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Marine Balances and Climate Engineering
27/11/07
source : The Week Staff  The Week of 23rd November 2007


Briefing
NEWS 13
Engineering the world's climate
Politicians seem incapable of taking decisive action on climate change. Some scientists think it's now up to them to avert catastrophe

What is forecast for the world?
For all the international talk about clean technologies and cutting C02 emissions, the amount of C02 in the atmosphere today exceeds the most pessimistic forecasts made just a few years ago. In September, Nasa scientists reported a dramatic retreat of the Arctic Ocean ice over the past two years. The prevailing view expressed at last week's International Panel on Climate Change is that global warming is an "unequivocal reality" that threatens "abrupt and irreversible" damage to our world. The worst case scenario is that by 2040, the Sahara will be moving into Europe, making Berlin as hot as Baghdad. Many feel we are already beyond the "tipping point".

So what can scientists do about it?
The buzz word is "geo-engineering": the use of highly innovative but controversial rechniques to manipulate the processes that regulate the world's climate, and in this way, mitigate the effects of fossil fuel combustion. Broadly speaking, there are two different methods of
approach: either to reflect sunlight away from the Earth to counteract the effect of greenhouse gases, or to create systems that could absorb the ever increasing amount of C02. Examples of the former approach include proposals to deploy giant mirrors in space, to cover deserts with reflective surfaces, or
to float white plastic islands on the oceans. Examples of the latter include "planting" synthetic trees with an absorbent coating such as limewater.

Are any of these ideas remotely plausible?
Most are at the theoretical stage. The US National Academy of Sciences found that 55,000 orbiting mirrors of 100km2 would reflect enough sunlight to counter half the projected doubling of C02 levels ... but would be astronomically expensive. More plausible is a proposal to "hack" the atmosphere by pumping sunlight-blocking particles, such as sulphur dioxide, into the stratosphere. A natural equivalent of how this might work occurred in 1991, when Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted, throwing up masses of sulphate "aerosols" that reflected solar radiation into the atmosphere. Within three years, that had the effect of reducing global temperatures by 1.3C, temporarily cancelling out roughly half of all the 20th century's global warming. The Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crurzen (the man who established the link betveen CFCs and damage to the ozone layer) has proposed replicating this by blasting a "blanket" of a million tonnes of sulphur into the stratosphere. Are any of these ideas remotely plausible?
Most are at the theoretical stage. The US National Academy of Sciences found that 55,000 orbiting mirrors of 100km2 would reflect enough sunlight to counter half the projected doubling of C02 levels ... but would be astronomically expensive. More plausible is a proposal to "hack" the atmosphere by pumping sunlight-blocking particles, such as sulphur dioxide, into the stratosphere. A natural equivalent of how this might work occurred in 1991, when Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted, throwing up masses of sulphate "aerosols" that reflected solar radiation into the atmosphere. Within three years, that had the effect of reducing global temperatures by 1.3C, temporarily cancelling out roughly half of all the 20th century's global warming. The Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crurzen (the man who established the link betveen CFCs and damage to the ozone layer) has proposed replicating this by blasting a "blanket" of a million tonnes of sulphur into the stratosphere. It has been estimated that 23,000 British people died from sulphur dioxide poisoning in August and September 1783 alone.

So what about the other approach?
One interesting proposal about how to absorb C02 involves boosting the ocean's uptake of greenhouse gases via the use of plankton. Blooms of plankton and algae absorb large amounts of C02, and when they die they fall to the bottom of the sea, taking the carbon with them. Increase the blooms, say the scientists, and we could slow down the warming

How could that be done?
One idea being tested is the dumping of tons of iron into the sea; iron is critical in stimulating phytoplankton growth, but non-existent in many parts of the sea. Another idea proposed by the "Gaia" scientist Sir James Lovelock would involve installing huge flotillas of vertical pipes in the tropical seas. Using wave
The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 motion, these would pump up nutrient-rich water from the depths to the surface, fertilising algae and plankton there. The US company Atmocean is also conducting research into this idea, and calculates that deploying 134 million pipes could sequester about a third of the carbon dioxide produced by humans every year.

Any snags here?
Research has found that iron fertilisation does stimulate the production of C02-absorbing algae, but it seems that stimulating blooms may actually sequester very little carbon, with most of the plankton being eaten rather than deposited on the ocean floor. Critics also fear that it could disrupt the oceanic food chain, with a potentially devastating impact on whale populations and fisheries. As with all such solutions, it is almost impossible to
predict their knock-on effects, which could be hugely damaging

So why even consider such ideas?
Advocates of geo-engineering admit that they raise huge problems and carry huge risks, bur argue that the risks of continuing as we are are greater still. It may take centuries to replace fossil fuels with new energy sources: at least geo-engineering might buy us time while the world develops a more comprehensive response. And even if by some miracle everyone did agree to abide by Kyoto-style protocols to reduce carbon emissions, that still wouldn't be enough, on current predictions, to avert disaster.

Then why not at least look further into these proposals?

Many climatologists have a basic objection: that the prospect of a "silver bullet" engineering our way our of climate problems would inevitably lessen the political will (especially in the US) to curb carbon emissions. If people get the idea that technical fixes are available and cheap (and they're neither) then they might start relying on them as an alternative to curbing emissions, which is, by contrast, both achievable and affordable - in principle, at least.

Should we be investing in geo-engineering?

YES

1. The international community has completely failed to enforce reductions in C02 emissions. We must look at alternatives.
2. Even if drastic reductions in carbon emissions are made, it will be too late to avert an apocalypse. There is no option.
3. The "silver bullet' may never hit the target, but there is no excuse fOt failing to research the possibilities.

NO

1. It's "pie in the sky" stuff, which just gives George Bush another reason to avoid action on climate change.
2. We know too little about the effects of tampering with the climate. The cure could be worse than the disease.
3. The oil will run out eventually, so in any case, we've no choice but to tackle our addiction to fossil fuels.

Editorial Comment:

This is a very interesting article linking climate change, carbon capture and the need for effective 'marine balances' To some extent the climate change and marine balance history can be gleaned from ice cores recording past climate change and its impact on both land and marine life forms. The effects of a major climate change on marine and land life forms seems to be uncertain and highlights the need for the most rigorous scientific research. The Shark and Coral Conservation Trust aims to contribute to such research and disseminate robust scientific findings.
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