Geoengineering the Earth: Should we take aggressive action?

A bipartisan group of scientists and national security experts has recommended further research and testing of extreme geoengineering projects, or climate remediation, to assertively lessen the effects of global warming before it “reaches a tipping point.”

However, the General Accounting Office recently issued a report on varied proposals for geoengineering the Earth — to reduce carbon dioxide, adapt to climate change, and develop strategies for climate intervention. They reviewed current scientific research, and considered such technologies at the present time to be “immature”. The report cautioned that major uncertainties remain on the possible consequences, stating: “Climate engineering technologies do not now offer a viable response to climate change. Experts advocating research to develop and evaluate the technologies believe research might provide an insurance policy against worst case scenarios — but caution that the misuse could bring new risks.” See the abstract from the GAO report.

I don’t disagree with the GAO’s overall conclusion… No proposed geoengineering endeavor scored higher than a 3 out of 9. Research must continue, but zealots should not be empowered when potential side effects are huge.  One experiment that clearly should proceed on an intermediate scale is to create “white cities”… by whitening rooftops in a few warm climate metropolitan areas and see if the effects are positive. The data would be useful, and it’s an inexpensive measure with few conceivable downsides.

And yet, a majority of climate scientists agree that humans are already modifying earth’s climate. Jane Long, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, stated that “We are doing it accidentally….Going forward in ignorance is not an option.”

My biggest complaint? There is one proposed geoengineering project that gets short-shrift in every single appraisal I have seen, and this GAO report is no different. It is the only method that would directly imitate a natural process that is already known to remove megatons of carbon from the air, every year. A natural process that has no negative side effects but dozens of positive ones — like helping to feed the world.  That process is Ocean Fertilization.

Ocean fertilization involves adding micronutrients to the oceans to stimulate biological productivity, which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, sequestering it as sediment in the deep ocean. This could also reverse a widespread decline in phytoplankton, the basis of oceanic food chains. Preliminary trials were highly localized, but indicated that the potential for iron-induced carbon sequestration may be lower than originally hoped – but this has not been systematically pursued.

And yet — can anyone explain to me why the only ocean fertilization experiments were crude, blunt dumping of powdered IRON? How does that emulate nature? Sure it’s a critical bottleneck nutrient. Still, I’ve seen other proposals, such as wave powered, one-way siphons to raise cool, nutrient rich bottom water above the thermocline. Or using wave power to drive bottom-stirrers, sending mud plumes rising — just like what happens off the great fisheries of Peru. (I described such processes in my novel, EARTH, published 1989). The energy profiles may or may not be efficient… we’ll see… but no one can argue that those two don’t emulate precisely the most healthy, wholesome and natural way that the Earth already pulls down megatons of CO2.

Of course, we must beware of unintended consequences of such large scale engineering. Ken Caldera, a climate expert at Stanford University, cautions, “The real question is what are the unknown unknowns: Are you creating more risk than you are alleviating?” We need to be collecting the data that will allow us to make informed decisions.

==Powering the Earth==

One futuristic solution to our energy crisis? Shimizu, a Japanese company, proposes the LUNA RING, a belt of photovoltaic panels placed on the moon’s surface. To avoid launch costs, the solar panels would be constructed on moon, by remote-controlled robots, directly out of lunar soil (which is 23% silicon). Power would be beamed to receiving stations on Earth (220 terawatts annually).

By treaty, any such project on the moon would belong to all nations. I know Dave Criswell who first offered this idea, years ago. If completed, the LUNA RING would represent the most grandiose engineering project in humanity’s history. Not yet feasible, it requires some major breakthroughs. And, frankly, the math may not add up. But it’s the kind of forward-looking thinking that at least stimulates the mind. It reminds us we’re a bold race. A competing concept is Space Based Solar Power — with panels placed in orbit around the earth.

==Technology Updates==

SpaceX has a bold new plan for reusing their Falcon rockets. After upper stages (and cargo) separate, the first stage will re-ignite engines & return to the launch site, slow & land vertically. A process pioneered by the lamented DCX a decade back. This will also let them do test flights – verifying equipment before launch with critical payloads. Even better if you have an island recovery site down-range! Ingenious.

A bacterium that transforms ammonium, an ingredient in urine, into hydrazine, rocket fuel. Apparently NASA lost interest when they realized it would be difficult to generate large quantities of hydrazine.

A new version of Moore’s Law? Koomey’s Law states it’s energy efficiency of computers, not just processing power that doubles every 18 months. Particularly relevant as portable battery-powered portable devices fill our lives. (Brin’s Corollary? CAMERAS get smaller/cheaper/faster/more numerous and mobile even faster than Moore’s Law!)  What’s not keeping up?  Software.  Never has.  Maybe never will.

Exploiting a novel technique called phase discontinuity – etching gold nano-antennas onto silicon – researchers at Harvard have induced light rays to behave in a way that defies the centuries-old laws of reflection and refraction.  Read the sci fi of Wil McCarthy about “programmable matter”…. this is a subset.

You can now hold your brain in the palm of your hand, with this portable brain scanner. For the first time, a scanner powered by a smartphone will let you monitor your neural signals on the go.  Quoth one bright commentator: “And, in the category of things that belong in the novel “Earth”…”


Filed under science

7 responses to “Geoengineering the Earth: Should we take aggressive action?

