political will to continue to fund this expensive effort, would result in a sudden transition of the climate to a radically warmer state. The resulting shock to the world's weather might cause dramatic changes that would be difficult to adapt to.

7) What do you do if the scheme causes serious climate problems in a country that then threatens war unless the effort is stopped?

As climate scientist Ray Pierrehumbert wrote in a 2007 blog on, "It's not really insurance. It's more like building a lifeboat, but a lifeboat based on a design that has never been used before which has to work more or less perfectly the first time the panicked passengers are loaded into it." Pierrehumbert thought that the proposal to spend $30 million of the annual $3 billion climate change research budget was far too much money.

I'm not a big fan of geoengineering schemes. It makes far more sense to spend this kind of money of reducing carbon emissions, since the cure may be worse than the disease. Still, research into geoengineering should continue. We need to keep all of options open for the very uncertain future of our climate. When you're team's down two touchdowns late in the game, sometime you have to take risks you ordinarily would not take. But how much money should be spent on geoengineering research? If you're a wunderground member, take the wunderpoll at the right.

Jeff Masters

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128. bluejohn
11:59 AM GMT on February 19, 2008
Prof. Paul Crutzen is mad to suggest such a stupid idea. Another case of an aged Nobel Prize winner pronouncing on a subject outside his narrow area of expertise. The facts are that temperatures are nowhere near any known maximum and with a possible Maunder Minimum of solar output probably on its way we need to keep as much heat as possible. Climatologists are ignoring the Medieval Warm Period because it does not fit with the models, so throw the models away! They also ignore satellite data because this does not show the heating that we are told is happening. Throughout geological history climate has changed through warm/cold periods and these oscillate with solar output NOT CO2 levels. None of the data derived from oceanic sediments or ice cores show what the alarmists are frightened about! They shout wolf and the peoples of Africa and the rest of the third world have to survive on water that you and I would not consider clean enough to wash the car!
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124. Natgas
3:14 PM GMT on February 15, 2008
GW is real - until you have been to to see the receding glaciers with your own eyes you shouldn't subscribe to the Deniers or Coolies moronic rants.

GW and GC are real because climates do change. What is hard for people to understand is that they can change fast. Take Greenland for example. Prior to the little ice age of the 1700's, Greenland was that, green. The Vikings were raising sheep on pasture land. In a matter of a few short years Greenland went from pasture land to snow fields. Because they did not adapt, the Vikings largely left.

With regard to China and their power plants, it is the law that these coal-fired plants they are building have scrubber systems. However, it is not the law that they be used. As long as the rest of the world can pollute at will, why would we promote crippling a cleaner economy.
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121. cchsweatherman
9:28 AM EST on February 15, 2008
txag91met, could you provide a link to the site that contains those graphics and how to decipher them? I have never been able to figure out how those sounding charts work. Thanks.
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120. txag91met
2:16 PM GMT on February 15, 2008

oh my
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118. NEwxguy
2:06 PM GMT on February 15, 2008
GM all,interesting weather ahead,unusual weather pattern,not your usual February weather pattern.
Member Since: September 6, 2007 Posts: 896 Comments: 16202
116. cchsweatherman
7:49 AM EST on February 15, 2008
Good morning all! So, what's on tap for today?
Member Since: April 14, 2007 Posts: 8 Comments: 5169
114. BahaHurican
12:42 AM EST on February 15, 2008
104. P451 8:38 PM EST on February 14, 2008

Very thought provoking, that.

Actually I don't think your points are that far away from the topic at all. The drying up of water sources worldwide is a key reason why all kinds of ideas are being bruited about, even "crazy" ones like that suggested in the blog topic.

I don't want to believe we as a race can't find solutions to our problem before the war of the waters breaks out or we find we need to take up the intrepid professor's suggestion.

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113. BahaHurican
12:34 AM EST on February 15, 2008
108. LowerCal 11:09 PM EST on February 14, 2008

I don't advocate doing nothing either but it's futile for the US to act alone. We need to keep them from following our path even if means giving big discounts on technology we develop.

