Could cloud brightening be Earth’s last chance?
A project aims to manipulate cloud formations in order to combat climate change. The naysayers are lining up, but the group argues there are few viable options left
‘We are not in a position to control a cloud brightening experiment scientifically,’ says one critic of the idea
Geoengineering is a dirty word in most scientific circles. The consensus is that deliberate intervention in the Earth’s climatic system, for whatever reason, is a slippery slope that would most likely lead to even worse environmental conditions.
A group of retired Silicon Valley engineers and scientists thinks otherwise. The Marine Cloud Brightening Project is based in Sunnyvale, California. The members of the group range in age from 60 to 79 years, and includes tech pioneers such as Armand Neukermans, who helped develop the earliest inkjet printers at Xerox Labs, pharmaceutical chemist Gary Cooper, and instrument designer Lee Galbraith.
Meeting once a week for the last seven years the group members all work pro bono. Now they hope to raise the funds to test a device that can shoot tiny seawater droplets into the atmosphere to “boost the brightness of clouds”. This would reflect rays of sunlight back into space and, theoretically, cool the planet.
It has never been done. Well, not deliberately anyway. Cloud brightening is already an unintended side effect of some industry practices. “Shipping emissions already pump particles into clouds that produce a cooling effect, somewhere between one and four degrees Fahrenheit,” says Kelly Wanser, chief executive of the project.
“Clouds are one of the least understood parts of meteorology. Scientists can observe how some industrial practices affect cloud formation. But that’s precisely the problem: all they can do is observe. We are not in a position to control a cloud brightening experiment scientifically.”
Many of those involved in the project are sceptical of geoengineering too. Any attempt to manipulate the planet’s climate is wrought with what-ifs. Despite this, they argue humanity is beyond the point of no return, and extreme responses need to be considered, at the very least.
“We are interested in an insurance policy for global warming,” says physicist and laser pioneer Jack Foster (79). “We are not interested in deploying it unless it’s necessary. But we’d like to have something available so we know what works and what doesn’t work.”
In other words, knowledge is power. But does that cliche apply to everything?
“Geoengineering brings to mind the age-old nursery rhyme, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” says Prof Peter Thorne of NUI Maynooth’s department of geography. “The reality is that the global system is massively complex and no individual understands the whole.
“An analogy: consider the whole Earth system as an intricate spider’s web. A scientific discipline may be represented by an entire segment of the web, and an individual’s expertise by one or two strands of that web. An individual may think it’s perfectly fine to play a little riff on his strands entirely unaware of the unintended consequences that may unfold because, as far as they are concerned, it is harmless.
“We never thought CFCs in aerosol can propellants could be an issue until someone found a hole in the ozone layer. In general the wisest course of action is to minimise our footprint upon the planet: the precautionary principle. Engineering a fix to an engineered problem risks [exacerbating the problem].”
Critics also fear the message research like this sends out to the general populace. “Geoengineering has frequently been portrayed as providing the ‘get out of jail free’ card in terms of solving global warming,” says John Sweeney of Icarus, the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Units.
“As yet, however, no practical system on a sufficient scale has been demonstrated. Even if this particular approach were to work, any panacea for global warming is likely to provide only a small contribution. There is no escape for lifestyle change as the main solution to this problem for the foreseeable future.”
Geoengineering should only be seen as one part of a larger suite of solutions to climate change. “I view any solar radiation management as an emergency response to a rapidly changing climate: it won’t solve global warming but it might buy us some time,” says Prof Klaus Lackner of the centre for negative carbon emissions at Arizona State University, who is not involved in the research. “It’s like trying to solve a city’s garbage problem by putting everyone’s houses on stilts.”
Given the obstacles faced, finding patrons has been problematic. “Global funding for any kind of climate engineering work is effectively zero,” says Wanser. “There are only a handful of scientists doing research in this field worldwide.”
Still the group is determined to make it happen. “Here is a means to do controlled experiments in an area where there are still many unanswered questions,” says Wanser. “We are already putting x, y, and z into the atmosphere that we’re not quantifying. We know this, so we should aim to understand how it’s happening. That way maybe we can do something to improve the situation.
“Cloud brightening won’t magically fix climate change. But it’s important we take a rational approach. I believe many of the ethical arguments against this research would be better informed by more data about what we’re actually doing.”
BURNING DESIRE FOR RAIN: OLD GEOENGINEERING IDEAS
The geoengineering debate may be flaring up again, but deliberate manipulation of the climate has been suggested at various times in the past. Previously it was more commonly proposed as a means of warming the climate rather than cooling it down.
One of the first recorded examples is from the 1830s. American meteorologist James Pollard Espy made the scientifically dubious claim that controlled forest burning could stimulate rainfall.
Geoengineering really came into its own during the Cold War era. Both Russia and the US suggested various ways to melt Arctic ice so that Siberian and North American frozen areas could become more temperate and productive.
In 1945, biologist and secretary-general of Unesco Julian Huxley suggested exploding atomic bombs over the polar regions.
Operation Popeye was the name given to a US weather warfare campaign during the Vietnam war. At various times between 1967 and 1972, the American military seeded clouds with silver iodide to extend the monsoon season.
More recently, Chinese authorities took a similar approach in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Fearing wet weather might affect the opening or closing ceremonies of the games, authorities set up banks of rocket launchers outside the city that, if launched, could fill the sky with silver iodide, causing clouds to release their rain before reaching the capital.