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Geoengineering: Can Humans Reverse Climate Change?

Geoengineering: Can Humans Reverse Climate Change?

Geoengineering techniques have been around since 1965 when scientists suggested spreading reflective material over the ocean to bounce back 1% sunlight back to space [Source: Scientific America]. Unfortunately this idea was complete bunk, but geoengineering has been gaining traction recently due to rising temperatures. There are currently two different geoengineering techniques: solar radiation management and carbon sequestering.

Solar radiation management, while potentially the fastest way to cool the planet, also is temporary and could potentially have many side effects. One of the proposals currently being discussed is the creation of manmade volcanic eruptions. Sulfide gases would  be injected into the stratosphere every one to four years, providing the earth with a “grace period” of up to 20 years before major cutbacks in greenhouse gas emissions would be required [Source: UCAR]. Unfortunately, this technique could thin the ozone layer if enough aerosol is injected into polar stratospheric clouds. Other negative effects include changing weather patterns, drought, acid rain and respiratory problems in humans. If done properly, however, this technique could potentially drop average temperatures 0.6 degrees Celsius [Source: 21st Century Challenges]. A less risky solar radiation management plan involves whitening of marine clouds. Ocean spray is released into the atmosphere to increase the reflectiveness of clouds. The extra changes the size of the water particles in existing clouds, making them whiter. This technique can be stopped at any time and is part of the natural process of “ocean spray”. It can be deployed quickly and rolled out cheaply and effectively, though it could potentially interfere with wind and weather patterns [Source: Guardian]. This problem also does not address ocean acidification or ways to actually decrease  the amount of CO2.

While solar radiation management only looks at decreasing overall temperature, carbon sequestration looks for ways to decrease overall CO2 levels. Iron deposition into the ocean is one method of carbon sequestration. The iron encourages phytoplankton growth, which removes carbon from the atmosphere, potentially on a permanent basis. While this sounds promising, there is no way to predict how this could effect marine life and nutrient balance in the ocean and could lead to poisonous algae spread [Source: Spiegel]. There are two methods of geoengineering that do not have harmful side effects: reforestation/afforestation and biochar. Reforestation is the process of replanting trees in cleared areas and afforestation is planting trees in areas that were never forest or haven’t been for years. Currently, deforestation accounts for 25% of the world’s greenhouse gase emissions [Source: Monga Bay]. While planting trees would help to decrease the amount of CO2, the time it takes for trees to regrow and biomass to rebuild is significant. Reforestation could be used alongside biochar. Biochar is charcoal made through pyrolysis of biomass, which is then buried and mixed with normal soil. Not only does it make the soil fertile, it holds potential for long-term carbon storage, possibly for millenia. Craig Sams, founder of Carbon Gold, believes biochar could potentially reduce CO2 levels to pre-industrial levels by 2050 if it were used in 2.5% of the world’s agricultural fertilizer [Source: Popular Mechanics]. Biochar is easily measured, making it great to figure out effectiveness of its carbon sequestration and it is at much lower risk of returning to the atmosphere than living organisms since it is mainly inert [Source: Treehugger].

While many of the “quick-fix” geoengineering proposals have many negative side effects, they are mostly presented in worst-case scenario and are generally temporary. The more long-term solutions like reforestation and the usage of biochar may work better, but it takes longer to see the effects. Either way, no geoengineering technique will be effective if the average global carbon emission does not decrease.

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IOP Blog
Jasmine Greene

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121 comments

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6:29PM PST on Jan 20, 2012

Not sure if we can reverse it, but I believe if we all try hard enough we could at least stop it from getting any worse

7:00AM PST on Nov 6, 2011

The only way to preserve the Earth is to return to it. Until then, we are all just monkeys with our paws stuck in the cookie jar. And that is where the Gods will find our silly carcasses.
The web is nothing new on Earth, we had shamanic cultures, and still do, who know everything that goes on in the world. But they have the added quality of making sense of it. Something we lack these days.

8:47AM PDT on Apr 29, 2011

Both reforestation and bio-char sound promising. They can't take the place of the transition from fossil fuels to sustainable energy, but they can help. Adding bio-char to commercial fertilizer should please the plants grown in the fields where it is used by making both the fertilizer and water more time release.

5:19AM PDT on Mar 29, 2011

How to be Convinced That Global Warming is Not Our Only Crisis

9:14AM PDT on Aug 23, 2010

yes!

11:32PM PDT on Aug 2, 2010

noted,ty

3:44PM PDT on Jun 30, 2010

Not my all time favorite solutions but they need to keep looking in all directions.

1:43PM PDT on Jun 29, 2010

Thanks for the article. Food for thought!

12:04AM PDT on Jun 22, 2010

I can only hope that some of these things will come to pass soon.

2:31PM PDT on Jun 21, 2010

It is sad that we need to destroy parts of nature to save ourselves from our own stupidity and greed.
This has happened before, for instance several centuries ago our ancestors dug up so much peat to use as fuel that in many places fertile land turned into holes in the ground until a levee broke and we had a flood on our hands. Will mankind ever be wiser...

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