Are Scientists Engineering The Weather?

On Wednesday 8th November, 2017, members of the US

House Science Committee held a sincere hearing on geoengineering Until that day, the word had barely been breathed in Washington The notion that the government could influence the weather had always been laughed off as crazy, conspiratorial ravings Yet now the government is officially supporting scientists who say they can engineer the weather Why is this happening now, and how is it possible? Weather modification has been tried by governments several times in history

For instance, China used rockets to divert rainfall from the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony Yet surprisingly, the House Science Committee revealed that geoengineering research has received almost no federal funding or support as of 2018 Contrary to popular opinion, the government has not pursued weather control as a military option Instead, the driving force behind geoengineering research to date – all done in the private sector – is climate change In the Paris Agreement of 2016, effectively every nation on Earth agreed that climate change is a danger to mankind, whatever its cause, and that action must be taken to combat it

The agreement set a target to limit the rise in world temperatures this century to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius Ideally, the global temperature rise will be limited to 15 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures The average surface temperature of the planet is already around 1 degree above pre-industrial levels Most countries plan to cut emissions of greenhouse gases to meet this goal

However, since the USA pulled out of the agreement, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is expected to say the 15 degree target is impossible without some geoengineering To save the planet, we will have to hack its weather systems Yet Tim Kruger, manager of the Geoengineering Programme at the University of Oxford, says, governments “have seemingly not [realised] what it would take to achieve it” Indeed, the dramatic needs of the climate crisis have inspired some bold proposals

Earth gets its warmth from the Sun The problem is that more and more of the sun’s rays are being trapped in the atmosphere, thus making the planet hotter and causing extreme changes to the climate Consequently, Harvard physicist David Keith says, “If you want to be confident to get to 15 degrees you need to have solar geo-engineering” The most ambitious plan to fend off sunlight is Professor Roger Angel’s idea to deploy a fleet of 3-feet-wide reflective shields in the sky

Over eight years, 16 trillion shields would be positioned, stretching 99,779 kilometres, and refracting 2% of the sun’s rays However, it could take 25 years to launch the project, and it would cost trillions of dollars What’s more, the shields would only have a 50 year lifespan, after which they would become debris in space or fall back to Earth Another plan is to infuse the atmosphere with 55 million tons of sulphur dioxide every one, two or four years

This could halt global warming for up to half a century This method was developed by Thomas Wigley from the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, when he noticed that the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 threw so much sulphur into the sky that global temperatures in 1992 dropped half a degree David Keith says that injecting sulfur dioxide, or calcium carbonate, into the atmosphere via a jet is easy and inexpensive Using $75 million in donations, he will conduct his first outdoor experiment in Arizona, 2018

However, Oxford University Professor Raymond Pierrehumbert says solar engineering projects are “barking mad” This is because research suggests dimming the sun would have devastating side effects For every degree of global warming reversed, there would be a 1% decrease in rainfall The planet would become drier, increasing droughts and reducing food production in Africa and Asia Furthermore, sulphur creates potentially fatal air pollution and can destroy the ozone layer, which protects us from harmful ultraviolet radiation

Alternatively, Neil Clark, from Ontario’s University of Waterloo, says, “the only way to [reach the Paris target of] 2 degrees is by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere” In pursuit of this, Professor Klaus Lackner, director of the Centre for Negative Carbon Emissions, is developing a resin that absorbs carbon dioxide from the air He proposed such a filter could be installed in large artificial trees He estimated that half a million would need to be ‘planted’ to battle climate change A similar concept was implemented in 2017, when he world’s first “commercial carbon dioxide capture plant” began operating in Switzerland

The plant has already removed 914 tons of CO2, which it collects and sells on for fertilizers or other negative emissions technologies However, it costs $600 to remove one ton of CO2, and it can only collect the equivalent emissions of 45 Americans each year Nevertheless, this is one of the safest geoengineering proposals so far, and companies in Canada, the USA and the Netherlands are following suit By 2025, these may capture 1% of global man-made carbon emissions Yet by far the most feasible and effective means of carbon capture has been carried out, perhaps unwittingly, by environmentalists for years

Planting trees is the easiest, most affordable way to help the Earth absorb the excess CO2 that contributes to climate change However, trees grow slowly, and literal forests would need to be planted Can we afford to spare that much land? The main problem with aiming to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, is that it cannot work at the scales necessary to fight the amount of CO2 added to the atmosphere each year Professor Clive Hamilton from Charles Sturt University, says, “We are past a point of no return in the quest to avoid dangerous warming Have we reached the geoengineering tipping point? I don’t see it yet, but it will come… [Yet] it is so full of dangers it is surprising people take it seriously

” Silvia Ribeiro from ETC Group argues that investments in geoengineering could take money away from renewable energy and clean vehicles She dismisses geoengineering as “magical thinking” More importantly, Antonio Busalacchi of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research reminds us that, “If attention is diverted into geoengineering, that would mean taking the focus off mitigation and reduction in greenhouse gases” Congress may be willing to finally fund geoengineering, but scientists say it is far from the fastest or most effective way to address climate change We must therefore wonder if the government has other reasons for suddenly taking an interest in technology that is shown to modify the world’s weather

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