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Geoengineering would remake the atmosphere with tons of particulates

Man has always wanted to control the weather and master nature. In ancient lore, Odysseus kept four winds in a bag to speed his travels, witches summoned storms to destroy enemies, and high priests, sometimes with the aid of human sacrifice, brought rains to make fields fertile.

In the modern era, scientists took over the task from high priests. The Soviet Union’s scientists wanted to make Siberia bloom by damming the Bering Straits, melting the Arctic, and changing rainfall patterns. Big-thinking U.S. scientists led by Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, proposed infusing the atmosphere with metallic “scatterers” to inexpensively control how much solar energy reached Earth — these would be “quite practical methods to reduce or eliminate all climate failures,” their 1997 study explained.

The Teller group feared the coming of an ice age, which they viewed as a certainty. But they also dealt with global warming, recognizing that the growing public alarm would act to spur politicians to fund the climate-control research they relished.

The politics over climate change unfolded precisely as Teller might have expected. Global warming fears soared in the following decade, along with unprecedented funding and respectability for the types of sun screening schemes these geoengineers recommended. Scientists who espouse like views on controlling nature now hold positions of political power — climate-control proponent John Holdren, U.S. President Barack Obama’s director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, for example — and we are closer than ever to tinkering with the atmosphere, or boldly reformulating it, to advance man’s dominance over nature.

Next month, in preparation for what is being billed as the world’s first major geoengineering field test, British scientists will send a helium balloon one kilometre above a disused airfield in eastern England in a project called SPICE — short for Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering. This preparatory step — which involves spraying nothing more alarming than water — will assess the engineering feasibility of spraying other, riskier materials into the atmosphere.

Next year, SPICE plans to follow up on a much larger scale. A helium balloon with a diameter the size of one to two football fields will lift and then disgorge several hundred tonnes of pollutants into the atmosphere.

The pollutants, which will then blanket much of the globe over a period expected to take several months, are likely to involve sulphate particulates — the stuff of volcanic emissions — to simulate the cooling effects of natural eruptions. After the 1991 eruption at Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, the planet’s temperature dropped by 0.5C for two years.

But the brew to be spewed by SPICE and the various other geoengineering schemes now underway may change as scientists learn more about how their interventions affect the weather. Scientists believe that they may be able to come up with more efficient particulates — and maybe cheaper ones for humans to deliver, too — than those emitted from volcanoes. Other particulates under consideration involve aluminum, barium, selenium and radioactive metals such as thorium.

Naysayers do exist. Science doesn’t know how these emissions could be “turned off” if the experiment doesn’t work out as planned, these critics point out. And just because nature can effortlessly handle large but rare bursts of particulates from volcanoes, that doesn’t mean she will fare as well with the continual injection of particulates that Spice and other scientists have planned for us. Or with entirely new recipes for the atmosphere should a host of metals be employed in making for us a new and improved atmosphere.

The list of things that scientists say could go wrong? The pollutants may not disperse evenly, causing unanticipated and unknown regional effects, not just in temperature swings but also in rainfall, disrupting plant life on earth. The ozone layer that protects us from ultraviolet rays could be harmed. Monsoon failures in Asia and Africa, and droughts elsewhere, could result. A humidification of the stratosphere could occur. And there would also be cosmetic effects: a tarnishing of the skies, altered cloud formations, and altered sunsets.

Yes, all true, the scientists promoting a geoengineered atmosphere acknowledge. But what is the alternative, given the need to save the planet from global warming?

Or from global cooling, they might add some time down the road, should governments continue to grow leery of the global-warming dogmas, and scientists then need fresh arguments to continue their quest to dominate nature.

Financial Post, 24 September 2011