Unintended Hazards of Geoengineering

Reducing the solar radiation that reaches Earth will have potentially significant consequences beyond limiting the mean temperature of the planet; it may reduce annual rainfall, especially in the Americas and northern Eurasia.

by Prof. Peter Saunders


Harvard geoengineers are set to spray sun-reflecting chemical particles into the atmosphere to cool the planet from a balloon at 80 000 feet over Fort Sumner, New Mexico [1]. Chief investigator David Keith manages a multimillion dollar research fund awarded by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and has already commissioned a study by a US aerospace company that made the case for large-scale deployment of solar radiation management technologies. The experiment, to be conducted with James Anderson within a year, will release tens to hundreds of kilograms of particles to measure the impacts on ozone chemistry and test ways of making sulphate aerosols the appropriate size.

Many scientists are opposed to geoengineering experiments, preferring to study the impacts of sulphuric dust emitted by volcanoes, and to use modelling to identify the risks. A British field test involving a balloon and hose-pipe to pump water into the sky, which was part of the government-funded Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (Spice) project (see [2] Skyhook to Save the Climate?) was cancelled after public outcry.

But there are good reasons why geoengineering should not be considered.

The obvious way to combat climate change is to cool the planet by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and removing them from the atmosphere. That means using less energy, replacing fossil fuels by renewables, halting deforestation, and adopting sustainable farming practices. As documented in two major reports published by ISIS [3, 4] Food Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free , Green Energies – 100% Renewable by 2050, all the necessary technologies are available and getting better and cheaper every day, only the political will is missing.

Geoengineering offers an alternative quick fix, which is to reduce the amount of radiation reaching Earth’s surface in the first place.  There are several suggestions about how this might be done, for example, by putting mirrors into space or sulphur particles into the stratosphere, or by increasing the brightness of clouds by spraying sea salt into them (see [5] GeoEngineering A Measure of Desperation, SiS 41). Geoengineering involves making changes on a planetary scale [5, 6].

A major drawback of geoengineering, whether it involves solar radiation management (SRM) or other measures such as fertilizing the oceans in the hope of increasing the absorption of carbon by phytoplankton, is that it is likely to be very difficult to reverse.  If we sent small particles into the stratosphere what could happen if they drifted out of position, or coalesced, or came back down sooner than we anticipated? Not only could the result be a massive waste of valuable resources, we could end up having done irreparable harm to the planet.

But if we could manage to put into the sky something that actually accomplishes what it was designed to do, i.e., reduce the amount of radiation reaching Earth by just the amount necessary to compensate for the reduction in outgoing radiation caused by the greenhouse effect; wouldn’t that solve the problem of climate change without having to deal with any of the political and economic obstacles to more conventional measures?

Unfortunately, Earth’s climate is a very complex system, and it responds to far more than just the amount of energy in and energy out averaged over the four seasons and the entire surface of the planet.  The precise spatial and temporal variations in energy distribution can have very different effects on global climate, and different SRM measures will lead to different effects.  Furthermore, SRM measures are in no way equivalent to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And should SRM measures fail, we are still left with too much greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

It is not hard to see why the differences should matter. For example, an important factor in driving the weather is the differences in temperature and pressure between neighbouring areas. The onshore breezes that are so common in coastal areas in the summer arise because the air over the land is warmer, and therefore at a lower pressure than the air over the sea. The temperature differential can also lead to the formation of clouds near the shore where the two air masses meet.  Neither the breezes nor the clouds would be there if the temperature were the same on the sea as on the land, even if the mean temperature for the area was the same.

Thus, two climate strategies that produced consistently different patterns of heating and cooling on the surface of the Earth would have different effects on the climate. What we need to know is whether the differences would be large enough to matter, and only detailed modelling can tell us that. Work has begun, and there is a long way to go before we can predict with confidence what will happen; but it is already becoming clear that SRM would have serious unintended consequences for the climate.

