Geoengineering is a vague term that can describe an assorted variety of methods. Lately, scientists have been seriously considering extreme measures to mitigate the impending doom of global warming. In order to determine if scientists are on the right track, one must first understand the meaning of the term geoengineering, what methods this innovative approach to global warming involves, and what is at stake for the planet’s future.
A majority of international scientists agree that the earth is undergoing a climate change that will result in a warming trend often referred to as global warming. There is quite a bit of scientific data and many publications that corroborate that claim (see Global Warming by Any Other Name…). The idea of global warming is mainly repudiated in polarized political circles where the denial is more convenient for the interested parties to maintain their agendas. I, however, am more inclined to believe NASA scientists and the IPCC rather than a politician, but that’s just my common sense talking.
Politics aside, those who fully understand the ramifications an increase in the earth’s temperature will have are concerned enough to look into ways to allay the risks of global warming. With an increase in temperature by the end of the 21st century, scientists ascertain that many species will begin behaving differently. As plants and flowers begin to blossom sooner, birds will also migrate sooner. Essentially, our food supply will be largely affected. Hence, the scientific approach of geoengineering.
Geoengineering is a means of managing the planet’s ecosystem by the hands of man. It is engineering geology to control an ecological outcome. For instance, reforestation is a popular method of geoengineering. Since the flattening of thousands of acres of rainforests and other foliage began, conscientious humans have been trying to replace what has been lost. It is like a truly dysfunctional relationship where responsible people chase after the irresponsible parties trying to clean up the mess they’ve made.
While reforestation seems like a logical resolution to global warming, it is clear that reforestation on its own will not assuage the damage that has been done and the effects to come. Thus, there are other methods being considered that seem a bit more farfetched and extreme. I think they progress from feasible to implausible; logical to fanciful when one considers the risk assessment and cost associated with implementation of certain geoengineering techniques. The director of the Office of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, Michael McCraken, points out in an interview by Patrick Huyghe, that the “fundamental trouble with most geoengineering proposals is that the ones with the fewest side effects are those with the greatest upfront costs” (Huyghe, 2011).
I have listed these options below beginning with what, in my opinion, is most feasible and cost effective geoengineering practice and progressing to the least practicle due to either high cost or potential risk.
1. Reduce emissions – This is something that can be cheaply achieved with individual participation in community efforts such as ride share programs, alternative transportation such as bikes and public transportation systems.
2. Energy Efficiency Savings – Again, individuals can make a tremendous, cost effective impact by unplugging appliances when not in use or switching out light bulbs to lower wattages.
3. Alternative Power Sources – The use of wind, water and solar energy as an option may be more costly upfront but will pay for itself and have the most beneficial impact in the long term. Even small local companies like Brooklyn Pizza in Tucson, Arizona have made the switch to solar power.
4. Reforestation – It obviously makes sense to replace the carbon absorbing foliage we have destroyed. Like alternative power sources, it may be more costly to implement initially, but the benefits will be worth it in the long run with nominal risk to the environment.
5. Ocean fertilization – This method involves “dumping iron filings into the ocean to spur phytoplankton blooms…” to absorb carbon. It is “the saltwater version of forestation…On the downside, it may kill fish, belch out other greenhouse gases such as methane, and hasn’t worked very well in small trials” (Vergano, 2011).
6. Cloud engineering – Some people already do a version of this in the southwest by painting their rooftops white to deflect the sun. Other types of this practice would be genetically “engineering crops to have shinier surfaces” (Vergano, 2011), which seems impractical to me because I don’t see the overall impact on global warming being significant enough to justify the genetic engineering of food.
Another form of cloud engineering would be to place white Styrofoam blocks in oceans to simulate clouds – I personally am against Styrofoam because in and of itself it is hazardous to the environment.
Finally, some scientists contemplate that propelling sea salt into the sky through “spray ships” may increase clouds already in the atmosphere. However, the potential hazard with this method is that it “might end up dumping rain on the ocean or already soggy regions, instead of where it is needed” (Vergano, 2011). In other words, these last few options could possibly cause further imbalance to the earth’s ecosystem.
7. Sulfuric Stratosphere Implantation – This method gets credit for being more sci-fi in its innovation by suggesting the placement of sulfur into the atmosphere either by balloon or plane. The sulfur would simulate a volcanic eruption which helps counter carbon in the atmosphere. However, the method “would cost a small fortune…and probably damage the ozone layer” according to Patrick Huyghe’s assessment in a paper for Columbia University.
8. Space Mirrors – This method gets the award for the most sci-fi and grandiose scheme of all. The procedure would entail “hundreds of thousands of thin reflective yard-long disks fired into a gravitational balance point between the sun and Earth” (Vergano, 2011) to deflect the sun’s heat away from Earth. Aside from the obvious cost, this technique could also have more negative effects than constructive ones. For one, the amount of rocket fuel required to launch these space mirrors would “dump enough black soot…to increase the average global temperature about 1.4 degrees” (Vergano, 2011).
Irrefutably, while exploring all of our options to alleviate global warming, we better explore all of the potential hazards that may result from the geoengineering techniques we are considering. If not, we will only be perpetuating a never ending cycle of fixing the mess we made by trying to fix the previous mess we made and so on and on.
Undoing the damage: Geoengineering our way out of trouble
Can geoengineering put the freeze on global warming?
Geoengineering: How to Cool the Earth – At a Price