Monday, February 23, 2015

Geoengineering, Volcanoes, and Climate Change Experiments

We continue to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and climate change becomes ever more apparent, yet we are unable to take the steps necessary to respond forcefully to the threat.  There are many reasons for such a modest level of activity.  Disruptive problems often require disruptive solutions.  Those who benefit from the status quo will strive mightily to protect their investments and preserve their share of the economic pie.  The biggest stakeholders in the current economic order who should be at risk are the companies that find and extract fossil fuels for consumption.  It is well known that these organizations use their profits to support anti-climate-change groups and initiatives.  Less well known is the fact that these people also support those who believe that carbon emission and the associated global warming is such an overwhelming effect that we are unable to respond to it.  Instead, they suggest we should focus not on worrying about regulating carbon emissions, but concentrate on technologies that would cool the earth by regulating the amount of energy from the sun that is absorbed in the atmosphere.  Or, as Naomi Klein has pointed out, to them:

“….anything is preferable to regulating ExxonMobil, including attempting to regulate the sun.”

This notion of inevitable climate change is the subject of an article by Henry Fountain in the New York Times: Panel Urges Research onGeoengineering as a Tool Against Climate Change.  The panel referred to was assembled by the National Academy of Sciences and was sponsored by a number of government agencies.  The panel members recognized that the best solution to climate change was to stop polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, and it also recognized that even small-scale experiments studying means of modifying the atmosphere carried significant risk. 

Most proposals for potential global warming solutions either involve devising schemes for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or reflecting sunlight away from the earth before it can heat the atmosphere.

“The panel said that while the first option, called carbon dioxide removal, was relatively low risk, it was expensive, and that even if it was pursued on a planetwide scale, it would take many decades to have a significant impact on the climate. But the group said research was needed to develop efficient and effective methods to both remove the gas and store it so it remains out of the atmosphere indefinitely.”

“The second option, called solar radiation management, is far more controversial. Most discussions of the concept focus on the idea of dispersing sulfates or other chemicals high in the atmosphere, where they would reflect sunlight, in some ways mimicking the effect of a large volcanic eruption.”

This notion that solar radiation management (SRM) can be compared to the effect of a volcano is important to both those who support such schemes as well as those are scared to death by them.  As always, it is important that people choose their scientists carefully.

Schemes employing SRM seem to assume that we would continue to pump carbon dioxide into the air indefinitely as we continually modify our cooling attempts.

“The process would be relatively inexpensive and should quickly lower temperatures, but it would have to be repeated indefinitely and would do nothing about another carbon dioxide-related problem: the acidification of oceans.”

“This approach might also have unintended effects on weather patterns around the world — bringing drought to once-fertile regions, for example. Or it might be used unilaterally as a weapon by governments or even extremely wealthy individuals.”

If a viable approach capable of modifying the climate was inexpensive enough to be fielded by a private individual, one would have to think carefully about proceeding with research in that area.

“But the panel said that society had ‘reached a point where the severity of the potential risks from climate change appears to outweigh the potential risks from the moral hazard’ of conducting research.”

Naomi Klein discussed the relevant issues in her book ThisChanges Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.  She focuses on the ethical issues involved in experimenting with SRM techniques.  She argues that small scale experiments will not help in understanding what might ensue from such an application; only a program large enough to generate significant global effects will be able to quantify global effects

“Sulphur injections would need to be maintained long enough for a clear pattern to be isolated from both natural fluctuations and the growing impacts of greenhouse gases.”

That implies a program that might have to last years before deducing a clear indication of what its effects might be.

“As Martin Bunzl, a Rutgers philosopher and climate change expert, points out, these facts alone present an enormous, perhaps insurmountable ethical problem for geoengineering.  In medicine, he writes, ‘You can test a vaccine on one person, putting that person at risk, without putting everyone else at risk.’  But with geoengineering, ‘You can’t build a scale model of the atmosphere.  As such you are stuck going directly from a model to full scale planetary-wide implementation.’  In short, you could not conduct meaningful tests of these technologies without enlisting billions of people as guinea pigs—for years.  Which is why science historian James Fleming calls geoengineering schemes ‘untested and untestable, and dangerous beyond belief’.”