I think you have a good point. There's no point saying "do as I say, not as I do". The technology and lifestyle millions in China, India and Russia are seeking is largely fashioned after the American "dream" that has been pitched to them very successfully over the years by American big business. I think America still has enough clout in the world community to reshape public opinion about what it's "necessary" to have. Of course, as you say, a "green" lifestyle also has to be made both accessible and affordable.
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112. BahaHurican
12:11 AM EST on February 15, 2008
99. P451 8:17 PM EST on February 14, 2008

Other than that, perhaps Boston Harbour, and the outlet from the MS River are potentially represented - the rest? Confusing at best. Such as: Why would Nova Scotia be lit up like a Christmas tree? While the western coasts of the Bahamas show so "clean"?

I'm not sure that the map is supposed to represent "clean" vs "dirty", though I'm sure there is some correlation. I interpreted it to mean "heavily used" vs "lightly used" by humans. In that context the map makes lots of sense to me. I've already commented on the correspondence between the Bahama Banks and the blue areas in the Bahamas. [Well, I don't see the comment, so to basically recap: The blue areas in the Bahamas and off the Belizean coast correspond with shallow, reef and shoal filled waters. Hence the lower utilization.] (Compare that map with any relief map of the Bahamas, and the similarities will immediately strike you.)

In the case of Nova Scotia, that area of the N. Atlantic is one of the most heavily fished in the world, and I seem to recall increasing concerns being expressed about how much longer the Grand Banks area will be able to sustain the level of overfishing it has experienced over the years.

Back to the Bahamas for a second: the blue may in one sense be construed as "clean", at least here. A combination of a relatively small population and an underlying consciousness that those crystal clear waters are a key component of our tourism industry has so far limited the overfishing and overpollution of the western waters. How long we'll be able to sustain this, however, with encroachments by Dominican, Haitian and other nationalities' fishermen, is yet to be determined.

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111. MNTornado
5:04 AM GMT on February 15, 2008
I remember some years back when cloud seeding experiments were being done to produce rain in areas of the USA that were having drought. One of those area was in the Dakota's. The cloud seeding worked in that it produced rain. The problem was that it produced so much rain that it caused major flooding.

I see GeoEngineering as a dangerous thing to play with until will know exactly what the out come will be so that we don't have any unexpected surprises. We can't afford anymore surprises at this point. There is too much at stake.
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110. sebastianjer
11:37 PM EST on February 14, 2008
I believe it is very hard to mandate that Russia, China and India clean up their emissions and pollutants when the mandating countries are still in the top five or ten polluters worldwide.

Probably true, however there is a difference when a country is making a significant attempt to curb there pollutants and co2 emissions (debatable if they are the same thing) while the other countries do nothing and are asked to do nothing.

The US spends more on pollution control as percent of our GDP than any countries in the world except for Austria and The Netherlands. We are tied with Switzerland for third in that category. Russia, China and India are not even on a list of the top 20. In addition none of those countries are required by the Kyoto Treaty, which only covers CO2, to reduce CO2 at all. It's easy to sign a treaty when you don't have to do anything. China's fossil CO2 emissions increased in 2006 by 8.7%, while in the USA, comparable CO2 emissions decreased in 2006 by 1.4%. Although this may just be a one year deal it shows that the US is far better equipped and able to reduce emissions.

The idea that the US just goes maryly along without regards to the environment is a handy myth that is not born out by the facts. The US citizenry, government and industries are amongst the most environmentally conscious and regulated in the world. China, Russia and India are not even in the ball park, literally and figuratively.

Can we do more, yes, should we do more yes, will we do more, we always do. Will China, Russia and India do more? Not in the foreseeable future, if at all.


Other Sources
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108. LowerCal
8:07 PM PST on February 14, 2008

On top of that, population size doesn't automatically equal emissions and pollutants. For example, India's large population doesn't automatically mean India has more cars than the US does (I'm not saying I did the research to specify either way).

I'm just not a proponent of doing something wrong because "everybody else is doing it".

Baha, the countries of India and China don't have the number of cars the US does ... yet. However they would like to be living the life that we in the US do. They have access to the coal and petroleum to make giant strides toward that by the exact methods the US did ... but there are a lot more of them.

The Most Populous Nations
1 China: 1.32 billion (about 20% of world population)
2 India: 1.12 billion (about 17%)
3 United States: 300 million (about 4.6%)

I don't advocate doing nothing either but it's futile for the US to act alone. We need to keep them from following our path even if means giving big discounts on technology we develop.
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107. sullivanweather
10:53 PM EST on February 14, 2008
For those that missed 'Six degrees can change the world' on Sunday it is coming on in 5 minutes.
Member Since: March 8, 2007 Posts: 273 Comments: 12612
106. BahaHurican
9:07 PM EST on February 14, 2008
84. P451 1:40 PM EST on February 14, 2008
America should lead in new technologies of energy conservation by mandating a more progressive timetables in industry.

