Could a man-made ‘vol­cano’ save the planet?

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - INTERNATIONAL - By John Naish © Daily Mail, Lon­don

Cli­mate- change ac­tivists are once again warn­ing of eco-Ar­maged­don if we don’t mend our global-warm­ing ways.

In a dra­matic, open­ing speech at the UN cli­mate talks in Poland this week, Sir David At­ten­bor­ough struck a dooms­day note when he told del­e­gates: ‘If we don’t take ac­tion, the col­lapse of our civil­i­sa­tions and the ex­tinc­tion of much of the nat­u­ral world is on the hori­zon.’

But the truth is we’ve proved pretty re­sis­tant to such mes­sages be­fore. We may make a few mi­nor ad­just­ments to our lives, but on the whole we carry on burn­ing planet-warm­ing fos­sil fu­els and re­leas­ing green­house gases re­gard­less of the dire con­se­quences which is why sci­en­tists are for­mu­lat­ing a host of ‘geo­engi­neer­ing’ emer­gency Plan Bs to try to safe­guard our planet by ma­nip­u­lat­ing the cli­mate.

They in­clude cre­at­ing fake vol­canic ex­plo­sions to cloud our skies, mov­ing the Earth fur­ther from the Sun — and even shrink­ing hu­mankind so that we cre­ate far fewer green­house gases.

The projects sound like the stuff of comic-book fic­tion, but the science is se­ri­ous. So could one of these schemes ever se­ri­ously come to our res­cue?

An en­gi­neer­ing team part-funded by Bill Gates of Mi­crosoft has an­nounced it is seek­ing ways to dim the sun by mim­ick­ing the ef­fects of a huge vol­canic erup­tion.

The Har­vard Univer­sity sci­en­tists hope to prove that by spray­ing tiny par­ti­cles into the strato­sphere, they could re­duce global warm­ing by re­flect­ing some of the Sun’s rays back into space be­fore they hit the Earth.

The ex­per­i­ment aims to repli­cate what hap­pened nat­u­rally in 1991 when Mount Pi­natubo erupted in the Philip­pines and threw 20 mil­lion tonnes of sul­phur diox­ide into the strato­sphere.

The so­lar ray- block­ing chem­i­cal clouds cooled the planet by about 0.5c for 18 months. If such a re­duc­tion were sus­tained, it could pre­vent some of the worst ef­fects of cli­mate change, sav­ing Arc­tic ice and coral reefs, and pro­tect­ing low-ly­ing com­mu­ni­ties from floods.

The $ 3 mil­lion ‘ strato­spheric con­trolled per­tur­ba­tion ex­per­i­ment’ (Scopex) out­lined by the Har­vard team and sched­uled for early next year, in­volves send­ing an air­ship 12 miles above the south-west United States to re­lease small plumes of up to 1kg of chalk dust ( cal­cium car­bon­ate) to ob­serve how it scat­ters sun­light and changes the chem­istry of the strato­sphere.

They hope it could prove a ‘re­mark­ably in­ex­pen­sive’ way of cool­ing the planet, cost­ing some £2 bil­lion a year.

How­ever, Bri­tish sci­en­tists warn that the strat­egy would dis­rupt global rain­fall, caus­ing drought and famine in large parts of the world.

Piers Forster, a pro­fes­sor of cli­mate physics at Leeds Univer­sity, fears that up to 4.1 bil­lion peo­ple could be harmed by changes in rain pat­terns. ‘The most strik­ing ex­am­ple of a down­side would be the com­plete dry­ing-out of cen­tral Africa,’ he says.

Be­lieve it or not, shift­ing Earth to a cooler spot away from the Sun has been se­ri­ously con­sid­ered by Nasa sci­en­tists. Even more out­landish is their sug­ges­tion that this could be achieved by di­vert­ing comets into the di­rec­tion of our home planet.

Greg Laugh­lin, a pro­fes­sor of as­tron­omy at Yale Univer­sity, says sci­en­tists could care­fully di­rect a comet or as­teroid so that it sweeps just past us — and its grav­i­ta­tional pull would spin Earth fur­ther out into the so­lar sys­tem.

‘ The tech­nol­ogy is not at all far­fetched,’ he main­tains. ‘It in­volves the same tech­niques that peo­ple now sug­gest could be used to de­flect as­ter­oids or comets head­ing to­wards Earth. We don’t need raw power to move Earth, we just re­quire del­i­cacy of plan­ning and ma­noeu­vring.’

Fel­low be­liev­ers say the plan could add an­other six bil­lion years to the life­time of our planet — ef­fec­tively dou­bling its work­ing life.

How­ever, crit­ics have at­tacked the plan in the jour­nal Astro­physics and Space Science, ar­gu­ing that even a tiny mis­cal­cu­la­tion would cause a col­li­sion so cat­a­strophic that it would de­stroy all life bar a few mi­crobes.

What’s more, if Earth were pushed from its cur­rent po­si­tion the Moon may be knocked out of or­bit, too, drift­ing off into space, fur­ther up­set­ting our cli­mate by its ef­fect on the ocean cur­rents which reg­u­late the cli­mate (trans­port­ing cold wa­ter from the poles to the trop­ics and vice versa) and tides.

An Ox­ford Univer­sity philoso­pher has made an even more rad­i­cal pro­posal that we should ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neer our chil­dren to be much smaller, so that they eat less, make fewer de­mands on the en­vi­ron­ment and over­all emit fewer green­house gases. In 2012, Dr Re­becca Roache also sug­gested we could ge­net­i­cally mod­ify these mini- hu­mans to be ‘ greener’ by mak­ing them al­ler­gic to meat and per­haps dairy, so that we no longer need to breed and farm cat­tle (a cow pro­duces around 100kg of meth­ane gas per year — which is 20 times more po­tent a green­house gas than car­bon diox­ide).

Fur­ther, ge­netic modification could pro­duce ba­bies with light-re­flect­ing eyes like a cat’s. ‘If ev­ery­one had cat eyes, you wouldn’t need so much light­ing,’ wrote Dr Roache and col­leagues in the jour­nal Ethics, Pol­icy and En­vi­ron­ment.

As global warm­ing takes hold, wa­ter from melt­ing Antarc­tic glaciers threat­ens to in­un­date mil­lions of peo­ple liv­ing in low-ly­ing ar­eas such as is­lands and coastal ar­eas.

Glaciers col­lapse into the oceans when warm sea­wa­ter un­der­cuts ice shelves that jut out into the sea. Now Amer­i­can sci­en­tists say the an­swer may be to build a gi­ant wall around the Antarc­tic.

En­gi­neers want to cre­ate a vol­canic ex­plo­sion to cloud our skies as a sun shield / REUTERS

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