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Geoengineering to the Rescue?

Geoengineering to the Rescue?

Shortly after American voters rejected President Jimmy Carter’s conservation agenda in the 1980 election, I told my father about the bleak environmental future I saw. My dad’s total response: “Aw, they’ll find a technological fix.” He may have been right. Scientists are working on possible “geoengineering” responses to global warming caused, in part, by the fact that mankind consumes about four cubic miles of fossil fuels a year. Carbon dioxide from past hydrocarbon combustion has heated the earth’s climate dangerously, and most climate scientists believe that continued burning as usual will lead to temperature rises, within many of our lifetimes, beyond anything civilization  has experienced.

The most interesting approach I’ve seen is to pump sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere ten miles above us. The SO2, or other particles that would reflect sunlight away from the earth, would diminish global warming by cutting energy that reaches the earth’s surface. In the past, huge volcanic eruptions have cooled our planet by exploding millions of tons of SO2 into the stratosphere, where the gas created mirrors reflecting sunlight away. The massive Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991 reduced sunlight that reached the earth’s surface by 10%, and global temperatures by a degree, for two years.

An article in the May 14, 2012 New Yorker magazine describes the work of a British group that wants to copy volcanos by pumping SO2 through a 12-mile pipe going straight up. The pipe would be held up by large balloons and fueled by huge amounts of SO2 from the surface. There is no precedent for geoengineering on such a large scale, and scientists are  cautious. Even if SO2 or other reflective particles got into the stratosphere and stayed, the unexpected side effects of reducing sunlight could be bad, such as by altering weather patterns in unpredictable  ways.

Anyway, my dad would be proud that technology may have good answers to all my environmental worries.



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