Sadly this does not matter when Russia, China, and India freely pollute the atmosphere and water with seemingly hardly any emissions or hazardous waste programs in place at all.

I don't know if I agree with this, that it doesn't matter. I believe it matters a whole lot. I believe it is very hard to mandate that Russia, China and India clean up their emissions and pollutants when the mandating countries are still in the top five or ten polluters worldwide. It's hard to convince me to clean up my mess while you are standing in yours. Somebody has to seek the moral high ground and set an example.

Besides, if these three countries are polluting so heavily, SOMEBODY needs to be cutting back.

On top of that, population size doesn't automatically equal emissions and pollutants. For example, India's large population doesn't automatically mean India has more cars than the US does (I'm not saying I did the research to specify either way).

I'm just not a proponent of doing something wrong because "everybody else is doing it".
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105. pianomahnn
1:41 AM GMT on February 15, 2008
Read up on desalinisation.

Water as a reason for war will really only come into play if civilization has already broken down. As long as that remains stable, the countries with the means to desalinate the ocean waters will do so.

However, that's based entirely on humans remaining rational. But I think we all know human do some very irrational things for no apparent reason...
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103. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
1:23 AM GMT on February 15, 2008
At 0:00 AM UTC, Tropical Cyclone Nicholas Category Two [974 hPa] located near 15.9S 119.7E or 355 kms northwest of Broome and 505 kms north-northeast of Port Hedland has 10 minute sustained winds of 50 knots with gusts up to 70 knots. The cyclone is reported moving west at 3 knots

Dvorak Intensity: 3.5

Storm Force Winds within 30 NM from the center.

Additional Information
Nicholas has intensified to Category 2 overnight and further intensification is likely. Nicholas is currently moving in a westerly direction but is expected to
adopt a more southerly track towards the Pilbara coast over the next couple of days.

It is possible gales may affect coastal communities between Wallal and Whim Creek late on Saturday and extend to adjacent inland parts on Sunday. Gales are expected to develop in coastal areas between Whim Creek and Onslow on Sunday

Tropical Cyclone Watches/Warnings
A Cyclone WARNING is current for coastal areas from Wallal to Whim Creek.

A Cyclone WATCH is current for coastal areas from Whim Creek to Onslow and adjacent inland parts of both the Watch and Warning zones.

The Cyclone Warning for coastal areas from Cape Leveque to Bidyadanga and the Cyclone Watch from Bidyadanga to Wallal is cancelled

Forecast and Intensity
12 HRS: 16.3S 119.0E - 55 knots [CAT 2]
24 HRS: 16.9S 118.6E - 65 knots [CAT 3]
48 HRS: 18.8S 118.2E - 85 knots [CAT 3]
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101. Bgoney
8:18 PM EST on February 14, 2008
Isn't that what glaciers have been doing, say , forever?
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100. pianomahnn
1:14 AM GMT on February 15, 2008
Ah what the hell...

Anyone who claims humans have no affect on global weather is foolish. Anyone who claims humans are the sole cause are foolish as well. It's all sorts of crazy out there and that's the way it's always been and always will be. I'm just here for the ride.
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98. Patrap
7:12 PM CST on February 14, 2008
Coolies..LOL, I love dat one.
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96. NorthxCakalaky
12:47 AM GMT on February 15, 2008
Here is some Feb.14 snow pictures in N.C.


This Sunday, Weatherunderground is calling for freezing rain here.Local stations here said rain/snow mix for mountains only, rain below in elevation.

If anyone has spare time to look at new model runs for Saturday and Sunday for North-west N.C please send it to me. ill check my mailbox tomarow at 7:00p.m Eastern. thanks
95. Bgoney
6:56 PM EST on February 14, 2008
Just when I thought the GW crowd couldn't do or say anything else hysterical, we get the prescription to cure the fever. What's next drop a NUC-U-LAR bomb down the throat of a Volcano so the ash will block the sun?

P.S. For you GW'ers the bomb was a joke.
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94. Weather456
7:48 PM AST on February 14, 2008
Non Tropical Low Southwest of the Azores Islands in the NE Subtropical ATL

Notice how the stratocumulus cloud decks are warped by the circulation.

