Currently, the notions of “climate change”, “going green”, and “sustainability” are part of the mainstream culture—so much so that it is hard to believe that these terms have only become popular in the past 20 years. The global increase in erratic weather patterns, ocean acidification, and sea level rise are becoming more and more prevalent, despite efforts, such as the Paris Climate Agreement, to prevent them. However, scientists and business leaders alike are struck by a new player in the field of climate change prevention: geoengineering.
Geoengineering is the act of deliberately intervening in Earth’s ecosystems to mitigate the effects of climate change. The primary ways to do this include removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and managing the amount of solar radiation that hits the Earth. Methods in geoengineering can range from tree planting, to sprinkling iron in the ocean—increasing CO2-uptake by phytoplankton, to launching mirrors into space— reflecting out sunshine. In combination, practicing these methods while adhering to our current emission-reduction targets makes scientists hopeful that minimal environmental and social problems will result from climate changes throughout the upcoming decades and century.
The concept of geoengineering was first introduced in 1997 in a study by Edward Teller. The study theorized that it is possible to manipulate solar radiation by injecting reflective particles into the atmosphere. His theory was inspired by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, where, due to the increase in ash and particulate matter in the atmosphere, a year of global cooling ensued with average global temperatures sitting at 0.5°C cooler than in previous years. For years, scientists such as Teller have been interested in harnessing the effects of this natural phenomenon and applying them in the bid against climate change.
To that end, various big-scale applications of geoengineering are in development today. In February of 2018, 60,000 Chinese soldiers were deployed to plant over 6 million hectares of forest—incredibly, this new green cover will amount to a forest the size of Ireland. Additionally, Australian scientists are working on a “marine cloud brightening” experiment, whereby clouds above the Great Barrier Reef will be sprayed with tiny salt particles that will expand the total area and enhance the denseness and reflectiveness of the cloud cover. Reef scientists are hopeful that this will minimize the warming of the ocean below, which is thought to be a possible cause of coral bleaching. A final example addresses the melting of glaciers and ice shelves. Danish scientists are turning towards the northern hemisphere’s biggest contributor to rising sea-levels: Jakobshavn, Greenland’s biggest and fastest-moving glacier. In fact, the glacier is believed to have contributed to about 4% of global sea-level rise in the 20th century. As such, scientists are suggesting the construction of a 100m-tall berm to prevent the low-lying, warm oceanic currents from melting the glacier’s large, freezing base.
Indeed, while many hopeful applications of geoengineering exist, such large-scale climate modifications are bound to have equally large and somewhat ambiguous ramifications. Effectively, geoengineering projects are a great way to temporarily relieve some of the negative effects of climate change; however, it is important to realize that they are not dealing with the root of the problem. In the end, scientists in the community are continuing to urge the public to adhere to climate protocols by reducing their fossil fuel consumption—as this is the only real, long-term resolution. Finally, in combination with the latter strategy, geoengineering methods are a potential positive for lessening the immediate effects of climate change.
What are some other ways that we can lessen our ecological impact?