Scientists Could Engineer the Earth So It Reflects the Sun's Rays - But They Shouldn't

Wednesday, 11 February 2015 - 1:15PM
Technology
Earth
Wednesday, 11 February 2015 - 1:15PM
Scientists Could Engineer the Earth So It Reflects the Sun's Rays - But They Shouldn't

In the 2013 film Snowpiercer, Earth is plunged into an ice age after a botched attempt to combat global warming by releasing a climate engineering chemical into the atmosphere. Although this sounds like the beginning of every ice age apocalypse movie, it's actually based on geoengineering, a real-life proposal to reduce global temperatures by making the Earth reflective of sunlight. Now, a new report from the US National Academies tells us that this plan is, in fact, potentially the beginning of an apocalypse movie, and calls the plan "irrational and irresponsible."

 

Geoengineering, which has come to the forefront of environmentalism in recent years, involves either releasing a large amount of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere or- no joke- putting lots of mirrors in space, so Earth would literally reflect the sun's rays. Although this sounds like an elegant solution, the US National Academies warns in their report that they could have potentially disastrous consequences: "Albedo-modification technologies, which aim to increase the ability of Earth or clouds to reflect incoming sunlight, pose considerable risks and should not be deployed at this time."

 

Counterintuitively, the main concern isn't a new ice age, but skyrocketing temperatures if the interventions were ever discontinued. Unlike less flashy solutions, like the systematic removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, geoengineering practices would take an enormous amount of technological innovation and maintenance, and if they ever failed suddenly, the Earth's temperatures could exponentially increase.

 

But even aside from that risk, the experts warn that geoengineering is insufficient without also continuing the effort to reduce CO2 emissions. If we use geoengineering as a crutch, then the CO2 levels will continue to rise and it will be tantamount to a band-aid on a bullet wound.

 

"That scientists are even considering technological interventions should be a wake-up call that we need to do more now to reduce emissions, which is the most effective, least risky way to combat climate change," said committee chair Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science and former director of the U.S. Geological Survey. "But the longer we wait, the more likely it will become that we will need to deploy some forms of carbon dioxide removal to avoid the worst impacts of climate change."

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