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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 RealClimate.org, "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

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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77. txag91met
4:07 PM GMT on February 14, 2008
Major severe weather outbreak for SE TX on Saturday night. WRF 850 mb winds near 75 knots, with very strong hodographs.
BTW, Jan 2008 showed world-wide cooling from La Nina. temperature
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76. NEwxguy
4:07 PM GMT on February 14, 2008
Thanks Storm,I've been expecting some kind of pattern change,and it looks like it might be happening toward the end of next week.
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73. NEwxguy
3:16 PM GMT on February 14, 2008
72. V26R 2:37 PM GMT on February 14, 2008
All I can say about the Patriots 2007 Season Record is

18 Victories

Thats ok V26,as a Patriots fan,I'm going to have to take a lot of abuse in the coming months,and I might add,I'm not particularly proud of my coach.
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72. V26R
2:37 PM GMT on February 14, 2008
All I can say about the Patriots 2007 Season Record is

18 Victories

Sorry Dude
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71. mgreen91
2:25 PM GMT on February 14, 2008
President Bush's proposed budget would include millions more in funding to improve hurricane forecasts and further research the storms, a federal official said at a regional discussion of the budget Tuesday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's number two official, Mary Glackin, discussed her agency's proposed budget in Miami on Tuesday, though it was officially released Feb. 4. Hurricane-related money is only a fraction of NOAA's proposed $4.1 billion budget but closely watched.

The money would be used to improve hurricane forecast modeling, including predicting how rapidly storms intensify and dissipate, as well as upgrade and deploy ocean buoys that gather information about the storms. Approximately $5 million would go to improving forecast models and another $6 million to deploying and maintaining the buoys.

Separately, the budget also includes a request for $242 million to support the next generation of geostationary satellites which provide images of storms such as hurricanes but also carry instruments that collect other data.

National Hurricane Center director Bill Read called the proposed budget "very encouraging'' after the meeting, but said he and others would have to wait to see what actually gets enacted.

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69. NEwxguy
2:14 PM GMT on February 14, 2008
come on people lets focus on the critical issues in the world today,its important that we find out whether Roger Clemens or McNamee are lying about steriod use or whether the Patriots are spying,our legislators are working very hard to solve these important issues.
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68. biff4ugo
2:00 PM GMT on February 14, 2008
It seems like warming Europe and Asia is just what we DON'T want. The southern hemisphere seems to be doing much better with is smaller land mass and population. This solution would exaserbate their problmes too, right?
Can we spend 1 million on geoengineering and 29 million on how to fix the problems geoengineering causes?
Once we leave the realm of natural and unintentional causes of the weather, we enter into a whole new moral and legal world. A worse one in my opinion.
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67. sebastianjer
1:56 PM GMT on February 14, 2008
Why worry about Global Warming perhaps will starve first

The Associated Press

Cereal stockpiles are expected to hit their lowest level in over two decades, contributing to keeping their prices high, a U.N. food agency said.

The low stocks combined with continuously strong demand - also driven by the growing biofuels industry - to keep prices elevated, the Food and Agriculture Organization said in a report on the global food situation, which was being released Wednesday.

By the close of the current season, stocks are expected to fall to 405 million tons - down 22 million tons, or 5 percent, from the start of the season, the Rome-based agency said. It would be the lowest level since 1982.

The food-and-supply demand remains tight, despite an increase in cereal production in 2007 and favorable prospects in 2008, the agency said.

"We do not anticipate a major downturn in prices even if production rises, because the increase would have to take into account the lower stocks," said Abdolreza Abbassian, an agency official who was part of a team working on the report.

The report said that "it may require significant increases in production of more than one season's cereal crop for markets to regain their stability and for prices to decline significantly below the recent highs."

In recent years, food prices have soared amid rising oil prices - which have increased food shipping prices - and growing demands for biofuels.

Biofuels, made from corn, palm oil, sugar cane and other agricultural products, are seen by many as a cleaner and cheaper way to meet the world's soaring energy needs compared to greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels.

