It’s certainly been a pretty hot summer this year. In fact, it’s been so hot, us Midwesterners are probably experiencing the worst drought in decades. Although it has rained a little bit these past few days, Summer 2012 has mostly been populated with +100 degree Fahrenheit days, cloudless skies and yellow grass. Crops are withering and food prices are rising. The overall rise of summer temperatures, along with the unseasonably warm winter months (we barely got any snow up in Ithaca, NY) seems to point in the direction of Global Warming (or Global Climate Change, I’m not sure what’s politically correct these days).
It’s these scorching hot days that make one wonder, “I wish I could make it rain.” Rain dances and evil-scientist weather-machines aside, there are very few methods out there that can change the weather. A relatively new area of engineering, called geoengineering (also known as climate engineering) is starting to gain more popularity (if not support) around the web. Geoengineering is basically the science of altering the earth’s climate through the use of planet-scale projects. The most common and widely-used geoengineering method is Cloud Seeding, which is the method of injecting Silver Iodide particles into Clouds to cause rain (China currently has the largest cloud seeding system in the world). Because of its large-scale impact and project-size, geoengineering projects are few and far between and there exist even fewer studies on the long-term impacts of such projects on the Earth, causing many scientists and environmentalists to remain skeptic on the benefits of such projects. Currently, scientists in Switzerland and Germany are trying to figure out ways to induce rain by pointing lasers in the sky. In order to combat global warming, Harvard engineers have proposed launching balloons filled with sulphate aerosols which will be released into the sky. The particles will reflect the sunlight, thus deflecting the incoming heat from the Sun and cooling the Earth. Students at UCLA are taking the same concept even further. After studying the Mount Pinatubo volcano eruption in 1991, the students discovered that the Sulfur dioxide particles in the atmosphere helped cool Northern Europe by about four degrees Fahrenheit for the following summer. The UCLA students have proposed emitting large volumes of Sulfur particles in order to reduce global temperatures, possibly by erupting artificial volcanoes. German researchers have found promising results in carbon sequestration by scattering the ocean surface with iron dust. Phytoplankton feed on the iron dust and in the process, sequester CO2 from the Earth’s atmosphere. The Phytoplankton then die off and fall down to the bottom of the sea, taking the CO2 with them.
All these methods have yielded positive results. Positive in that they accomplish what they set out to do. However geoengineering is a very touchy subject, and many projects have undergone delay and scrutiny by skeptical politicians, scientists and environmentalists (many of whom claim that geoengineering is just a ploy backed by oil companies to distract consumers from worrying about company carbon emissions). After all, geoengineering projects alter the Earth’s environment, and we still don’t completely know the side effects of such changes. The fact that these projects would cost millions, if not billions of dollars to implement also pose a large obstacle for the implementation of such projects. And for the romantics out there, it simply feels ‘wrong’ to be messing with the Earth on such a grand scale. I for one feel very hesitant about such approaches, but the humanitarian benefits could be great. Farmers experiencing droughts would be pretty happy with the rain as well as the reduced heat. Nevertheless, there seems to be a greater urgency for more research to be done. After conducting research, The Royal Society in the UK published a report in 2009, urging for the investment of geoengineering projects. The article explains that the reason why people are so hesitant with geoengineering, is because there is not a lot of data on the projects, and the only way we are going to get that data is through more research. And while I’m not necessarily an advocate for space colonization, geoengineering projects would certainly improve our chances of terraforming. But in the end, the safest and most effective way of combating climate change is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But then again, if we ever find ourselves at war with a solar-powered robot race, perhaps blocking out the sun is the only option.