Saturday, December 8, 2012

My Journey to Geoengineering

Chapter One - The Weekly Reader  -- I learned about climate change like many people did: in grade school. I was in grade school a long time ago, and I read in the Weekly Reader that there were two effects on the climate greenhouse gases and reflection from particulates in smog.  In those days scientists were not sure which effect was stronger, and whether the earth would warm or cool.

As I grew up evidence built that the greenhouse gas effect was stronger, and that the earth was warming. It was also easier to stop particulate pollution than carbon dioxide pollution.

Chapter Two LeChatlelier  -- I thought that the earth's climate was in a stable equilibrium -- like a chemical equilibrium. I am a chemist, and it was natural to see the world that way. In chemistry there is a concept called Le Chatelier's principle which holds that a chemical system will alter itself to re-establish equilibrium. Last year, I heard a climate change denier make such an argument . (Here is a more sophisticated version.)  At the time I thought the same, I thought more CO2 in the air, would mean faster growing forests and more algae in the sea. The biosphere would moderate the increase. As Time passed scientists tested one source of CO2 absorption after another, and nothing is fast enough. There are still people fertilizing the sea to increase CO2 absorption, but the best data shows the algae are eaten by other animals before they sink to the bottom of sea and leave the biosphere. Let's remember ocean fertilization though, because it is a Geoengineering Idea.

Chapter Three  Instability -- As global warming plays out we see faster temperature increases than expected from the carbon dioxide green house gas alone. Rather than returning to equilibrium, it seems there are auto-accelerated factors. Here are two:  1. Less ice means less reflection of sunlight back into space. 2. Warmer ocean means release of dissolved gases making green house gases worse: specifically methane which is ordinarily trapped in cold water at the bottom of the ocean.

The news item that kicked off this essay is about methane hydrates at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, which may melt. If these large methane deposits melt, it will increase the amount of green house gas, cause more warming, more ocean warming, and more melting. We will see an acceleration of global warming.

Chapter Four  -- Change.  In business, we talk often about the inevitability of change, and how we need to embrace it. The alternative to change is ----- Well there is no alternative, unless you count death.  Change is thrust upon us, and while we can wish for boring times, we get the times we get.

Chapter Four -- Geoengineering. Geoengineering is doing an engineering project on a global scale to change the climate, and I am becoming an advocate. With accelerating climate change there will be climate change to a huge extent with large sea level increases and unpredicable consequences. It is unlikely that the Earth would become Kevin Costner's Waterworld, but that would be unacceptable. In Waterworld, people lived in floating colonies because all the continents had been submerged by melting ice.

There are many geoengineering concepts to cool the Earth, and one is to create a cloud of dust in space to reflect the sunlight, and in effect, dim the sun.

Many environmentalists hate this idea preferring to return carbon dioxide emissions to stone age levels, but it is too late for that.

Chapter Five --  Dr. Strangelove.  There is one simple sad geoengineering solution, a thermonuclear war would toss up enough dust to cool the Earth, and perhaps stop greenhouse gas production as well.  National Geographic and NASA have done simulations that show it.  I'd rather not see millions of people die in a war, but sadly a trigger happy North Korea or Pakistan is the most plausible solution to global warming.