  1. I agree on Ocean Fertilization – the costs are relatively inexpensive compared to more sweeping endeavors (as if a price can be placed on breathing life back into our planet) and the benefits are enormous, even beyond reducing global warming. I used to work as a fishmonger, and I remember the ongoing problems with fisheries dying out through pollution and overfishing. The Luna Ring project looks fascinating, but it raises many questions on how that finite power generated by the moon will be distributed – by need or to the highest bidder? And who owns the moon to develop it – will it need to be protected from disenfranchised corporations/countries?

  2. Over on the Larry Niven Mailing List, which I run, and which even occasionally discusses Larry Niven and his works (Although we mainly argue about politics, entertainment, science fiction, and science {Our standard is, it’s on-topic if you think about it as rigorously as Larry does his science}) the topic came up recently of the Godzilla Threshold: that is, in essence, the point at which your situation has become so terrible that no alternative could be worse, and it actually makes sense to attempt to fix it with a solution so crazed, so demented, and so catastrophically dangerous that anyone who suggested trying it before the Godzilla Threshold was reached would be, not hero, but the villain of the story. It’s named, of course, for those wonderful Japanese monster films in which, due to the predations of invading giant monsters from outer space, it actually becomes preferable to wake up Godzilla, whatever damage he will Tokyo the world, in hopes he will defeat the invading monsters.
    I suspect that’s what we’re going to see here: There’s no way attempts to geoengineer Earth’s climate, to prevent or “fix” global climate change, will be permitted until the situation has become so desperate that a worse-case scenario couldn’t conceivably exacerbate the situation.
    I wonder if, by then, it will be too late….

  3. If anyone ever does *fix* the environment, they won’t be from earth. They’ll be our descendants from Venus and Mars and the asteroids and dozens of moons. They’ll come here after our own great grandkids have wiped the place out and killed themselves off, and they’ll re-start it from scratch.

    So it’s win/win, really.

  4. The primary target of Ocean Fertilization will be likely be the cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus marinus (,
    Which is variously described as being responsible for between 30-80% of the O2 in the Earth’s atmosphere is therefore the major carbon sink in the planetary ocean system. Prochlorococcus was only relatively recently discovered (1986)1 by Dr. Sallie W. (Penny) Chisholm and its role in the planetary ecosystem appear to be very complex and is still poorly understood…for example, there is now strong evidence that its photosynthetic activities are regulated by a marine bacteriophage2. Dr. Chisholm and several other experts in this field have persuasively argued that Ocean Fertilization is a very bad idea, a waste of time and resources and should be abandoned3.

    My big question is why Space Based Solar Power Satellites4, Chemical Carbon Scrubbing5 and Orbital Reflectors6 (altogether as The Space Based Approach) don’t appear to get any consideration, at least by the US Government and the MSM. They appear to be quite feasible and scalable, use mostly “off the shelf” technologies that we’ve had nearly 50 years of experience with and have a huge advantage-if they don’t work or are found to cause serious problems, they can simply be turned off. They are reversible. All of the other proposed geoengineering approaches involve tweaking huge complex systems we barely understand, and are likely to lead to serious long term consequences that might even be irreversible once started. The Space Based Approach has an additional advantage-it would be easy to see the results of cheap and clean electric power almost immediately and would provide huge numbers of jobs just as the old Apollo program did…thus pumping-up the global economy while fixing the human driven Global Climate Change and energy crisis problems at the same time. The Chemical Carbon Scrubbing approach also has a really interesting twist to it…with cheap clean energy provided by Space Based Solar Power Satellites, it would be very easy to set up a closed system where the CO2 generated by burning fossil fuels can be efficiently removed from the atmosphere and “reverse-cracked” into usable hydrocarbons for fuel and other purposes6.

    The Space Based Approach seems to be in your area of expertise, David, so perhaps you could comment on why it seems to be largely ignored-are there good technical and other reasons why it is being overlooked?

    Given the proven track record of political/diplomatic solutions, I personally believe that geoengineering approaches are our only hope…and that we need to start using them very soon as we are already past the tipping point…the Space Based Approach looks like the best bet to me.

    1. S. W. Chisholm, R. J. Olson, E. R. Zettler, J. Waterbury, R.G.& N.W. A novel free-living prochlorophyte occurs at high cell concentrations in the oceanic euphotic zone. Nature 334, 340–343 (1988).
    2. Thompson, L.R. et al. Phage auxiliary metabolic genes and the redirection of cyanobacterial host carbon metabolism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108, (2011).
    3. Strong, A., Chisholm, S., Miller, C. & Cullen, J. Ocean fertilization: time to move on. Nature 461, 347-8 (2009).
    4. ROUGE JD Space-Based Solar Power As an Opportunity for Strategic Security Report to the Director , National Security Space Office. Security (2007).at
    5. Keith, D.W. Why capture CO2 from the atmosphere? Science (New York, N.Y.) 325, 1654-5 (2009).
    6. Angel, R. Feasibility of cooling the Earth with a cloud of small spacecraft near the inner Lagrange point (L1). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 103, 17184-9 (2006).

  5. Also See new Blog Post from Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy — “Climate Engineering: Not Mature, Not Viable, But Might It Have a Future?”

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