It is estimated that some 100 million tons of cereals are currently used for the production of biofuels, making this sector a leading source of demand, the report said. Of this figure, maize accounts for 95 million tons, representing 12 percent of its total world utilization.

In 2007-08, the United States is expected to put at least 81 million tons of maize into the production of ethanol, which would be up 32 million tons, or 37 percent, from the previous season.

World cereal trade is expected to hit a new record in the current 2007-08 season, approaching 258 million tons, mainly due to a surge in imports in maize and other cereals by the European Union, the report said.


Well then again while we are starving the poorest people in the world and causing the world's economy unnecessary inflation, let's also make the perceived problem worse

Converting native ecosystems for production of biofuel feed stocks is worsening the greenhouse gas emissions they are intended to mitigate, reports a pair of studies published in the journal Science. The studies follow a series of reports that have linked ethanol and biodiesel production to increased carbon dioxide emissions, destruction of biodiverse forest and savanna habitats, and air and water pollution.

Analyzing the lifecycle emissions from biofuels, the first study found that carbon released by converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands often far outweighs the carbon savings from biofuels. Conversion of peatland rainforests for oil palm plantations for example, incurs a "carbon debt" of 423 years in Indonesia and Malaysia, while the carbon emission from clearing Amazon rainforest for soybeans takes 319 years of renewable soy biodiesel before the land can begin to lower greenhouse gas levels and mitigate global warming.


While a number of studies have shown that conversion of tropical ecosystems, including peat swamps in Southeast Asia and rainforests and grasslands in South America, for energy crops result in net emissions, the second study shows that when assessed at a global level, U.S. corn ethanol is also a major CO2 source — not a CO2 sink as usually claimed by the farm industry.

"Using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gasses for 167 years," write the authors.

Their assessment is based on the additional land that needs to be converted abroad as a result of increased corn acreage planted for ethanol production in the United States.

entire article

So let's get this straight. Not only are we driving up the price of food around the world, which hurts the poorest the worst, we are making it more profitable for people, both mega corporations and poor farmers in third world countries to destroy known carbon sinks to produce bio-fuel crops. In addition we are taking more food crops out of the supply line causing not only food shortages and increased food prices, but an increase in green house gas emissions.

All this and much more based upon projections of climate models. Is this what they mean when they say we don't have time to wait? We must do something now to stave off global disaster? Yes indeed let's shoot sulfur into the atmosphere while literally thousands are dieing of record cold weather. God forbid they should cut down a tree to burn to save their children's lives, it would increase their carbon footprint. ridiculous
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65. hcubed
1:03 PM GMT on February 14, 2008
First, scientists only make proposals like this because they, like the politicians, realize that as long as the "undeveloped" countries are allowed to pump as much CO2 as they want into the air (so they can "catch up to the west"), CO2 won't go down.

Second: "Let's just leave science uninhibited to do as they wish while scaring the hell out of us at the same time!"

Isn't that what they're doing now?
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64. NorthxCakalaky
12:55 PM GMT on February 14, 2008
North Carolina Valentines Surprise Snowstorm

An upperlevel low produced a hail stones around Charlote,N.C.The storms changed to a area of showers north-west of Hickory.The showers expanded and changed to snow.

The piedmont of North Carolina got around 2-4inches of snow today.Schools were closed.
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63. Cavin Rawlins
12:16 PM GMT on February 14, 2008
Good Morning to all



As a cold front continues to exit the Gulf Region, high pressure is building across the Southern United States producing fair weather and 10-20 knot surface north winds. Meanwhile, southwesterly upper level flow is advecting widespread showers and possible thunderstorms from the Eastern Pacific across Southern Mexico. These showers should spread across the Bay of Campeche in the next 6 hrs and then into the Southern Gulf of Mexico. Currently, seas across the Gulf are 7-8 ft due to surface high pressure but should relax to below 5 ft in the next day or so as a second cold front approaches and the pressure gradient slackens.