Earth’s climate is a highly complex system and consequently very difficult to model. Judgements over which effects to include and what approximations to make will differ from one research group to another. That’s why it is important to have several climate models rather than just one consensus simulation. When the different models make similar predictions, we can be far more confident of the result.  Given the complexity of the climate and also of the models, it is not at all surprising that the different models disagree on how much the temperature will rise as the greenhouse gas concentration increases. On the other hand, that they all agree Earth will get warmer and — under a reasonably optimistic estimate of future carbon emissions — by no less than 2 °C, is a very robust result that we would be very ill advised to ignore.

Comparing the effects of limiting greenhouse gases on the one hand and reducing the incoming radiation on the other is even more challenging than modelling the effects of increasing CO2 level. Work has begun and because it is important to be able to compare the results from different models, much of it is being devoted to a project to find out how consistent and therefore how trustworthy the different models are [7].

Recently, an international team led by H Schmidt at Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg compared four different climate models, one from the Institute itself the others from Hadley Centre in the UK, Institut Pierre Simon Laplace in France, and the Norwegian Meteorological Institute in Oslo respectively [8]. To start each model, the CO2 level is set to four times what it was in the preindustrial era, and the solar constant – the amount of radiation reaching the surface of Earth – adjusted so that Earth’s mean temperature remains what it was in the preindustrial era.  They then ran the models for 50 years.

As you would expect, the mean temperature averaged over the entire surface of the Earth remains roughly the same in all the models. On the other hand, the variation in temperature as we move north or south is reduced from the preindustrial. Given that, and bearing in mind the importance of temperature gradients in determining the weather, it is not surprising that the patterns of precipitation change.  Rainfall is reduced on average over the entire planet, with strong effects over the Americas and northern Eurasia.

The total global cloud cover is also reduced in all the models. This contributes to the change in albedo (reflectivity) of the planet, which drops by about 2% in all four models. The models all predict a stronger effect in Europe but disagree on what would happen in large parts of the tropics or subtropics. Note that the reduction in albedo means that less of the sun’s radiation is reflected from Earth, so more particles or mirrors would be required to reduce the incoming radiation sufficiently to maintain the preindustrial mean global temperature.

There are of course many uncertainties in the calculations. The sudden quadrupling of CO2 is not realistic, though the rise to four times the preindustrial level is within the bounds of the current climate change models, albeit at the high end of the range of predictions.  On the other hand, holding the mean global temperature constant is very much a best case scenario, and secondary effects such as decreased precipitation may well be underestimated. 

An Earth with a high level of greenhouse gases and a geoengineering scheme that compensates by reducing the amount of incoming solar radiation is not the same as an Earth with lower level of greenhouse gases and no shield. The mean annual temperature averaged over the whole planet may be the same, but within that there will be changes, some quite marked. It is highly likely that total precipitation will be significantly (and unevenly) reduced, as will the total cloud cover. Beyond that, it is too early to say what will happen, which is all the more reason for being very cautious indeed about geoengineering.

It is obvious that if a geoengineering project goes wrong, the planet could be badly damaged. We are now discovering that there could be very harmful consequences even if it goes right.



2 thoughts on “Unintended Hazards of Geoengineering

  1. What the whole scenario reminds me of is the stupidity of humans in large groups! Individual humans can display remarkable wisdom and common sense but once we become institutions, governments and cultures all that disappears – why is that?

  2. I am delighted that someone has opened the discussion about this issue! But I must say in the same breath that I disagree with some points in the opening post.

    It seems to me, that in order to survive, humankind has to use some methods of geoengineering and also some methods of solar radiation management. Let me explain what makes me think so.

