A recent UN report on climate change reminded the world of the reality it is facing. Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus that humanity is to blame for rising temperatures and extreme weather, fossil fuels are still being burned at a frantic pace.
In fact, Earth’s top ten consumers of oil burn over 60 billion barrels a day – that’s enough to drive a Toyota Prius to and from the Sun 675 times, if the traffic was clear.
Buoyed by the 20th century’s manic advances in technology, and apparently a few Frank Herbert novels, some of the world’s best scientific minds have, since the 60s, been devising geoengineering plans, also known as Earth-hacks. That is, to alter the way weather works in order to stave off climate change.
And this field is no longer a fringe one. Despite the fact some of these projects sound like they’ve been lifted straight from a sci-fi movie, they’re no longer portrayed as follies. These are just four of the more extreme environmental ‘saves’ which are likely to enter the mainstream in the future.
Solar Radiation Management
Solar radiation management attempts to cool the Earth using much the same technique as clouds generated by volcanic eruptions. The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa lowered world climates by as much as 2.2°F. Many of the world’s leading scientific groups have mooted the idea of combatting global warming by throwing sulphur dioxide into the sky to block the sun.
“I’m not in favor of doing it today,” says Rutgers University environmental science professor Alan Robock. “I’m agnostic about whether we should ever do it. We don’t have enough information and, in any case, we don’t have the technology.” Robock claims that no aerial vehicle could currently administer the gas. And that’s not to factor in geopolitics: what if China wanted to block sunlight that hampered American crops?
Put simply, carbon sequestration (also called carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS), is the process of taking carbon from the sky and putting it in the sea. And it’s not even a new idea: American scientists founded the theory in the 70s, as the notion of global warming gathered pace.
Most CCS projects involve pumping CO2 emissions directly into the Earth, deep down below the seabed and between layers of rock, like a kind of backwards tracking. Japan has begun several CCS projects, as has Norway, whose offshore Sleipner West Field, located between Stavanger and Scotland, has been burying its carbon underwater since 1996. It stashes a million tons of CO2 gas per year, or around the same amount produced by 110,000 Norwegians in the same time.
However CCS is not a permanent solution: the carbon never disappears, of course. And just as with fracking there are concerns that the process can lead to earthquakes. So perhaps it’s not something the world’s superpowers should be doing en masse.
If you can’t bury your bad news underwater, then perhaps it can float along the surface. Experts have studied phytoplankton, tiny photosynthesizing organisms that drift along with ocean currents. Intentionally introducing iron, in powder form, into the sea can stimulate huge blooms of the things, which then draw CO2 out of the air and into the water, sinking with them when they die. The late researcher John Martin observed that the ice-age drop in carbon dioxide (noted in ice cores) synced with a surge in iron-rich dust, aiding the theory.
In 2012 businessman Russ George, unbeknownst to the scientific community, dumped 200,000 pounds of iron sulphate into the North Pacific Ocean. George’s climate change-combating company Planktos Inca called it a “state-of-the-art study.” The University of Maine’s Mark L Wells described it as “Ocean dumping.” George undertook the project to help local British Columbians restore salmon fisheries, and maintains that it increased phytoplankton growth across 10,000 square miles. The jury, however, is still out. And besides, just like CCS, the carbon sinks. It doesn’t vanish.
Mirrors in Space
One of the more ambitious projects on this list, stems back to the mid-60s, when President Lyndon Johnson was advised about climate change in the face of environmental concerns. In the early part of this century U.S. scientist Lowell Wood proposed a giant, 600,000 square-mile mirror, which when ejected into space correctly could corral sun rays and ease global warming.
Constructing a mirror roughly the size of Mongolia was just one of many slight downfalls in Wood’s plan, it would also need a rocket the size of Canada. But that hasn’t dissuaded some folks from instead suggesting billions of tiny mirrors, which would reduce sunlight by around 1%. The cost? Around $10,000 per mirror – or about 26 times the U.S. national debt. How strong is a Chinese loan these days?