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"Geoengineers" Think They Can Save the Planet with High-Risk Projects to Manipulate the Climate

Wouldn’t it be better to change our behavior — to reduce our use of fossil fuels — before we begin fiddling with the planet’s basic life-support systems?
 
 
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For almost 20 years, I’ve been spending time on a craggy stretch of British Columbia’s shoreline called the Sunshine Coast. This summer, I had an experience that reminded me why I love this place, and why I chose to have a child in this sparsely populated part of the world.

It was 5 a.m. and my husband and I were up with our 3-week-old son. Looking out at the ocean, we spotted two towering, black dorsal fins: orcas, or killer whales. Then two more. We had never seen an orca on the coast, and never heard of their coming so close to shore. In our sleep-deprived state, it felt like a miracle, as if the baby had wakened us to make sure we didn’t miss this rare visit.

The possibility that the sighting may have resulted from something less serendipitous did not occur to me until two weeks ago, when I read reports of a bizarre ocean experiment off the islands of Haida Gwaii, several hundred miles from where we spotted the orcas swimming.

There, an American entrepreneur named Russ George dumped 120 tons of iron dust off the hull of a rented fishing boat; the plan was to create an algae bloom that would sequester carbon and thereby combat  climate change .

Mr. George is one of a growing number of would-be geoengineers who advocate high-risk, large-scale technical interventions that would fundamentally change the oceans and skies in order to reduce the effects of global warming. In addition to Mr. George’s scheme to fertilize the ocean with iron, other geoengineering strategies under consideration include pumping sulfate aerosols into the upper atmosphere to imitate the cooling effects of a major volcanic eruption and “brightening” clouds so they reflect more of the sun’s rays back to space.

The risks are huge. Ocean fertilization could trigger dead zones and toxic tides. And multiple simulations have predicted that mimicking the effects of a volcano would interfere with monsoons in Asia and Africa, potentially threatening water and food security for billions of people.

So far, these proposals have mostly served as fodder for computer models and scientific papers. But with Mr. George’s ocean adventure, geoengineering has decisively escaped the laboratory. If Mr. George’s account of the mission is to be believed, his actions created an algae bloom in an area half of the size of Massachusetts that attracted a huge array of aquatic life, including whales that could be “counted by the score.”

When I read about the whales, I began to wonder: could it be that the orcas I saw were on their way to the all-you-can-eat seafood buffet that had descended on Mr. George’s bloom? The possibility, unlikely though it is, provides a glimpse into one of the disturbing repercussions of geoengineering: once we start deliberately interfering with the earth’s climate systems — whether by dimming the sun or fertilizing the seas — all natural events can begin to take on an unnatural tinge. An absence that might have seemed a cyclical change in migration patterns or a presence that felt like a miraculous gift suddenly feels sinister, as if all of nature were being manipulated behind the scenes.

Most news reports characterize Mr. George as a “rogue” geoengineer. But what concerns me, after researching the subject for two years for a forthcoming book on climate change, is that far more serious scientists, backed by far deeper pockets, appear poised to actively tamper with the complex and unpredictable natural systems that sustain life on earth — with huge potential for unintended consequences.

In 2010, the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology recommended more research into geoengineering; the British government has begun to spend public money in the field.

 
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