Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in an edition of NOVA’s email newsletter, NOVA Lens, and has now been repurposed for NOVA Next. Sign up for NOVA Lens here (select “NOVA Newsletters”).
The first global conference on climate change took place in 1988, in Toronto. Now, 30 years later, scientists and diplomats are still meeting about the issue, and apart from the Paris Climate Accord signed two years ago, not much has changed.
At the time of the Paris Accord, the Earth’s surface temperature was 1.98˚ F above the late 19th century average, and emissions had plateaued. Now, they’re on the rise again. That has some scientists thinking that cutting emissions may not be enough—we may have to resort to more drastic measures.
Carbon dioxide removal technologies like BECCS, which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using plants as the collectors, are helpful—but may not be potent enough. A more controversial form of what scientists are calling geoengineering is called solar radiation management. This involves reflecting heat away from the Earth instead of siphoning it out of the atmosphere.
The strategy takes its cue from volcanoes, which noticeably lower the Earth’s average temperature by spewing sulfur particles into the stratosphere. The anthropogenic version involves spraying sulfate aerosols into the sky via a plane.
It sounds like science fiction, but to many scientists, it’s a crude approach. “That’s a pretty unsophisticated way to cool the planet,” said Jane Long, a former associate director at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and now senior contributing scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund.
A new study published in the journal Nature this week attempts to predict what would happen if geoengineers added 5 million tons of sulfur dioxide to the stratosphere every year for 50 years—and then abruptly stopped (if, perhaps, funding ran out or the system was sabotaged). The consequences of “sudden termination” would be scary, according to the researchers. Earth would warm so quickly that animals wouldn’t have time to catch up; they’d be migrating up to 30 to 60 miles a year in order to reach more comfortable terrain—for nearly all of them, that’s nearly impossible.
“Organisms cannot in any reasonable way keep up with these changes,” said Jessica Gurevitch, one of the paper’s authors and a professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University. The result could throw entire ecosystems—and the planet’s biodiversity at large—into a state of chaos.
The resulting climate situation could be two to four times worse than if we didn’t do anything at all.
“One of the issues with solar radiation management has always been that if you stop suddenly, the Earth immediately ramps up to what it would have been without it—so there’s rapid warming,” Long said.
“If you don’t mitigate [by reducing emissions], you’re going farther and farther from the known state of climate, which is really dangerous.”
Long emphasizes the importance of planning and regulation if we’re going to seriously consider geoengineering. These projects are also hugely controversial (this iron-dumping ocean experiment sparked some outrage last year), so efforts to control implementation and public understanding are key.
“We don’t [yet] know how to govern the deployment of this technology,” she said. “As we start research, it’s very to critical to start implementing a muscle of governance.”
As an ecologist, Gurevitch has a different perspective on all of this. She thinks the results are critical, but perhaps more interesting is the interdisciplinary nature of this work—which brought together climate science, biology, ecology, atmospheric science, and more.
“The real value is this creative element in science where different scientists can get together and come up with an entirely new perspective than they would have come up with on their own,” Gurevitch said. “That’s one of the ways science progresses and can lead to a different way of seeing things.”
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Gerrymandering is in the news yet again. Here’s an interesting take on it from FiveThirtyEight.
Mathematicians are thinking a lot about this hot topic. Here’s why:
In other news, the Pacific Rim of Fire is brimming with activity lately. In the Philippines, Mount Mayon erupted, forcing tens of thousands to evacuate. A 7.9-magnitude earthquake rumbled off the coast of Alaska, triggering tsunami watches and warnings across much of the U.S. and Canadian West Coasts. This article from Vox does a good job of explaining how these various events may (or may not) be related.
WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND
Thanks, Gretchen! We have this oldie-but-goodie interactive on our site about reconstructing faces from fossils that you might want to check out.
WHAT’S ON OUR MIND
Senior Producer Chris Schmidt offers this reflection on “The Impossible Flight,” premiering next Wednesday, January 31 at 9/8c on PBS:
“The Impossible Flight” tells the remarkable story of the first solar-powered flight (called Solar Impulse) to fly around the world. The effort to design, build, and fly a plane that could stay aloft indefinitely—without a drop of fuel—was truly monumental. It pushed the limits of engineering in its use of lightweight materials, and also challenged the endurance of its pilots, who took turns flying solo, day and night over the world’s largest oceans.
I’ve been involved with this film for over three years, but I only recently had a chance to ask the pilots to explain the value of such an impractical-seeming mission. The answer is two-fold and emphasizes the importance of adventure and exploration in advancing technology.
First, as pilot Bertrand Piccard says in the film, “If you can do it in the air, you can do it on the ground.” In other words, demonstrating the power of solar panels and batteries in such a demanding, dramatic fashion delivers a powerful message about the potential for those technologies in less risky and more mundane environments. Bertrand’s approach to this kind of messaging runs deep in his family history. His grandfather, Auguste Piccard, was the first person to fly to the stratosphere. Bertrand’s father, Jacques, was the first to take a bathyscaphe—a kind of submarine—to the bottom of a deep ocean trench. Bertrand himself was first to fly a balloon around the world. For him, being the first to do something that expands the envelope of human knowledge and achievement is an excellent way to inspire us to dream and reach for bold solutions to our fossil fuel problem.
Second, it’s no crazier to draw a dotted line between Solar Impulse and a future full of electric passenger planes than it is to draw a line between Kitty Hawk and any big modern airport. In fact, Solar Impulse has only a bit more power than Orville and Wilbur Wright’s famous plane. If their first flight eventually could lead to what we take for granted today, just imagine…
But in the meantime, the “firsts” need to be achieved. As viewers will soon see, the actual journey is fraught with nail-biting suspense, personal conflict, and some very, very worried engineers.
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See you next week,
Allison and the NOVA team