Tech fixes to save the day

Can tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances help acid­i­fy­ing seas?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ECOWATCH - By Craig WelCh

Many sci­en­tists are in­creas­ingly ac­knowl­edg­ing that we can no longer af­ford to dis­miss some gee-whiz tech­no­log­i­cal fixes out­right. We need to un­der­stand what, if any of it, could help.

In 2012, a con­tro­ver­sial Cal­i­for­nia en­tre­pre­neur mo­tored off the coast of Bri­tish Columbia and dumped 100 tonnes of iron dust into the Pa­cific Ocean, hop­ing to spark a 360sqkm plank­ton bloom. Sci­en­tists around the world were out­raged. The broad-scale move to scrub car­bon diox­ide from a patch of wa­ter by stim­u­lat­ing plant growth took place with no in­put from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

There was lit­tle ev­i­dence to sug­gest the busi­ness­man even car­ried the right tools to test his re­sults. Ex­perts dubbed him a rogue and dis­missed his plan for so-called iron fer­til­i­sa­tion as “dis­as­trous”, “mad­ness” and “in­sane.”

But re­ac­tion to the risky, un­sanc­tioned ex­per­i­ment masked a new re­al­ity: once largely panned as cuckoo, the idea that geo-en­gi­neer­ing or tech­no­log­i­cal tin­ker­ing may some­day play a role in tack­ling the world’s CO2 prob­lem is no longer dis­missed by main­stream sci­en­tists. In the last few years, re­searchers have even worked on set­ting global pro­to­cols to guide re­search.

These sci­en­tists in­sist that re­duc- ing CO2 is still a must to avoid global cli­mate and ocean dis­rup­tion. But with progress stalled on scal­ing back fos­sil fuel emis­sions, many sci­en­tists con­cede the time could come when mas­sive tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tions are nec­es­sary. Some even ar­gue that we need to bet­ter un­der­stand the op­tions be­cause a frus­trated na­tion one day may at­tempt to uni­lat­er­ally de­ploy an untested tech­nique as hap­pened in Bri­tish Columbia – but on a far larger, more dan­ger­ous scale.

“I’m re­ally sur­prised in the last few years how quickly some of these ideas have gone from be­ing ‘thought ex­per­i­ments’ to be­ing the kind of thing people are con­sid­er­ing se­ri­ously and that some think might ul­ti­mately even hap­pen,” said Ken Caldeira, a cli­mate sci­en­tist with Carnegie In­sti­tu­tion for Sci­ence at Stan­ford, who has stud­ied geo-en­gi­neer­ing pro­pos­als. Caldeira and oth­ers see the value of mas­sive tech­no­log­i­cal fixes as an “in-case-of-emer­gency-break-glass kind of thing.”

Jeremy Mathis, an oceanog­ra­pher with the na­tional Oceanic and at­mo­spheric ad­min­is­tra­tion (nOaa) who stud­ies chem­istry changes in the arc­tic, said he would never en­dorse ma­nip­u­lat­ing sea chem­istry or global CO2 in lieu of re­duc­ing emis­sions. “But at this point it makes sense to pur­sue all pos­si­bil­i­ties ... just in case,” he said.

Brad War­ren, with the non-profit Sus­tain­able Fish­eries Part­ner­ship, said it’s time to fig­ure out what’s fea­si­ble and what’s not.

“We’ve reached the stage where we can’t af­ford to be snooty about this stuff,” he said. “I don’t want to rely on this. I doubt many of the ideas are work­able on a global scale. and I think there is real peril in be­liev­ing we can en­gi­neer our way out of ev­ery­thing. We can man­age far bet­ter through preven­tion. nonethe­less, we need to be look­ing at the whole tool kit, whether we like it or not.”

Cer­tainly, there is no short­age of ideas. and many have no short­age of prob­lems. On a global scale, no op­tion “has yet been demon­strated to be ef­fec­tive at an af­ford­able cost, with ac­cept­able side ef­fects,” ac­cord­ing to a ma­jor 2009 study by the Royal So­ci­ety, the United King­dom’s academy of sci­ences.

