Three Outlandish Ideas to Cool the Planet
By Jeremy Deaton
Climate change is a big, ugly, unwieldy problem, and it's getting worse by the day. Emissions are rising. Ice is melting, and virtually no one is taking the carbon crisis as seriously as the issue demands. Countries need to radically overhaul their energy systems in just a few short decades, replacing coal, oil and gas with clean energy. Even if countries overcome the political obstacles necessary to meet that aim, they can expect heat waves, drought and storms unseen in the history of human civilization and enough flooding to submerge Miami Beach.
This grim fact has scientists looking for a quick fix to keep warming at bay. One plan calls spraying large amounts of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. The chemical would reflect the sun's light, cooling the planet, which is more or less what happens when a volcano erupts, albeit on a much larger scale. Of course, this plan poses numerous diplomatic, scientific, technological and humanitarian challenges, and it is entirely possible that the effect on global weather patterns would be worse than climate change, which is why climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert has called the idea "wildly, utterly, howlingly barking mad."
That hasn't stopped researchers from dreaming up a litany of variations on this entirely outlandish theme. Here are three particularly impractical ideas that show why cutting pollution is almost certainly easier and safer than rejiggering the Earth's climate.
The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines briefly cooled the planet by around 1 degree F. U.S. Geological Survey
Scottish scientists have proposed using asteroid dust to block the sun's light. Their plan calls for pushing an asteroid to the point where the gravitational pull of the Earth and the gravitational pull of the Sun are felt in roughly equal measure. At this point, asteroids aren't in danger of falling toward Earth or drifting off toward the Sun. A la Armageddon, scientists would land a spacecraft on the rock. They would then deploy an electromagnetic catapult to hurl asteroid dust into space. A dust cloud would form around the asteroid, preventing a small portion of the Sun's light from reaching Earth. This plan comes with many significant risks, including the possibility of accidentally sending a large asteroid careening toward Earth.
Charlotte Lücking, based on images from ESA and NASA
Another plan calls for assembling a giant, translucent glass disk at the same point in space where scientists proposed creating a dust cloud—the point where a celestial object is pulled equally toward the Sun and toward the Earth. The disk, which would cover an area roughly the size of India, would reflect some of the Sun's rays away from the Earth.
Because assembling a giant disk in space would be virtually impossible, astronomer Roger Angel proposed using trillions of two-foot, razor-thin disks instead. He says it would be feasible to send the disks into space on rockets launched by a set of electromagnetic catapults. Then, those rockets could use ion propulsion to reach the point where they could release the disks. Angel wrote that whole project "could be developed and deployed in approximately 25 years at a cost of a few trillion dollars."
The graphic shows mirrors blurring the light from distant stars. UA Steward Observatory
Plastic in the Ocean
If spraying sulfur dioxide into the sky sounds dangerous and launching space mirrors sounds expensive, fret not. Scientists have an idea that could work right here on Earth—cover the Arctic Ocean with bits of white plastic that will float on the surface of the water and reflect the Sun's light back into space. White surfaces reflect more light than dark surfaces, which is why it feels better to wear a white shirt than a black shirt on a hot, sunny day. As temperatures creep up, the Arctic is losing white sea ice, which is making warming worse. White plastic might compensate for this loss, but it means covering the Arctic in non-biodegradable trash.
A variation on this idea calls for filling the ocean with "microbubbles." White foam would perform the same function as sheets of ice or bits of plastic, reflecting sunlight back into the sky, thereby cooling the sea. Pumps might attach to dams, reservoirs or be fitted to ocean-bound cargo ships, which would froth as they chugged around the globe. It would take an enormous amount of energy to cover an ocean in tiny bubbles, and pumps would need to run constantly to maintain the foam.
White seafoam reflects sunlight, keeping the ocean cool. Pexels
The Problem With Hacking the Climate
The challenge with each of these plans is that they only reduce the amount of sunlight absorbed by the Earth. They don't confront the actual problem—a surplus of carbon dioxide, which is making the ocean more acidic in addition to trapping heat. Dimming the sun may cool the planet, but it will alter the climate in other ways, disrupting rainfall around the globe.
One scientist compared this idea to placing a lid over a pot while turning down the heat on the stove — the average heat of the pot will remain the same, but the amount of water that evaporates might change. The effect is more droughts and hurricanes across the planet. It doesn't matter whether scientists spray sulfur dioxide into the sky or make oceans more foamy. Changing the method only changes how many people are adversely affected, which would range from 25 to 65 percent of the global population, according to one analysis.
The only safe method for hacking the climate is to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by cleaning up more than a century of pollution from cars, trucks, planes, factories and power plants. This would be difficult and costly, which is why every scientist working on this issue underscores the fact that blocking sunlight should only be seen as a last resort.
Remarking on his idea to send trillions of translucent disks into space, Angel said, "The sunshade is no substitute [for] developing renewable energy, the only permanent solution. A similar massive level of technological innovation and financial investment could ensure that."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
Earth's ice is melting 57 percent faster than in the 1990s and the world has lost more than 28 trillion tons of ice since 1994, research published Monday in The Cryosphere shows.
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Noreen Nunez lives in a middle-class neighborhood that rises up a hillside in Trinidad's Tunapuna-Piarco region.