Emusat Airmass Product

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93. Weather456
7:31 PM AST on February 14, 2008

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92. LowerCal
2:54 PM PST on February 14, 2008
#81 America should lead in new technologies of energy conservation

... and cleaner energy production.

Making these technologies available to the "developing" nations may be the only way to prevent their population of billions from hugely magnifying the consequences of our own path to "development".

Accountants can argue about the balance sheet but from a practical viewpoint it may just be the only way.
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91. Patrap
3:55 PM CST on February 14, 2008
Tune in tonight for the BarometerBob Show live from Northeast,Fla. 8pm EST

The Barometer Bob Show for February 14, 2008!

Bob's guest this week will be Jim Belles the Meteorologist In Charge at the NWS Memphis, TN. We will talk about the Super Tuesday Tornado Outbreak, other tornado events in the area, and Tornado Safety, and what you can do in case Severe Weather affects your area.
The show starts at 8pm/et and you can listen live at WRBN.Net

Site Link Link
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90. quasigeostropic
9:49 PM GMT on February 14, 2008
They mix up environmental issues(the REAL problem) with a man-made GW fairy tale....sigh
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89. Skyepony (Mod)
8:29 PM GMT on February 14, 2008
This came out in NOAA's news today concerning the overall human impact on the oceans.

More than 40 percent of the world%u2019s oceans are heavily impacted by human activities, including overfishing and pollution, according to a new study that will appear in tomorrow%u2019s peer-reviewed journal Science.

Here's the Atlantic map.

The colors indicate levels of human impact, with cooler shades representing lower levels of impact than warmer shades, which represent higher levels of impact.
Credit NOAA
Those staight lines must be shipping lanes?

%u201CThe extent of human influence was probably more than any of us expected,%u201D said Casey, explaining that red areas on the map indicate the most heavily impacted regions. He added the study and map %u2013 designed to visually highlight the trouble spots in the oceans %u2013 are tools for the world%u2019s decision-makers to assess the real impact of human activities on marine ecosystems and help identify ways to lessen the threats.
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86. latitude25
9:34 PM GMT on February 14, 2008
They cook up some science that they do not have a clue what they are talking about, or what any of it means.

Then, to try and convince people that they really do know what they are talking about, they come up with solutions to fix it.

This is pathetic.
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85. taistelutipu
9:27 PM EET on February 14, 2008
Precisely, P451, I totally agree with you. Russia, China and India are huge polluters of the globe. I have heard a lot about the environmental problems Finland faces due to the pollution coming from Russia. One example: when the wind blows from the East, the air pollution in heavy metals in Northern Finland is up to 4 times higher than it usually is. The reason: the heavy industry of Murmansk on the peninsula Kola in North West Russia. One has to admit, that it has dropped somewhat compared to the extreme pollution in the 1970s and 80s when it was impossible to fish in the border river Tenojoki due to the high levels in quicksilver in the salmons there. Finland together with Norway is trying to protect the nature of Lapland by launching projects with the local government of Murmansk. There is a long list of environmental projects around the Barent Sea on a Finnish website, unfortunately only in Finnish. At least for Russia I see a slow progress towards better environmental politics, but the change in attitude comes slow... hopefully not too slow before the surrounding oceans are dead.

It's five minutes to midnight:
A research project in 2001 led by the University of Turku and the nature conservation agency showed that already 30 % of the seafloor in the Baltic Sea is dead (due to lack of oxygen in the water, killing all life), 50 % is dying and only 20 % is in good shape. "Its a lot worse than we anticipated," says the assessment in the final report of the study which was conducted in the archipelago of South West Finland.
Member Since: August 20, 2007 Posts: 12 Comments: 649
83. SoSadTooBad
6:36 PM GMT on February 14, 2008
Can we shoot scientists into space where they will blow up and form a thin, oily layer that will protect us from the sun?
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82. quasigeostropic
1:24 PM EST on February 14, 2008
Geoengineering: should we pump sulfur into the stratosphere?

Anyone with a brain and some sanity, should automatically know the answer to that one.
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79. V26R
4:59 PM GMT on February 14, 2008
Thanks Storm for the Update
Spring cannot arrive too soon for me up here in NYC
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Dr. Masters co-founded wunderground in 1995. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters 1986-1990. Co-blogging with him: Bob Henson, @bhensonweather

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