A well define cold front continues to push its way across the Western Atlantic from an extratropical low over the Northwest Atlantic through 30N/75W 23N/80W through the Straits of Florida and the Yucatan Channel before reaching the Yucatan Peninsula. South of the Bahamas, the front clearly lies within a dry confluent zone and thus shower activity is non-existent. North of the islands, the front is accompanied by moderate to strong showers and thunderstorms. This area lies within the favorable left entrance region of an upper ridge along 60W. Meanwhile, a very strong 1036 mb high is analyzed near 38N/55W...anticyclonic flow covers entire Central Subtropical Atlantic with the leading edge of a stratocumulus cloud deck embedded within the flow entering the Southwest Atlantic to 65W south of 30N.


The Caribbean region has become a little more interesting to talk about. Firstly, an inactive cold front lies across the Northwest corner...only low clouds are seen. Meanwhile, an upper ridge axis lies along 63W. The anticyclonic flow around the ridge is drawing moisture from the monsoon trough/ITCZ/NECZ and advecting it across Panama/Costa Rica and into the Southwest Caribbean west of 75W and south of 15N. The trades have really increased in response to the strong high-pressure system in the North Atlantic, with most stations/buoys/ships reporting 10-30 knot winds, with the strongest trades across the Southwest Caribbean where the pressure gradient is normally sharpest. Seas will be 7-8 ft increasing to 14 ft west of 70W and south of 15N. The trades are also advecting patches of shallow cloudiness and moisture mainly across the Eastern Caribbean. Expect periods of passing showers across the islands.

by W456
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62. CajunSubbie
6:22 AM GMT on February 14, 2008
yah.. lets put sulfur in the atomsphere so we can speed up the coming ice age..
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61. LowerCal
6:13 AM GMT on February 14, 2008
Yes, geoengineering should be on the table.

Shooting burning sulfur into the stratosphere with cannons? I can't even type that without laughing.

How about putting CO2 back where the carbon came from? I'm sure this would make oil companies happy. They control the places to put it, it's an additional income stream from their primary product and forcing CO2 back into the ground might even force more petroleum out.

Ahh, but best of all it's something they won't use their considerable financial resources to oppose!
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60. moonlightcowboy
5:33 AM GMT on February 14, 2008
Let's spend several million on geoengineering! And, while we're at it, too, let's just see how much we can really screw up the environment! Hey, it doesn't matter that we've got emissions - no, we can just shoot some chemical up in the air and ignite it!

It doesn't matter that we've got hungry people that need feeding. Let's just add something else to the budget that we can't pay for now or anytime in the near future! Not to mention, how important is it that while all this is going on, we've actually got Congress questioning Clemens over drug use in baseball - talk about a waste of taxpayer dollars! Why don't they hold hearings on Congressional accountability instead - seems that would make much more sense(cents=trillions)!

Let's double or triple a budget for that geo experiment! Let's just leave science uninhibited to do as they wish while scaring the hell out of us at the same time!

Rant over!!!
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59. BahaHurican
3:51 AM GMT on February 14, 2008
Hey, lin.

That must have been a doozy of a storm. We got what amounts to the "remnants", and we still picked up quite a lot of rain over New Providence. At least we didn't have the massive thunder and lightning.

Were you living there when Wilma came through? THAT must have been . . . interesting, to say the least.
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58. lindenii
3:40 AM GMT on February 14, 2008
Yes Baha.

My son parked his canoe in the backyard on Sunday evening and forgot all about it. That is until this morning.

It went from dry as a bone yesterday afternoon... to full to the brim this morning. By full to the brim, I mean right up to and over the edge. Some of the lightning, even though at least four seconds away...sounded more like a violent explosion than a thunderclap. Quite a night. It was starting to let up around 2:30 and thats when I turned off the computer.

