Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A firehose to heaven

This is another installment in my Climate Change bit, but it is on an entirely different topic.  Specifically I want to talk about some of the things I have seen suggested as ways to cope with global warming rather than ways to prevent it or arguments about its existence.  I wandered into HMV yesterday and saw SuperFreakonomics on the shelf and decided to check the table of contents.  Lo and behold they had a section on climate change which obviously I decided to read.  Their coverage of a bunch of points in the debate was reasonable if slanted to the skeptical side but the really interesting part was the ideas that were talked about to cool the Earth back down.

1.  Firehose to Heaven.

The idea here is to use lessons from the Mount Pinatubo explosion to cool the Earth.  Most volcanoes have a minimal impact on cooling because the sulphur dioxide they spew out does not go very high in the atmosphere and falls back to the ground fairly quickly.  Mount Pinatubo and other massive volcanic events blast the sulphur dioxide much much higher where it is caught by high altitude winds and spread around the globe, lowering temperature.  This effect substantially lowered world temperature by 1C or so for the year after Pinatubo blew up.  The idea behind the firehose is to have a hose supported by balloons that pumps sulphur dioxide 18 kilometers up into the air and releases it there.  The plan they outlined suggested that 2-5 stations could be set up at an estimated cost of $150 million upfront and $100 million yearly that would be able to lower world temperature by several degrees, enough to offset all of the expected warming in the next 100 years.

2.  A good use for pollution.

This proposal was basically the same idea as the first but was done to placate people who don't like the idea of pouring things into the atmosphere.  It is simply setting up a similar skyhose on the outputs of factories and industries that already produce pollution and release it in the stratosphere instead of normal smokestack height.  The cost was at least an order of magnitude larger but avoided putting any extra pollution into the air.

3.  Boats!

Lastly they talked about setting up a fleet of boats to zoom around the oceans deliberately kicking up spray high into the air.  The idea here is that the oceans have much less cloud than the land but that we could drastically increase cloud cover over the oceans with this technique which would cut out sunlight received by the ground and water and lower world temperature.  I also saw this technique online when it was talked about by Bjorn Lomborg.  This technique was expected to be drastically more expensive than the first one but to be a lot more palatable to the public since kicking up ocean spray is less likely to be seen as negative than pumping sulphur dioxide into the high atmosphere.

I don't claim to have any idea as to how feasible these methods really are but it is encouraging to see that people are coming up with lots of interesting ways that we could reduce the temperature of the Earth if we really needed to.  I do find it very interesting that increasing the CO2 in our atmosphere seems like it could be a very good thing if it didn't happen to heat the place up.  The estimations I have seen suggest that a doubling of the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere would increase plant growth by 70%, which would certainly be a way to help feed our ever expanding population and shows that fossil fuel consumption does at least have some side benefits for our ecosystem.  It isn't by any means a good enough reason to starting burning more but it may end up being a consolation prize if we simply aren't able/willing to get emissions down and CO2 continues to accumulate at ever increasing rates.


  1. Wait, are you saying you want to scorch the skies? Are we that close to creating artificial solar powered intelligence?

  2. You might want to check out the big internet controversy this chapter created.

  3. I wandered around the internet looking for things about SuperFreakonomics. It seems like they badly misquoted and misrepresented a climate scientist and overstated the skeptics case. I was unable to find any criticism of the geoengineering solutions they listed aside from

    "We should stop emissions instead" which is true but admittedly difficult and so far laughably and unfortunately unsuccessful.

    "These solutions may have unintended side effects" which is undoubtedly true but given the magnitude of the issues they are intended to solve seems like to end up being an insufficient argument.

    I don't think the book is a good source for the truth on climate change but I do think that looking at ways to reverse warming should that be necessary is a good idea. The fact is that we have many countries agreeing that reducing emissions is important and have had several major world meetings about it over the last two decades and yet our emissions are soaring like never before. Not only are we not lowering emissions we are increasing the rate of increase of production! While this is certainly something that could stand reversing we should be rational in thinking that it may not happen in time. Geoengineering, like prisons, may end up being an unpleasant but necessary step.

  4. I guess I should have read this before I posted again on the previous thread, but I do often wonder whether there isn't some way we could directly attack atmospheric carbon dioxide content with engineers plants or bacteria.

  5. Sthenno, there are lots of ways people are suggesting that we can directly reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere. As far as I know they mostly fail in magnitude only. They are ways to take the edge off, but the idea that we could actually reverse our current CO2 trend with them is simply impractical. That isn't to say we shouldn't attempt it, but it is to say that they aren't going to be enough on their own by a long stretch.

  6. I feel similar about Nuclear Power as I do to Geo-engineering:
    1) Probably necessary at some point
    2) Not a solution but likely an important part of a comprehensive solution headlined by more benign tactics (wind, solar, carbon capture etc)

    P.S. LOVE the boats idea:)

  7. When it comes to geo-engineering I totally agree with any sentiments that it is going to cause problems of its own. That, however, is the story of all human endeavours. We come up with a solution to a problem, that solution causes new problems, and then we come up with solutions to those problems, etc.

    If you assume that all problems are equal then we are getting nowhere. In reality our problems today would seem like blessings to the majority of humans born anywhere in the world over the majority of history.