Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

High Hopes: The promises of geoengineering

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Climate
High Hopes: The promises of geoengineering Nightman1965
17 Jun
2017
Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This month, Marco Magrini looks at geoengineering the planet

In the case of runaway climate change, can we hack the planet? A team of Harvard scientists is about to embark on a high-flying journey to find out. Aided by a balloon, next year they will sprinkle small quantities of tiny molecules into the stratosphere over Arizona in order to test humanity’s last resort in a rapidly warming world – solar geoengineering.

If the greenhouse effect, which keeps the Earth warm enough to be habitable, ends up going off balance, a radical solution may have to be found. And nothing could be as radical as deflecting part of the Sun’s electromagnetic radiation. Large volcanic eruptions work precisely that way, but the sulphate aerosols they spew out have the nasty side effect of destroying the ozone layer. ‘The quest is for a better molecule,’ says Harvard chemistry professor Frank Keutsch.

The team will start spraying the sky with a well-known substance – water. Then, they will proceed with molecules that are complete strangers to the atmosphere, such as calcium carbonate (which could also help heal the ozone layer), titanium, and even diamond dust.

So, are we going to solve our problems with carbon dioxide by using pure carbon? Unfortunately, geoengineering is just a finger in the dam. It can’t be a replacement for serious and committed actions to steer away from climate-damaging fossil fuels. The Arctic, our best and biggest thermometer, reported record-high temperatures in December and a record-low ice sheet in March. Then there’s the political climate, after a sudden energy policy shift in the world’s biggest economy. Hacking the planet can only be a choice of last resort.

Geoengineering ideas, often halfway between sci-fi and impracticability, have been circulating for years, such as building giant geostationary umbrellas in space, painting all of the world’s roofs in reflective white, or ‘fertilising’ oceans with iron particles in order to promote CO2-feeding phytoplankton. Needless to say, a small and controlled test such as Harvard’s is welcome. But if we are ever to choose geoengineering (and let’s hope we never reach that level of desperation), any decision must be made by the United Nations. You don’t want just anybody to meddle with the planet.

This was published in the June 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

Related items

Subscribe to Geographical!

Geographical Week

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

University of Winchester

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    When the wind blows
    With 1,200 wind turbines due to be built in the UK this year, Mark Rowe explores the continuing controversy surrounding wind power and discusses the e...
    The true cost of meat
    As one of the world’s biggest methane emitters, the meat industry has a lot more to concern itself with than merely dietary issues ...
    The green dragon awakens
    China has achieved remarkable economic success following the principle of developing first and cleaning up later. But now the country with the world's...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Energy

The Treasury has announced that it is considering imposing a…

Tectonics

Major earthquakes are triggering seismic activity half the world away

Climate

Marco Magrini finds that a warming world also means a…

Wildlife

Unchecked tourism is potentially reducing the number of cheetah cubs that…

Oceans

A relocated military base in Okinawa, Japan will cause ‘irreversible’…

Climate

The ongoing recovery of the planet’s ozone layer is being…

Oceans

The Ocean Cleanup has launched System 001, a floating barrier…

Nature

New videos reveal how plants respond to wounds, sending forth…

Geophoto

The recent heatwave had everyone longing for a drop of…

Wildlife

The demand for horseshoe crab blood – vital for testing…

Climate

One of the problems in getting accurate climate science out…

Wildlife

Italy is divided over the future of its wolves and…

Energy

A Scottish tidal power project in the Pentland Firth has…

Oceans

The world’s first full global analysis of beaches reveals the…

Geophoto

With the recent Saddleworth Moor fire, it can be easy…

Wildlife

Whale sharks have been found to not travel far from…

Wildlife

The Lone Star tick is spreading across North America, carrying…

Tectonics

Earlier this week, Indonesia was struck by a series of…

Energy

Efforts to reduce the energy drain of the internet are…

Energy

Coal’s rising popularity among climate-apathetic leaders is a worrying trend,…