    First of all, climate change cannot anymore be stopped just by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It wouldn’t stop even if we immediately halted our emissions tomorrow. One has to always bear in mind that it is not us emitting greenhouse gases that warms the climate, but the excessive amount of these gasses in the atmosphere. We are in a way committed to a certain amount of temperature rise already, because some of the warming potential of current green house gases in the atmosphere hasn’t been realised yet. This is a big problem, because the warming that has already occurred has led to the thawing of arctic permafrost and therefore releases of methane from the yedoma (wet permafrost). This was already noticed in 2005 by Sergei Kirpotin and his colleagues. You can for example watch youtube videos of methane escaping from the bottom of the lakes in these areas. Also, more recently, there was noticed over a hundred of powerful methane seeping areas a kilometre in diameter in the Laptev Sea. Scientists estimate that there should be thousands of this kinds of seeping structures. As methane is (on a short timescale) 100 times more potent as green house gas that co2, this is very worrying indeed.

    Also, the Arctic sea-ice is declining very rapidly, and some estimates predict that the floating ice will disappear by 2016 – or even sooner. Disappearing of the ice would mean closing of a clobal cooling vent, as the ice has reflected much of the summer sunlight and has served as a “storage of cold”. Melting of ice would probably cause weather havoc everywhere on the planet. It would also speed up the warming of arctic waters and therefore methane releases from the seabed.

    We cannot stop the melting just by reducing emissions, and probably not even by sequestering carbon. We’ll simply run out of time. We need to do something to enhance the albedo of the Arctic. There are several methods that can be utilized. We don’t need to spray anything into the stratosphere, and we probably even shouldn’t due to it’s negative side effects that could be catastrophic. The Arctic is warming faster that the rest of the world, and this is at least partially explainable due to the loss of albedo as the ice has melted. We should eliminate soot emissions, but this is not enough anymore.

    There are several methods of enhancing the albedo of arctic. One would be roughly the following procedure: we could increase summer time sulphur emissions from the ships travelling in the northern Atlantic and the northern Pacific oceans, and decrease them in the winter time. We could do this for example by installing flue gas scrubbers on all the ships travelling these areas, and tell the ships crew to keep them on during the winter and turn them of during summer. This way the arctic-warming effect of wintertime sulphur emissions would decrease and the cooling effect of summer time emissions stay as it is – or increase, if we would make the ships travel with more sulphur rich fuel. Also the flue gases could be cleaned with scrubbers while the ships are close to the coastal line.

    Unfortunately, almost the opposite is happening. International Maritime Organisation – IMO- decided in 2008 to greatly lower the maximum allowed sulphur content of the ship fuel. This will lower the winter time warming emissions too, but the impact on summer cooling effect could be more radical.

    It wonders me, that there are very few environmental organisations that have expressed concerns over this decision. It is possible that we have under estimated the cooling effect of sulphur. So we could experience a rapid jump in our climate, if the cooling sulphur parasol is removed. We cannot know, but anyone who is concerned about the risks of geoengineering should be concerned over this particular experiment. Most people won’t think that this is an experiment, but if you look at it, it will tell as some very important facts: how much sulphur emissions from marine traffic are cooling the arctic in the summer and how much they are warming in the winter. So it could be called an inconscious, and therefore especially dangerous, experiment.

    I find it hard to understand that many environmentalists are against all sort of minor geoengineering experiments (while it is even almost clear that we are going to need these methods) but very few rise their voices when something much more severe is about to happen. We know that marine traffics sulphur emissions won’t lead to an acute catastrophe – if would, it would have happened already. But removing these emissions might have serious consequences.

    Generally speaking, we have to accept some (conscious) human interference in our climate if we want to survive. All human impact is not bad – haven’t permaculture and the lessons of Loss Plateau taught us that?

    More information on different geoengineering options can be found on a book: “66 Ways to Absorb Carbon and Improve the Earth’s Reflectivity” by Finnish Risto Isomäki. The book can be freely downloaded in pfd .format from here: http://www.into-ebooks.com/download/200/

    More information on marine traffics climatic impacts can be found from here: http://www.into-ebooks.com/book/ships_sulphur_and_climate/ (a free pdf download.)

    – Aapo

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