For starters, most plans are de­signed to deal ex­clu­sively with tem­per­a­ture in­creases – not the chang­ing chem­istry of the sea. That in­cludes in­ven­tor nathan Myhrvold’s idea to shoot sul­phur diox­ide 24km into the sky through a hose to scat­ter sun­light and cool the planet, and pro­pos­als to seed ocean clouds to re­flect back sun­light.

Mean­while, iron fer­til­i­sa­tion, such as the type at­tempted in Bri­tish Columbia, could re­duce some amount of acid­i­fi­ca­tion in sur­face wa­ters as al­gae grows and sucks up CO2. But re­search sug­gests it may pro­mote sour­ing seas near the bot­tom as plant life dies, sinks and de­cays. Ef­forts to grind up lime­stone, barge it out to sea and dump it to in­crease ocean al­ka­lin­ity would re­quire in­cred­i­ble amounts of ma­te­rial and the en­ergy to trans­port it.

“I al­ways wanted to do a cal­cu­la­tion to show how many of the White Cliffs of Dover you would have to grind up to get enough ma­te­rial to re­ally make a dif­fer­ence,” said Michael O’Don­nell, an acid­i­fi­ca­tion ex­pert with Cal­i­for­nia Ocean Sci­ence Trust, which helps in­cor­po­rate the best ma­rine sci­ence in pol­icy-mak­ing.

yet CO2 lasts so long in the at­mos­phere that some com­puter mod­els sug­gest even if emis­sions be­gin de­clin­ing within a decade, some en­gi­neered fix could still be needed just to get oceans to main­tain their cur­rent chemical bal­ance. For the mo­ment, the most prom­ise seems to be on smaller scales.

“I wouldn’t call what I’m work­ing on geo-en­gi­neer­ing,” said Greg Rau, a ma­rine chemist with Lawrence Liver­more na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory. “That’s mis­lead­ing.”

Rau has ex­per­i­mented with us­ing seawa­ter and lime­stone to trans­form the CO2 waste in power plants into a new by-prod­uct: cal­cium bi­car­bon­ate. In lab tests, he has suc­cess­fully elim­i­nated 97% of CO2, and be­lieves the al­ka­line waste – if tests show it’s free from im­pu­ri­ties – could be dumped into the sea, re­duc­ing the wa­ter’s acid­ity. It’s the same process some seawa­ter aquar­i­ums use to re­duce acid­ity.

Rau sus­pects it would be most use­ful in a se­lect few sit­u­a­tions – such as a nat­u­ral-gas-fired power plant op­er­at­ing near ma­rine wa­ters, where seawa­ter al­ready is used as coolant. The CO2 from coal is filled with too many other con­tam­i­nants, he said.

“We’re prob­a­bly not go­ing to solve the global prob­lem us­ing this method,” he said. “But it could be ben­e­fi­cial in, say, help­ing some oys­ter beds, or in a bay or help­ing some co­ral reefs.”

Some sci­en­tists and pol­icy-mak­ers fear that fo­cus­ing too much on tech­no­log­i­cal fixes could draw em­pha­sis away from re­duc­ing CO2.

“If a scheme gets de­ployed and it ba­si­cally works even just a lit­tle, people might re­lax and al­low us to wind up with even higher CO2 emis­sions,” said Caldeira. But he also dis­misses crit­i­cism for con­tem­plat­ing such fixes at all.

“I get a lot of people think­ing I’m an ad­vo­cate of de­ploy­ing these things just be­cause I want to un­der­stand them,” he said. “I’m not. But if the mod­els say you can re­duce the en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age, it would be ir­re­spon­si­ble to not in­ves­ti­gate it.” – The Seat­tle Times/McClatchy Tri­bune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices

Dras­tic mea­sures: bi­ol­o­gists col­lect­ing sam­ples of sea grass off nor­manby Is­land in Pa­pua new Guinea. Some cli­mate ex­perts con­tend that tech­no­log­i­cal reme­dies may be nec­es­sary to counter ocean acid­i­fi­ca­tion. — MCT

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.