Proponents of SRM schemes counter with the notion that what they propose is merely a reproduction of what occurs naturally when volcanoes erupt.  They refer to their approach as the “Pinatubo Option.”  Pinatubo was a volcanic eruption that occurred in the Philippines in 1991.  Does anyone remember 1991 as being a particularly disastrous year?  Probably not, unless you happened to live in certain regions of the earth.  One has to look carefully for effects in order to pull them out of the normal variations. 

“A 2007 paper cowritten by [Aigio] Dai and Kevin Trenberth head of the Climate analysis Section at the Colorado-based National Center for Atmospheric Research, concluded ‘that the Pinatubo eruption played an important role in the record decline in land precipitation and discharge, and the associated drought conditions in 1992’.”

Klein also quotes Alan Robock:

“’You get the same story from every [eruption] you look at,’ he said, adding, ‘….The global average precipitation went down.  In fact, if you look at the global average precipitation for the last fifty years, the three years with the lowest global precipitation were after the three largest volcanic eruptions.  Agung in 1963, El Chichon in 1982, and Pinatubo in 1991.’  The connections are so clear, Robock and two coauthors argued in one paper, that the next time there is a large ‘high latitude volcanic eruption,’ policy makers should start preparing food aid immediately, ‘allowing society time to plan for and remediate the consequences.”

The same people who model climate change from increased greenhouse gas concentrations can attempt to model the effects of SRM schemes. Klein reports that what the models predict is that significant weather modification will exist and it will affect some regions more severely than others.  In fact, the precise details of the particular SRM chemical release can determine which regions will be more severely affected.  Recall now the concern expressed by Henry Fountain in his article that “it might be used unilaterally as a weapon by governments or even extremely wealthy individuals.”

It is difficult to believe that the modeling results and the historical data can allow anyone to conclude that climate modification would be straightforward or benign.

Gillen D’Arcy Wood has produced a book titled Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World.  Wood has produced an interesting story about the effects of a volcano and its climate modification on the earth and the people living there.  It can also serve as a cautionary tale suggesting what could happen should climate change experiments go very wrong.

Wood’s book is discussed in an article in the London Review of Books by Thomas Jones.

“The eruption of Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in the Indonesian archipelago on 10 April 1815 was the most powerful volcanic explosion of the past thousand years, twice the magnitude of Krakatoa’s nearly seventy years later.”

As was the case with Pinatubo, the consequences of Tambora had been underestimated by a lack of detailed study.

“As recently as twenty years ago, Tambora’s 1815 eruption could be dismissed as not especially consequential….But Wood, who intends no hyperbole in his subtitle, makes a convincing case for Tambora’s role in causing ‘the most catastrophic sustained weather crisis of the millennium’. Wood’s isn’t the first book on Tambora’s aftermath, but it is the first to treat the event ‘as a three-year episode of drastic climate change’….”

Jones provides some examples from Wood’s work.  The first is from the events in Yunnan in southern China which was at the time a prosperous agricultural region.

“In the summer of 1815, however, because of Tambora’s ash cloud, the sun didn’t come out. The wind blew from the north instead of the south-west. Heavy rains flooded the wheat, barley and bean fields. The rice paddies could have survived the rain, but not the cold. Snow, frost and freezing fog enveloped the land in July and August. Villagers were reduced to eating soil. The conditions persisted for three years. Wood doesn’t give an estimate for how many people died, but ‘mortality’ was ‘high’.”

India has a fragile weather pattern depending on monsoon rains that are highly sensitive to climate conditions.

