Geoengineering Research Emerges from the Lab

Geoengineering Research Emerges from the Lab

Image CC license by Flickr user bortescristian

Government-funded scientists in the U.K. are moving forward with a pair of small-scale, carefully-controlled experiments, one to test the qualities of particles that could be used to block the sun’s rays, and another in which droplets of water will be pumped into the air using a one-kilometer-long pipe.

The experiments are designed to help scientists better understand how a geoengineering technique known as solar radiation management, often called SRM, would work. For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, geoengineering is the deliberate manipulation of the earth’s climate to counter the effects of global warming. Solar radiation management, meanwhile, is a technique intended to reduce the amount of sunlight hitting the earth, and thereby cool the planet. SRM can be attempted in a variety of ways, including by injecting sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere to form aerosols, a process that happens naturally when volcanoes erupt, leading to a temporary global cooling.

This is my fifth blogpost this year on geoengineering. (The others can be found here.) While the idea of geoengineering is, at first glance, so strange and scary that some people want to ban any research into climate manipulation, I’m convinced the time has come not just for scientific research but for public conversation about geoengineering.

Why? Simply because the world’s collective efforts to curb climate change, such as they are, are failing. This week, while thousands of officials are meeting in Cancun for the U.N.’s COP16, the 16th major round of negotiations to deal with climate change, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise (See "10 Reasons Why the Cancun Talks Will Fail"). Last year’s emissions were 37 percent above those in 1990. So we’re not mitigating at all — to the contrary, our actions, each and every day, increase the danger of catastrophic climate disruptions. Earlier this year, a U.S. government interagency report concluded:

It is clear that impacts in the United States are already occurring and are projected to increase in the future, particularly if the concentration of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to rise.

Which is why we need to think about geoengineering, if only as a way to buy time for a gradual transition to clean energy. The Brits are ahead of us in this regard; the U.K.’s Royal Society, Britain’s premiere scientific society,  published a major study on geoengineering last year, saying that man-made efforts to cool the earth “may provide a potentially useful short-term back-up to mitigation in case rapid reductions in global temperature are needed.”

Since then, government-funded research councils have agreed to sponsor two projects. One is known as the Integrated Assessment of Geoengineering Proposals (IAGP), which will deliver an overview of the different potential techniques that might be used to geoengineer climate. The other, known as Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering, or SPICE, spans four U.K. universities and is intended to address “the gaps in our knowledge about effectiveness and side effects of geoengineering schemes.” Funding is £1.61 million, according to Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, a major funder.

Recently, Matthew Watson, an earth scientist at the University of Bristol, who’s leading one of the research projects, came to Washington to talk about the SPICE project. He spoke to a geoengineering task force assembled by the DC-based Bipartisan Policy Center, which is studying the issue. The SPICE research, he said, is notable because it is publicly-funded and because it will be the first peer-reviewed research that takes geoengineering beyond computer simulations.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council describes SPICE this way:

The SPICE project will investigate the effectiveness of stratospheric particle injection. It will address the three grand challenges in solar radiation management: 1. How much, of what, needs to be injected where into the atmosphere to effectively and safely manage the climate system? 2. How do we deliver it there? 3. What are the likely impacts?

One part of SPICE, according to Watson, will examine the qualities of particles to be injected into the stratosphere by using lasers at the Rutherford-Appleton laboratory in Oxfordshire. “We’re going to investigate a range of natural and man made particles,” he said, in an effort to figure out which would be best. The issues are quite technical–particles must be very small (0.2 or 0.3 microns thick) to be effective.

A second part of project, he explained, will examine the question of how to deliver the particles. Scientists have talked about using airplanes, balloons or pipes tethered to the ground. Former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold, who is co-founder of Intellectual Ventures in Seattle, has talked about building a “garden hose to the sky” to deliver the particles.

Plans call for scientists to build a 1-km-long pipe, about 1/20 of the length that would eventually be needed, on a location still to be determined, and to pump either water or saltwater into the air, to see how the pipe would work. “This is an engineering test, not a climate test,” Watson said.

None of this, it should be noted, will go forward without ample opportunity for the public to comment. Geoengineering raises an array of ethical, political and governance issues; no one would want the discussion to be left to the scientists.

Image CC license by Flickr user bortescristian