Geoengineering, in other words, just moved one colossal step closer to reality, on a massive scale, but what some scientists see as a viable, cost-effective solution, at an estimated $10 billion, others see as a nightmarish development — which could eventually spawn catastrophic drought.
“Sometime next year,” MIT Technology Review explains, “Harvard professors David Keith and Frank Keutsch hope to launch a high-altitude balloon, tethered to a gondola equipped with propellers and sensors, from a site in Tucson, Arizona. After initial engineering tests, the ‘StratoCruiser’ would spray a fine mist of materials such as sulfur dioxide, alumina, or calcium carbonate into the stratosphere. The sensors would then measure the reflectivity of the particles, the degree to which they disperse or coalesce, and the way they interact with other compounds in the atmosphere.”
“We would like to have the first flights next year,” asserted Professor David Keith during the Forum on U.S. Solar Geoengineering Research, held at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
According to MIT Technology Review, this expansive study will be one of the first to examine geoengineering as a potential palliative for the issue of global warming performed outside the confines of a laboratory or other controlled environment.
“This is not the first or the only university study,” said project co-founder, Gernot Wagner, cited by the Guardian, “but it is most certainly the largest, and the most comprehensive.”
Some scientists firmly contend rising temperatures and the onslaught of drastic weather events — as well as destruction of the overall ecosystem resulting from both — make advanced experimentation to manipulate the planet’s atmosphere and reduce solar impact a paramount priority.
Keith feels so strongly about the potential for geoengineering — publishing on the topic since the early 1990s — he has attempted to garner approval for the project since 2014, when it was first proposed.
An experiment planned for New Mexico, and slated to launch in 2012 never came to fruition; but, in early February 2013, the esteemed scientist and engineer argued it would be “negligent” not to conduct experiments, but added,
“I’m not saying it will work, and I’m not saying we should do it [but] it would be reckless not to begin serious research on it. The sooner we find out whether it works or not, the better.”
Keutsch expressed similar reservations on the implementation of solar geoengineering on a massive scale, terming it “a terrifying prospect” to be avoided unless all other avenues have been exhausted; however, he noted,
“At the same time, we should never choose ignorance over knowledge in a situation like this.
“If you put heat into the stratosphere, it may change how much water gets transported from the troposphere to the stratosphere, and the question is how much are you [creating] a domino effect with all kinds of consequences? What we can do to quantify this is to start with lab studies and try to understand the relevant properties of these aerosols.”
While the Harvard scientists conveyed tempered optimism about the program, others maintain implementing solar geoengineering as widely as would be efficacious could annihilate certain localized ecosystems — such as the 1,000-kilometer (~ 621-mile) sub-Saharan expanse known as Africa’s Sahel.
In a 2013 study controverting the theoretical benefits of geoengineering, a group of British meteorologists found — rather than providing an insulating shield of protection — the practice could mean disaster of unimaginable proportions.
Although unable to assess definitively whether future geoengineering could be the planetary catastrophe they suspect, the scientists did note for that study that “loading aerosols into the northern hemisphere stratosphere would cause Sahelian drought.”
This is quite the critical potentiality when taken contextually with the last Sahelian drought — a two-decade event, from 1970 through 1990, which killed at least 250,000 people and displaced 10 million — later determined to be “one of the world’s biggest humanitarian disasters.”
Beyond the continent of Africa, Asia and South America could suffer similar crop decimation from large-scale drought — threatening a hefty proportion of the global food supply.
Besides sending chemicals aloft in the atmosphere to potentially cataclysmic results, the practice of geoengineering comes with a particularly Orwellian caveat — indiscretion exhibited thus far by the nascent administration of President Donald Trump.
Because, despite prescient warnings from cautious scientists in the field, officials now seem decidedly in favor of widescale testing and experimentation — and do not seem prone to exercise imperative prudence.
“Clearly parts of the Trump administration are very willing to open the door to reckless schemes like David Keith’s, and may well have quietly given the nod to open-air experiments,” Silvia Riberio, of technology watchdog ETC Group, told the Guardian. “Worryingly, geoengineering may emerge as this administration’s preferred approach to global warming. In their view, building a big beautiful wall of sulphate in the sky could be a perfect excuse to allow uncontrolled fossil fuel extraction. We need to be focussing on radical emissions cuts, not dangerous and unjust technofixes.”
One Trump administration official and former top oil executive appears to have stepped in line with the manufactured solution to warming temperatures, as the Guardian reports,
“US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also appeared to support geoengineering, describing climate change as an ‘engineering problem.’ ExxonMobil’s funding of the climate denial industry is under investigation by attorney generals in the United States, but it’s less well known that ExxonMobil scientists under Tillerson’s reign as CEO were leading developers of geo-engineering technologies like carbon dioxide removal.”
On the subject of the worst possible outcome for the planet’s climate and the near-inevitable dangerous rise in sea levels — incidentally already reality — Tillerson stated at an ExxonMobil shareholders meeting in 2015,
“Our plan B has always been grounded in our beliefs around the continued evolution of technology and engineered solutions to address and react to whatever the climate system and its outcomes present to us, whether that be in the form of rises in sea level which we think you can address through different engineering accommodations along coastal areas, to changing agricultural production due to changes in weather patterns that may or may not be induced by climate change.”
ExxonMobil, of course, is under investigation for allegations of covering up the known deleterious effects on the atmosphere of pollutants from the oil and gas industry — and that certain gases do, indeed, cause global warming.
Whether or not the Harvard project will meet with success — or if aircraft will even leave the ground — remains to be seen.
Keith trepidatiously observed on Friday,
“We are not unalterably committed to doing the experiment. We’re headed down the road of doing that, but depending on what an advisory committee says and what we learn technically we’re certainly willing to stop. Our long term goal is to build a sustainable effort in solar geoengineering research that allows us to say more about ways it might actually provide public benefit.”