Where do I live? Halfway between Corkscrew Swamp and I-75, 18 miles from the coast.
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57. BahaHurican
3:04 AM GMT on February 14, 2008
I noticed on the FL news that some parts of SW Florida (notably some parts of Munroe County) got up to 10 inches of rain in a very short period (maybe 5 hours?)

Anybody experienced that firsthand?
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56. BahaHurican
2:55 AM GMT on February 14, 2008
Evening everybody.

We had quite a heavy downpour here in Nassau this morning between 8 and 9:30 a.m. We probably picked up upwards of an inch in that short time. This is very unusual weather for February. Whatever showers we do get are usually light pre-frontal showers. This morning's rain was more like what we see in October - heavy, tropical rainfall.

However by 10 a.m. it had cleared our area. The rest of the day has been beautiful.
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55. sebastianjer
1:36 AM GMT on February 14, 2008
54. Patrap
1:23 AM GMT on February 14, 2008
Dune..Desert Sulfur Spice Planet,..

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53. ajcamsmom
1:17 AM GMT on February 14, 2008
Will it ever stop??? Like we need to dump anything else into our already over burdened atmosphere...Go figure
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52. sebastianjer
12:57 AM GMT on February 14, 2008
Sounds very similar to the idea of covering the Arctic with soot back in the 70's to forestall global cooling. I believe these AGW folks need to figure out what the earths temperature really is, since they can't agree on that, before we start giving ourselves ice baths to cool down.

My goodness can you imagine if they did that and then we had a strong La Nina and a couple volcano eruptions neither of which can be predicted, you'd have mass murder on your hands, ridiculous. Are these people totally nuts


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51. weathermanwannabe
12:46 AM GMT on February 14, 2008
Dr. M:

Agree with most of the folks on this launching large quatities of sulfur into the Stratospere as a really bad idea right now (sorry Mr. Nobel).......Let's wait a few more decades to see what Mother Nature has in store (and if things truly worsen)......Given all of the recent, and sometimes locally catastropic, natural events around the world (floods/earthquakes/tsunamis/tropical storms/drought) in recent years, I would not count out some type of massive volcanic eruption somewhere on the planet in the next several years which would "naturally" take care of the problem without having to spend billions..........
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50. GeoffreyWPB
7:30 PM EST on February 13, 2008
More than 6 inches locally in Lake Worth / Palm Springs, Fl. area.
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49. weatherbro
12:19 AM GMT on February 14, 2008
We in Orlando only got a quarter of an inch of rain.
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47. NorthxCakalaky
11:42 PM GMT on February 13, 2008
Unpredicted snow over the northern foothills of North Carolina.It was just suspose to be flurries over the western slopes of the Blue Ridge,"Above 3500f.t".

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46. ShenValleyFlyFish
5:56 PM EST on February 13, 2008
The level of human hubris knows no bounds.
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45. bdoucet
10:38 PM GMT on February 13, 2008
Hey Doc,
did you see were Shell Oil will be outfitting 7 of their rigs with equipment to measure weather data and wave data. Heard it today in the news.
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44. Natgas
10:35 PM GMT on February 13, 2008
40. StormW 9:04 PM GMT on February 13, 2008
I hear ya! Maybe I should run...probably wouldn't get elected though.

Storm, You are a smart man so you would not fit in. Besides why would you put yourself and family through that mess?
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43. lickitysplit
10:25 PM GMT on February 13, 2008
I'd vote for you, StormW.
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41. taistelutipu
11:28 PM EET on February 13, 2008
Sulphur in the atmosphere? That must be a bad joke... Just wait for natural regulations of too warm years such as La Nina or an volcanic eruption, Mother Nature does that all by herself. If sulphure were blown up into the atmosphere and just a couple of months later a major eruption occured, it might be too much and we end up having another ice age.

