How Geoengineering Could Help Save Our Planet
Updated: Jan 15
Snow is melting fast, wildfires are raging across the world, and heatwaves are causing more fatalities than ever. I think it's safe to say that we're in the middle of a climate crisis. What is also becoming more and more obvious is that even our best efforts may not be enough to halt the rise in temperatures in time before something catastrophic happens.
That is why we need to do more than stop global warming. We need to reverse it.
It's called geoengineering. Altering the environment in hopes of bringing down global temperatures and offsetting climate change.
Some of these techniques, like the use of artificial trees to suck carbon dioxide out of the air, are seen by most as acceptable steps to a sustainable future. Others, such as spraying particles of sulfur into the air to reflect sunlight back into space, are far more controversial. For this article, we're going to focus on the latter.
What Are Aerosols?
Let's start with the basics. What are aerosols? They are particles of solid and liquid that exist suspended in the air around us. They range from a few nanometers in size to several micrometers. But what makes them really special is their ability to deflect sunlight and influence the earth's climate.
Sulfur is an aerosol. It is found in large quantities in the air where sulfur dioxide pollution has occurred. This is caused by activities such as burning coal and volcanic eruptions.
How Can They Help?
In June 1991, Mount Pinatubo, an active volcano in the Zambales Mountains in the Philippines, suffered a violent eruption that sent a huge cloud of ash, gas, and rock particles flying into the sky. These aerosol particles lingered in the air for as long as three years, bringing global temperatures down by a whopping 0.5 degrees.
In fact, archaeological evidence points to a volcanic eruption that occurred about 71,000 - 73,000 years ago in Sumatra Island, Indonesia, leaving the air clouded with particles that lasted for 6 years and cooled down global temperatures by 1°C. This is the earliest known evidence of an aptly dubbed volcanic winter, although there have been many more throughout history.
This shows that whenever natural phenomena have deposited large amounts of sulfur particles into the air, global temperatures have been brought down severely. Some scientists are now proposing small outdoor experiments to see if this natural process can be replicated through engineering.
What's the Catch?
The problem with geoengineering is that it doesn't really 'solve' climate change as much as it temporarily hides it. It goes without saying that depositing more and more sulfur particles into our atmosphere to compete with ever-increasing emissions isn't a brilliant plan. This might have unforeseen effects which we are not yet aware of.
Moreover, geoengineering does very little to address the other realities of climate change, such as ocean acidification and environmental damage from burning fossil fuels. At best, geoengineering can buy us some time to fix our unsustainable way of living.
Where Do We Stand?
Sadly, despite the promise, there haven't been any concrete scientific experiments to cement geoengineering into the mainstream. Our best bet right now is an upcoming project being conducted by Harvard University's Solar Geoengineering Research Program. The plan is to spray a small amount of calcium carbonate into the atmosphere with the help of an air balloon.
This, however, is merely a small-scale outdoor experiment to gauge the usefulness of this technology. For geoengineering to actually work, it'd have to be implemented on a much broader scale, with help from multiple countries.
Geoengineering is controversial. But so is climate change. Action requires controversy, but we're in the middle of a climate emergency and we need every advantage we can get.
I don't believe firing up aerosols into the sky can be a permanent solution to climate change and neither should you. However, it is high time we started taking this issue seriously and having an open conversation about the solutions available. If geoengineering could help stave off the climate crisis for a little longer, then that is something that at least deserves more research, right? What do you think?