Saturday, April 10, 2010

saturday science

Have you heard about planet hacking? The theory is that because carbon dioxide lasts for thousands of years in the atmosphere even if we stopped all our carbon emissions tomorrow the planet would continue to heat up . This has led a number of scientists to consider some radical plans for geoengineering the planet in order to begin a cooling process:

1. Seed the atmosphere with sulphur compounds because they make clouds brighter and more reflective. Yes, this is the same stuff that industrial smokestacks have been doing for years and the very same that has been the cause of acid rain.

2. Drop tons of iron dust into the oceans with the idea of stimulating the growth of phytoplankton which would consume excess carbon dioxide, die, sink to the ocean floor and thus sequester the CO2. Unfortunately, when they tried it for two months other creatures simply ate the excess plankton.

3. Have all the ships at sea pump compressed air into the oceans on their travels leaving swathes of microbubbles in their wakes to reflect more sunlight. There's a good possibility there aren't enough ships and besides, they do use a lot of fuel.

4. Cover the ice that's still on mountaintops (and perhaps at the north pole?) with giant pieces of white plastic. Hmmm..

5. Build artificial trees that can chemically extract CO2. Hmmm..

6. My favorite of all the geoengineering plans I've heard is the one that would see us launching millions of mirrors into a stable LaGrange point between Earth and the sun. I though this was an old joke but apparently it's being considered.

The trouble with most of the hacking ideas is that they are either too expensive or too dangerous and the law of unintended consequences wouldn't be recognized until it's too late. Growing more real trees and having green rooftops is a far better plan in my opinion so long as we could avoid the tendency of eliminating everything that doesn't make a financial profit for someone.

I don't really know much of anything and perhaps the time is coming for major operations of the kind described but what I do know is we should never consider geoengineering unless we reduce our dependence of fossil fuels first.

(The picture at the top is of a rare roll cloud from Apod.)


  1. Good point. We must be less dependent upon fossil fuels and beware unintended consequences.

    That picture is freaking me out! :D

  2. Some forms of planet hacking may pan out, but we're a long way from figuring out what they are. So yes, we need to tread lightly.

    Especially when you take into account the eons of bad luck that could result from all those mirrors being launched.

  3. liberality - I wouldn't object to the iron so much if they'd grind up the tanks and battleships.

    The picture freaked me out too - taken off the coast of Uruguay :-)

    ben - Human beings just plain chilling out is a better plan. Yeah, can you just imagine millions of broken mirrors? That's 7 to the what power?

  4. I totally agree with your last sentiment. If we don't change our ways and at least try to change the atmosphere by polluting it less, then there is no chance for redemption.
    This is like having diabetes and taking the pills the doctor gives you without doing any exercise or changing your eating habits, (Believe me, I know first hand what this is like).
    For me, any kind of interference is a bad idea. It is our interference in the way of priogess and convenience that started the downward spiral in the fiurst place.
    That being said, well, I am not doing enough yet to stem the tide of global warming and saving our planet for the long term future.

    That cloud photo is amazing!


  5. luckily, global warming is a hoax made up by godless, sex craved commies hollbent on destroying 'merica, freedom, and sarah palin's titty balls.

  6. spadoman - Interference is what a certain percentage of our species has been up to for a long time but only recently have the results become obvious to a lot of the rest of us. We shouldn't blame ourselves because we have to live in the world under a system that's been arranged for others to profit from. The only choice we have is to try to become more clear.

  7. fairlane - Yeah, and everybody knows Saddam was sleeping with Osama on top of a comfy bed made from WMD's.

  8. Hmm with some of thos ideas it would probably be cheaper to build a new earth on the other side of this one's orbit!

  9. There you go again, making us think!

  10. jams - The problem is they're likely to institute a whole bunch of different plans with potentially disastrous consequences happening that much faster.

    lisa - I'd much rather be funny like you :-)

  11. my first reaction was to the unintended consequences: history is full of well-meaning intervention by humankind that backfired.
    (swallows eat crops so lets kill swallows. oops, swallows eat bugs, so bugs are now eating our crops. etc.)
    i like the idea of planting trees. maybe johnny appleseed had the right idea and we should have listened to him.

  12. sera - I keep returning to the understanding that humanity lived in harmony with Earth for many thousands of years. We al know what went wrong. One idea I didn't mention is the proposal regarding tropical forest reclamation whereby indigenous people are paid to look after their land as it is rather than practice slash and burn. I like that idea.

  13. So sad that the seamless interrelatedness of nature may be replaced with a patchwork of "fixes" that that are counter-intuitive.

  14. pagan sphinx - Some people (the ones with money and power) are very crazy.