Thanks MichaelSTL for posting the anomaly graphics of past years in comparison with this year. What strikes me most is the drastic drop in average temperatures in Central Asia (-8°F) compared to the more than 11°F over average in Siberia and North Europe.These areas just remain outside the current cooling trend. Seems like everybody is getting a decent winter except the Europeans and the Russians. *lol*

As I posted in one of the previous blog entries (right before the Doc posted another entry so probably noone read it), the Baltic Sea has currently the smallest areal ice cover in recorded history (over 300 years). This blog in English sums it up quite nicely. Normally about 45 % of the entire Baltic Sea are frozen in winter, in severe winters up to 96 % (record-breaking ice cover in 1987 when it went down to South Sweden and Germany).
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39. FLWeatherFreak91
3:54 PM EST on February 13, 2008
That would just smell soooo bad.
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38. Michfan
2:39 PM CST on February 13, 2008
I think mother nature can handle it just fine. Lets just fix what we are doing wrong instead of applying a band aid. 2 wrongs don't make a right.
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37. NEwxguy
8:38 PM GMT on February 13, 2008
Hey,Storm,if only we could get our presidential candidates to make that much sense.You better be careful people are leery of people who talk common sense.
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36. moonlightcowboy
8:33 PM GMT on February 13, 2008
Hhhmmm, I think we've got some scientists
who've been smoking crack, or something
stronger even!

Are you kidding? Mother Nature corrects itself,
or the sun will blow up and that'll be it! The
IPCC has no proven data to support their
conclusions anyway as surface temperatures are
biased and non-scientific.

Geoengineering is a joke! Like many other
things, we need to throw more money down the
crapper because it's just the way we are and
how our system works(or doesn't)!

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8:25 PM GMT on February 13, 2008
32. StormW 8:22 PM GMT on February 13, 2008
I kinda like the idea of cutting down any emissions, and leaving Mother Nature alone. This old earth has taken care of itself for BILLIONS of years.

Well said Storm! I agree fully. Don't mess with Mother Nature!
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34. lickitysplit
8:23 PM GMT on February 13, 2008
I kinda like the idea of cutting down any emissions, and leaving Mother Nature alone. This old earth has taken care of itself for BILLIONS of years.

Ahhh...the voice of sanity. Thanks StormW. Lets indeed spend the money cutting emissions, creating a new, green economy and let Mother Nature heal.
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33. Appalachiangypsy
8:22 PM GMT on February 13, 2008
11. oriondarkwood 5:10 PM GMT on February 13, 2008
Yea I think Dude had one too many 420's if you get my drift

I agree
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31. cchsweatherman
8:04 PM GMT on February 13, 2008
Here in South Florida, the weather has finally begun to calm as the trough has departed off the coast and the cold front makes its approach on the area. All in all, this could have been far worse than it was throughout the entire state. Now, I could use some sunshine. Lake Okeechobee got somewhere around 6" rainfall from this storm system. It needs much more, but this was a great blessing since we never usually get storms like this during February.
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30. cchsweatherman
7:36 PM GMT on February 13, 2008
28. hondaguy 7:22 PM GMT on February 13, 2008
cchs...Let us know something once it's all over. The whole torando thing worries me for you guys down there.

Yesterday they had nearly 4 (that the news reported) sightings of funnel clouds here in the Baton Rouge area alone. I believe 2 tornados touched down in our area too.

I've never in my life seen the sky so dark.

Just finished making calls to people I know who are in Cooper City and they have told me that they did not see a tornado, although there is some wind damage from this line. I'll see soon enough in about two hours what occurred at my house. Hopefully, I won't have much to clean up, but I know that I will have some cleanup to come; mainly sweeping up and raking branches and leaves.
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29. lawntonlookers
7:33 PM GMT on February 13, 2008
Kind of a crazy idea to put additional sulfur in the air. I thought the World was spending money trying to reduce the sulfur input into the atmosphere.

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28. hondaguy
1:20 PM CST on February 13, 2008
cchs...Let us know something once it's all over. The whole torando thing worries me for you guys down there.

Yesterday they had nearly 4 (that the news reported) sightings of funnel clouds here in the Baton Rouge area alone. I believe 2 tornados touched down in our area too.

I've never in my life seen the sky so dark.
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