“The monsoon season usually starts in May, as the land heats up faster than the ocean and the colder, higher-pressure air blows in from the sea (the same thing happens on a much, much smaller scale in Torquay or Scarborough on warm summer mornings), bringing storm clouds and heavy rains. Three-quarters of Kolkata’s annual rainfall – and more than twice as much as drizzles on London in a year – pours down between June and September. Without the monsoon, as Wood says, ‘the land would be uninhabitable.’ That year aerosol particles from Tambora, lingering in the stratosphere above the Bay of Bengal, blocked out enough sunlight to alter the weather pattern, ‘inhibiting evaporation from the ocean and deflating the temperature differentiation of land and sea’. The ‘crippling monsoonal break’ of 1816, Wood writes, ‘is the longest in the historical record of the Asian subcontinent’.”

“Crops failed, wells dried up. When the rains came, too late, in September, they were ‘ruinously extreme’, bringing floods to the Ganges delta. The rains were early the next year: ‘On 21 March, an unprecedented hailstorm destroyed the spring grain crop and tore up orchards of dates, bananas and papaya all across the fragile alluvial plain.’ Two months later, people were dying of cholera.”

There is circumstantial evidence, as well as recent genetic research, that suggest the cholera pathogen mutated significantly just prior to this 1817 outbreak.  Whether it can be proven that the cholera pandemic that followed the outbreak in India was caused by Tambora is not critical.  Changing the environment of pathogens can lead to mutations favored by the new environment, and, perhaps, making them more dangerous for humans.  Let those who would cast the dice in modifying the earth’s climate try to predict such consequences.

“The disease had always been endemic in Bengal, but the unseasonal outbreak in May 1817 was also unusually virulent – and this, too, appears to have been a consequence of Tambora’s eruption. It spread across India, reaching Bombay within a year, then travelled southeast to Burma, Siam and Java in 1819-20, north to the Philippines, Japan and China, west to Persia, Russia, Europe and across the Atlantic, reaching North America and the Caribbean in 1832….”

Wood refers to the weather records kept by Luke Howard, a chemist in England.

“Recent research suggests that the 1810s were the coldest decade of the last five hundred years. Between 1807 and 1815, according to Howard’s measurements, the average daily temperature in London was 50°F (10ÂșC). In 1816 it was 38°F (under 4°C). Across the country there were ferocious thunderstorms, hailstorms, gales, darkness at noon, snow on Helvellyn in July.”

“Howard travelled on the Continent in the summer: ‘From the sources of the Rhine among the Alps, to its embouchure in the German ocean, and through a space twice or thrice as broad from east to west, the whole season presented a series of storms and inundations.’ Further north, however, in Scandinavia and around the Baltic, they were praying for rain. ‘Crop yields across the British Isles and western Europe,’ Wood writes, ‘plummeted by 75 per cent and more in 1816-17.’ There were food riots, authoritarian clampdowns, and mass starvation.”

For a brief period Arctic ice coverage was dramatically reduced, even though the climate was generally colder.

“Tambora’s overall suppression of global rainfall had reduced the flow of freshwater into the sea sufficiently to alter the ocean currents, increasing the flow of warm waters from the tropics to the Arctic.”

“The temporary melting of Arctic ice two hundred years ago is often cited by 21st-century climate change deniers, who point to it as a reason not to worry too much about the disappearing ice caps now, ignorant as they are (wilfully or otherwise) of its particular cause.”

Wood arrives at this conclusion:

“If a three-year climate change event in the early 1800s was capable of such destruction … then the future impacts of multidecadal climate change must be truly off the charts.”

By drastically reducing our consumption of fossil fuels we have the possibility of perhaps limiting climate change to a tolerable level.  If we continue on as we are the results can be catastrophic.  If we attempt to concatenate one type of climate change on top of another we are headed into uncharted territory where the results could be quite inhospitable to human existence.


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  3. Relevant here is P Ward and J Kirschvink's new book:
    A New HIstory of Earth due out March 2015.
    Kirschvink has proposed Snowball Earth, and IIE theory.
    IIE says the Earth tips 90 degrees when continental mass accumulates at the poles. Permian time--Cambrian explosion--saw continental mass at the South pole which tipped to the Equator, then rived apart only to again amass at pole. Scientists have no explanation for this. Miles Mathis proposes a 'charge field' of constantly recycled energy thru all bodies. Infra red radiation.

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