An impractical guide to controlling the weather
Will we ever be able to turn a dial to raise and lower the global temperature to a desirable level? Could we ever detect the beginning of a hurricane, and then stop it before it causes mass destruction, like the recent Hurricane Sandy? Or could that lead to nations going to war by unleashing massive storms on one another? Is any of this even possible?
Geoengineering, an environmental process that deliberately intervenes into the earth’s climate to try to change the weather, may have some answers to these questions.
Throughout history, many cultures and groups have tried different methods of controlling the weather. Some ancient methods included ritual dances, ritual sacrifices, or trusting scheming salesmen to build ‘magical’ windmills that promised to cause rain.
It was only in the past 60 years that the scientific basis for controlling the weather has been taken seriously and explored. One of the most popular scientific methods of geoengineering is known as cloud seeding, which could potentially be used to create precipitation.
Scientists have discovered that by injecting certain chemicals, such as silver iodide, into clouds, they can cause the water molecules that make up the cloud to freeze together. This can make the water molecules heavy enough to fall to the ground as rain or snow.
Further research shows that potential applications of cloud seeding could include alleviating drought and breaking up storm clouds before they escalate into something more severe. Another geoengineering application of clouds is cloud-whitening. White clouds are good at reflecting solar radiation back into space, keeping the planet cooler. To whiten clouds, scientists proposed to unleash a large fleet of wind-powered boats into the ocean, each boat spraying tiny seawater particles into the sky to make whiter clouds.
Proponents to this idea argue that this method would not only be inexpensive, as the boats are powered by the wind, but also efficient, as seawater is plentiful.
Many geoengineering methods, such as cloud-whitening, are a result of scientists noticing how natural processes on earth affect the weather and climate of the planet. Through these observations, and equipped with scientific principles, researchers are able to hypothesize and theorize various geoengineering methods.
The use of volcanoes, one of the most powerful natural forces on earth, is no exception.
In 1991, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines released extensive amounts of sulfur dioxide into the air. These particles react with the rest of the atmosphere, and can reflect some of the light from the sun back into space, causing the planet to cool. It is estimated that the Mount Pinatubo eruption lowered global temperatures by an average of 0.5 degrees Celsius. By replicating the effects of a volcano, and pumping sulfur dioxide high into the stratosphere, scientists predict that it could be very possible to cool the earth.
That being said, ideas like geoengineering ideas like this have many people worried about the invasiveness of such methods. While the field of geoengineering aims to change or control climate, it is also directly playing with the planet’s natural resources – a massive system with many complex variables. By trying to solve one problem, unintended risks or consequences could essentially cause long-term negative effects on the world’s atmopshere, clouds, ocean, and even the weather itself.
This risk was higlighted in October when the Haida Salmon Restoration Project controversially dumped about 100 tonnes of iron into the Pacific Ocean, intending to bring up the salmon population in the area. Iron ‘fertilization’ can help stimulate plankton growth, helping with salmon reproduction. Iron fertilizations also have implications on climate change. Plankton use up carbon dioxide near the surface of the water, and some scientists believe that increasing the amount of iron in the ocean will decrease the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But, there are several risks of this ocean fertilization – with scientists citing risk to human health, and the potential for widespread, long lasting and severe impacts on the ocean’s environment. Some groups have also claimed that such fertilization should be illegal under UN international law. Because of the use of such chemicals, such as iron and sulfur dioxide, geoengineering is often looked at as an unpopular and invasive method of climate control. As such, some researchers have suggested that geoengineering alter its methods from mass chemicalization to more environmentally friendly methods.
For instance, instead of trying to use sulfur dioxide or clouds to reflect sunlight back into space, what if objects known to be good reflectors – like mirrors – were used. One suggestion given was to launch a mirror, perhaps the size of Greenland, into space and sit it between the sun and the earth, having it block out fractions of sunlight. While such methods are much more expensive, and have endless maintenance costs, they tend to be better alternatives than the chemicalization methods.
If you’re somewhat familiar with the early attempts at human flight before the modern airplane, you may recall some very ridiculous designs. There were wings attached to bicycles, giant kites, wing attachments for your arms, and planes with layers upon layers of wings. Similarly today, we see an equally amusing variety of approaches to solving geoengineering problems. We want to blast clouds with chemical cannons, use wind-powered boats to spray seawater into the sky, suspend a giant pipe with balloons to pump different chemicals into the atmosphere, and launch a giant mirror into space. As crazy as these ideas may sound, it shows that many people are committed to solving a problem that may be getting worse, and someday, we may have enough control over the weather and climate to prevent another Hurricane Sandy.
Gizmos & Gadgets – your weekly dose of science and technology
Falling Back: Daylight Savings Time (DST) ended this week in many places – except Saskatchewan. The idea of DST dates back to Benjamin Franklin, but wasn't actually widely implemented until after WWII. There has been at least one occurrence where twins were born on opposite ends of the time switch, making the second-born older on paper.
Bad Moon Rising: Astronomers believe that the recent Hurricane Sandy was made worse because of the simultaneous full moon. During a full moon, the sun, earth and moon are all aligned, which can result in higher 'spring' tides as a result of the gravitational pull.
The Szechuan Seven: A breeding centre in China has successfully bred seven baby pandas within the last three months. Pandas International estimates there are only about 1,600 pandas left in the wild, with over 300 more in captivity. Some scientists argue that the panda is too expensive to continue conserving, and should instead be left to go extinct.
"Annyeong!": An elephant in Korea has learned to imitate human speech by putting his trunk in his mouth to modulate sound. The 22-year-old Asian elephant, living in a South Korean themed park, is able to mimic some commands given to him by trainers. Scientists think this behaviour may be a result of loneliness, and a desire to bond with the trainers.
Photo courtesy theweathernetwork.com