ReWilding the Arctic, Solar Geoengineering Among Last Ditch Options for Climate Change

As Trump was issuing his Executive Order against federal efforts on climate change, Harvard scientists were  preparing to begin the most comprehensive solar geoengineering study ever. For the past few years, calls for geoengineering have become much louder as scientists realize this last ditch effort may become necessary – unless nations get super-serious about getting off fossil fuels fast. And that’s clearly not happening.

Enter Solar Geoengineering

In the next few weeks, Harvard scientists will shoot tiny amounts of frozen water into Earth’s stratosphere as a first step in simulating a volcanic eruption. When volcanoes erupt, they spew sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, which gradually makes its way around the earth, reflecting heat into space – which cools down our planet for several years until it finally dissipates.

In 1991, a volcanic eruption lowered global temperatures by 0.5°C, and an 1815 eruption resulted in Europe’s “year without summer”, causing famine from widespread crop failure, reports The Guardian.  That’s one reason the technology is so controversial: it could be a relatively cheap way of cooling the Earth at about $10 billion a year but no one yet knows the full extent of potential negative ramifications.

For this $20 million project, the smallest amounts possible will be released to assess the technology outside the lab. In this tightly controlled experiment, a balloon will be sent 20 kilometers up in the air “to quantify the micro-physics of introducing tiny particles into the stratosphere,” say scientists. The goal is to “improve estimates of the risks and benefits of solar geoengineering in large atmospheric models, not “test” planetary cooling.” The amount of material used is less than a commercial aircraft releases in one minute of flight. For the first flight, frozen water will be used; later flights may include tiny amounts of calcium carbonate or sulphates, they explain.

Solar Engineering
But That’s Not the Point Anyway

The point is that the level of concern about climate change is so high that scientists are resorting to this kind of research.  For the first time, they are pursuing long term funding for geoengineering research, suggesting 1% of all climate funds be used for this purpose.

Before President Obama left office, the US Global Change Research Program published a road map for future federal climate research. Also for the first time, one of the recommendations was to fund geoengineering research. Solar engineering and air capture – which literally removes carbon from the air – would be the two main lines of research.

With carbon levels now above 400 parts per million (ppm) – about 1.3°C warmer than pre-industrial times – staying below 1.5°C is widely viewed as almost out of reach. The Earth is already about  Even staying below 2°C (the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement) is extremely difficult – worldwide emissions would have to be “net zero” after 2050. Any greenhouse gases produced after that would have to completely offset.

Not that 2°C temperature rise is safe. The last time Earth was this warm, the oceans were 30-50 feet higher during the Holocene! We must return to 350 ppm, the level we were at during the 1980s. US emissions are down to 1995 levels right now, down about 18% during the Obama years.

Crazy Ideas Not So Crazy Anymore

The situation is so dire that scientists are coming up with last ditch ideas like: installing 10 million wind-powered water pumps in the Arctic to replenish the ice. The pumps would bring water to the surface during winter,  where it would freeze. The more frozen water, the thicker the ice cap.  The proposal, published in the American Geophysical Union’s journal, would cost about $500 billion, reports The Guardian.  Other ideas include spreading light-colored particles over the Arctic to deflect solar radiation or spray sea water into the atmosphere above the Arctic to create clouds that deflect sunlight.

Loss of Arctic ice is already disrupting weather patterns around the world, making the jet stream wavier allowing cold air to push way south. That’s brought frigid temperatures with tons of snow, while the Arctic has seen temperatures some 30° higher than normal. This year, changes in the jet stream brought the warmest February on record. Meanwhile, there’s less Arctic sea ice every year and what’s there is becoming thin and fragile.

Perhaps the most terrifying prospect is thawing permafrost, already occurring in Alaska and Siberia. Scientists haven’t even included methane emissions in climate projections, but if the permafrost goes, we go – that’s it.

Incredibly, a Siberian scientist is actively working to protect permafrost through rewilding.  The goal is to “revive the ice age “Mammoth Steppe” ecosystem across the Arctic, creating the northern Serengeti that was once there.

Wildlife Mammoths in Arctic

By returning the region back to the grasslands it once was, permafrost can be prevented from melting. Thundering hoofs scraping and stomping on snow in search of food in winter compacts the snow so that no longer insulates the permafrost below. It exposes the permafrost to bitter cold, hardening and freezing it. Over time, trampled grass and animal waste build up organic matter and turn it back to grasslands – the most effective carbon sink on Earth.

“For the past 20 years my family has spent a big portion of our time and all available finances to create Pleistocene Park. Currently we have over 70 large herbivores in the Park, including cold adapted Yakutian horses, moose, musk ox, reindeer, and European bison,” he says.  Now, he wants to go beyond that, bringing bison and yaks back to the Arctic this year. He’s raised $89,000 so far in a Kickstarter campaign and produced a documentary.

Then There’s Air Capture

After demonstration projects for the past few years, this benign technology is ready for prime-time. Last year, a company in Switzerland began commercial operations to pull carbon out of the atmosphere.  I’ve followed this technology since it’s earliest years and am counting on it to scale quickly.

Air is pulled through specialized filters that bind carbon to the filter, after which it is heated to turn it back to a gas … which can be sold or turned into a host of products. The real hurdle, for now, is the high cost of this new technology – about $100 to remove a ton of carbon.

Air capture isn’t considered “geoengineering” because there’s no manipulation of Earth’s natural systems, but it wouldn’t be necessary if we weren’t getting so close to uncontrollable climate change.

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