Harvard scientists are planning to dim the sun to fight climate change

dim the sun

Climate change is happening, and it’s a shame that many don’t believe in it. We’ve all collectively rolled our eyes when Senator Jim Inhofe brought a snowball onto the floor as a way to disprove it. Fortunately, a lot of people understand that this is a complex issue, with many reasons and many solutions.

These solutions have to do with less reliance on fossil fuels, smarter farming practices, and shrinking carbon profiles.

Some scientists are thinking outside of the box. Geoengineering has grown and come up with ideas on how to control or manipulate the earth’s climate, and the idea of how to control the effects of the sun on earth has taken many forms in the past few years.

Big Think spoke with the Harvard geoengineering team SCoPEx (Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment) about their goals;

The plan is to launch two steerable balloons over the U.S. Southwest, each of which would spray about 100 grams of calcium carbonate, about the same amount packed into a single antacid tablet, into the stratosphere. The balloon would then reverse course to observe what happens to the dispersed 0.5 micrometer particles — the researchers think that’s about the right size for both dispersal and reflecting sunlight.

So essentially the want to dim the sun. Crazy, right? Well maybe not. 

dim the sun

The idea is to reflect the sun’s rays with this compound and combat the effects of climate change. If completed, it will be the first solar geoengineering project off the drawing board and put into action. The idea is the brainchild of a trio of three people – David KeithZhen Dai, and Frank Keutsch, two professors and a PhD student.

This idea isn’t totally unprecedented. If we remember back to after the September 11th, 2001 attacks, all airplane flights were grounded for three days. This means that there were no jets in the sky creating contrails, which block and reflect some sunlight during their brief existence. During this time, variations in high and low temperatures increased by 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) each day, according meteorological researchers. As CNN reported:

“Contrails are denser and block sunlight much more than natural cirrus clouds,” said Travis, who conducted the study with Andrew Carleton of Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania. They reported the findings this week in the journal Nature.

“And contrails are much more prevalent when the sun is out,” he said. “When this is factored in, there is a possibility that they offset global warming, and this is what we are trying to determine now.”

While we are unlikely to ever be able to make such observations ever again in the future, it certainly raises the question as to just how crazy this type of idea really is.

Calcium carbonate is used widely as an effective dietary calcium supplement, antacid, phosphate binder, or base material for medicinal tablets. Its also an ingredient in toothpastes and even cake mixes. So it isn’t some unknown or untested compound, as some people may fear. But there are many people who think the idea is a distraction from real solutions to climate change, like alternative energy. Nature, a research journal, states:

It is under intense scrutiny, including from some environmental groups, who say such efforts are a dangerous distraction from addressing the only permanent solution to climate change: reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The scientific outcome of SCoPEx doesn’t really matter, says Jim Thomas, co-executive director of the ETC Group, an environmental advocacy organization in Val-David, near Montreal, Canada, that opposes geoengineering: “This is as much an experiment in changing social norms and crossing a line as it is a science experiment.”

There is also the fear that spraying these particles in the stratosphere could cause disadvantages to some part of the world, most notably for crops that need intense sunlight to do well. It’s also feared that it will change rain patterns and upset ecosystems. The testing has been restricted to computer models for years due to these fears.

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But the climate change projections remain dire and within recent years, geoengineering is getting a lot more attention from scientists and politicians. Nature says that the fist test could begin in early 2019 and cost about three million US dollars to pull off.

Though this would be the first test of its kind, the idea is not new. Every since the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, there has been talk. Mount Pinatubo dispersed an estimated 20 million tonnes of sulfur dioxide that cooled the planet by 0.5° for about 18 months, bringing it back to pre-steam-engine temperature levels. The observation of this had many scientists looking for ways to replicate this eruption. Though the cooling effects were beneficial in some cases, a study published in August found that yields of corn, soya, rice and wheat fell after two volcanic eruptions – Mount Pinatubo in 1991 and El Chichón in Mexico in 1982 – dimmed the skies. 

Most of the research thus far has been focused on sulfur dioxide, the same compound expelled by Mt. Pinatubo, but sulfur may have unintended effects. The aerosols generated in that eruption sped up the rate at which chlorofluorocarbons deplete the ozone layer, which shields the planet from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. Sulfur may also alter the jet stream. Calcium carbonate seems like a better option, as it is hypothesized that it has less effect on the ozone layer. But it doesn’t exist in the in the stratosphere – so it’s essentially a shot in the dark. 

This project is laid out nicely, but it will be no easy task. Nature lays out the technical details:

SCoPEx faces technical challenges, too. It must spray particles of the right size: the team calculates that those with a diameter of about 0.5 micrometres should disperse and reflect sunlight well. The balloon must also be able to reverse its course in the thin air so that it can pass through its own wake. Assuming the team is able to find the calcium carbonate plume — and there is no guarantee that they can — SCoPEx needs instruments that can analyse the particles and, it is hoped, carry samples back to Earth.

These issues are looming over them more than any push back from environmentalists and conspiracy theorists.

dim the sun

Though it would be ideal for the whole world to get it’s collective shit together and work on all the moving parts necessary to reduce emissions and invest in solar energy, in political climates like these it’s not a safe bet. The fear is that once climate change is at a point where even Senator Jim Inhofe can’t argue about it, policy makers may throw together haphazard plans in panic and push through a solution that actually makes things worse.

Investing in geoengineering now, especially just tests like this one, is a good way to keep plans from going awry when it’s down to the wire (which most hope will never happen, rather too optimistically).




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