Cooling the Planet?

By: Robert Hunziker  Posted on

Grandiose plans to cool Earth, saving the planet from overheating by utilizing low-tech balloon flights sprinkling particles into the atmosphere to reflect solar radiation back into outer space, have been delayed. Nobody knows for sure when, or if, it’ll proceed.

The planet-cooling scheme referred to as Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment, aka SCoPEx, headed by Harvard professor Fran Keutsch hopes to save humanity from hothouse Earth with plans to sprinkle aerosols of calcium carbonate and other substances at 12 miles above Earth’s surface to reflect solar radiation to outer space. The initial flight scheduled for June 2021 was set to test the balloon and gondola equipment sans release of aerosols until later in the year. 

But heavy lobbying by prominent groups against the “alleged insanity” of toying around with the planet’s climate system put an end to this test run. Still, it’s an open question as to whether it really is insanity. Although, nobody knows for sure what consequences may follow. Nobody! On the other hand, civilization has been insanely altering the climate system by spewing carbon dioxide (CO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) into the atmosphere for years upon years. The question now revolves around whether SCoPEx makes it worse by trying to fix it? As such, is it the issue at hand? Answers: maybe and yes.

It should be noted that research to help/repair/fix Earth’s climate system, which is severely broken, is ongoing at major universities throughout the world and for good reason. It’s an open secret that the Anthropocene (direct human influence) is disrupting the planet’s climate system in very big pronounced ways, geologically at warp speed. The proof is found in numbers. For example, throughout the Holocene Era of the past 10,000+ years the natural rate of CO2 emissions was ~0.003parts per million (ppm) per year, which equates to +36 ppm over a time span of 12,000 years versus today’s rate of 2.0 ppm/year or +40 ppm in only 20 years or geological light speed. It’s highly probable the planet has never experienced such a rapid rate of change as it has, especially since WWII. There’s absolutely nothing positive about that.

The risk of geoengineering, especially unimaginable unknown unknowns, has prompted prominent reconsideration of the efficacy of SCoPEx. Raymond Pierrehumbert, University of Oxford physicist and renowned expert on climate dynamics, claims that widespread adoption of SCoPEx would be the sword of Damocles hanging over humanity, meaning unless CO2 emissions are taken down to zero “… each year that goes on, you’ll have more CO2, which gives you more of a warming force which has to be counteracted by an even larger amount of geoengineering. You go into this death spiral, where you try to keep the Earth habitable in the face of ever-increasing CO2 and set ourselves up for a bigger and bigger risk of catastrophe.” (Source: Balloon Test Flight Plan Under Fire Over Solar Geoengineering Fears,” The Guardian, Feb. 8, 2021) 

Pierrehumbert’s criticism is analogous to running endlessly on a treadmill that continues to grow bigger and faster multiplying until it morphs into a monolithic monster that overwhelms everything.

Moreover, critics argue the consequences of SCoPEx are not well understood. They claim stratospheric aerosol injections (SAI) on a “large scale” could (1) damage the ozone layer, (2) cause excessive heating in the stratosphere, and (3) disrupt ecosystems. Any one of which is cause for pause. 

Just imagine depleting some, or too much, of the ozone layer. Ozone molecules protect the planet from burning up, no questions asked. According to NASA: “Ozone absorbs harmful components of sunlight, known as ultraviolet B or UV-B… [A]bove weather systems a tenuous layer of ozone gas absorbs UV-B, protecting living things below.” 

“Study of ozone amounts before and after the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo show that there were significant decreases in lower stratospheric ozone (Grant and others, 1994). The amount of ozone in the 16–28 km region was reduced by some 33% compared to pre-eruption amounts.” (Source: Volcanic Gases, Oregon State University) 

“Sulfate aerosols pose well-known risks such as ozone depletion and stratospheric heating.” (Source: Zhen Dai, et al, Experimental Reaction Rates Constrain Estimates of Ozone Response to Calcium Carbonate Geoengineering, Nature, Dec.15, 2020)

However, according to the same source: “A prior modeling study from our group suggested that calcium carbonate (CaCO3) might enable stratospheric geoengineering with reduced ozone loss or even ozone increase, but that study lacked measurements of important CaCO3-specific reaction rates… This uncertainty needs to be resolved by empirical methods,” Ibid.

As such, SCoPEx plans to sprinkle aerosols of calcium carbonate as preliminary research indicates this mineral dust may be an acceptable fix, but the jury is still out. It’s far too early to know. Empirical studies for this are not easily accomplished. With geoengineering, uncertainty is common.

Still, proponents of SCoPEx advocate experimentation of redirection of solar radiation regardless of uncertainties, thus, hopefully upending or reducing the impact of multiple ecosystem risks associated with global warming, whereby humanity continues eating, drinking, and pretending to be happy; drinking helps. 

Nevertheless, according to the state-owned Swedish Space Corporation (SSC), which operates the Esrange Space Station in Kinuna, Sweden where the test was to commence: “The scientific community is divided regarding geoengineering,” (Source: Controversial Test Flight Aimed at Cooling the Planet Cancelled, PHYS.ORG, April 1, 2021)

Johanna Sandahl, president of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation: “It’s time for all countries in the world to live up to the de facto moratorium on geoengineering introduced by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity of 2010… The test will not be conducted in Sweden and should not be anywhere.” (Source: Geoengineering Monitor, April 1, 2021)

Both sides of the solar engineering argument have agreed to meet to see if there is a middle ground, but from the outside looking in, it doesn’t look all that promising. The list of questions, concerns, and observations is endless; for example: What, where and for how long? Forever? Really? What of slip-ups, the unknown unknowns? What of loss of ozone or something comparable, out of the blue? What if hydrological cycles misfire, disrupting agricultural seasons? If SCoPEx does an A-plus reflection job whilst fossil fuels chug along in tandem, will oceans absorb so much CO2 that whales go belly up?

And, towering above all other considerations: What if world opinion remains sharply divided? Then what? 

Robert Hunziker
Los Angeles