Maybe we'll need a Plan B.
If the world does not curtail emissions of greenhouse gasses, scientists see limited options to manage serious climate change. One of them, however, is geo-engineering, the controversial strategy to manipulate ocean, atmospheric, and biological systems to contain rising global temperatures. It is meeting stiff resistance from NGOs and others concerned about potential unknown impacts, but researchers are quietly pushing ahead with preliminary tests to see if such proposals could ever be effective, or even feasible.
One such experiment is set to be launched in the next few months. A test balloon, a precursor to what would be a massive stadium-sized airship stationed nearly 12.5 miles above the Earth (far higher than any jetliner) will demonstrate technology that could pump hundreds of tons of particulates and water each day into the Earth's stratosphere.
If successful, the final version will mimic the cooling effects of volcanic eruptions when sunlight from space is scattered before reaching the surface. The Guardian newspaper reports the U.K. government is backing the test balloon—a much smaller one flying less than 1 kilometer high and spraying only water into the atmosphere—as a way to test geo-engineering technology through the country's Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) Project.
Geo-engineering schemes, from ocean iron fertilization to cloud whitening, remain untested on a large scale. Injecting aerosols into the stratosphere is no different. Organizations such as the ETC Group see even testing these schemes as a dangerous precedent that doesn't address the core problem: drastic cuts in the emissions of greenhouse gases.
"This is a huge waste of time and money and shows the U.K. government's disregard for UN processes," Pat Mooney, chair of ETC Group in Canada, told The Guardian. "It is the first step in readying the hardware incept particles into the stratosphere. It has no other purpose, and should not be allowed to go ahead."
NASA has taken the question seriously enough to study how atmospheric particulates affect climate change. Although it has no official stance, a presentation (PDF) by several outside scientists during an atmospheric chemistry meeting at the Goddard Space Flight Center in 2009 details how geo-engineering could play a role in slowing warming. It concludes such as scheme may be possible, but asks a second set of questions: "Is it moral? Will it distract from GHG reduction?" For those, it has no answer.
[Image: Flickr user kaktuslampan]