Climate scientists suggest geoengineering approach with engineered nanoparticles

There may be better ways to engineer the planet’s climate to prevent dangerous global warming than mimicking volcanoes, a University of Calgary climate scientist says in two new studies.

“Releasing engineered nano-sized disks, or sulphuric acid in a condensable vapour above the Earth, are two novel approaches. These approaches offer advantages over simply putting sulphur dioxide gas into the atmosphere,” says David Keith, a director in the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy and a Schulich School of Engineering professor.

Keith, a global leader in investigating this topic, says that geoengineering, or engineering the climate on a global scale, is an imperfect science. “It cannot offset the risks that come from increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If we don’t halt man-made CO2 emissions, no amount of climate engineering can eliminate the problems – massive emissions reductions are still necessary.” Nevertheless, Keith believes that research on geoengineering technologies,their effectiveness and environmental impacts needs to be expanded.
“I think the stakes are simply too high at this point to think that ignorance is a good policy.”

Keith suggests two novel geoengineering approaches–’levitating’ engineered nano-particles, and the airborne release of sulphuric acid–in two newly published studies. One study was authored by Keith alone, and the other with scientists in Canada, the U.S. and Switzerland.

Scientists investigating geoengineering have so far looked mainly at injecting sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. This approach imitates the way volcanoes create sulphuric acid aerosols, or sulphates, that will reflect solar radiation back into space – thereby cooling the planet’s surface. Keith says that sulphates are blunt instruments for climate engineering. It’s very difficult to achieve the optimum distribution and size of the aerosols in the atmosphere to reflect the most solar radiation and get the maximum cooling benefit.

One advantage of using sulphates is that scientists have some understanding of their effects in the atmosphere because of emissions from volcanoes such as Mt. Pinatubo, he adds. “A downside of both these new ideas is they would do something that nature has never seen before. It’s easier to think of new ideas than to understand their effectiveness and environmental risks,” says Keith.

In his study–published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a top-ranked international science journal–Keith describes a new class of engineered nano-particles that might be used to offset global warming more efficiently, and with fewer negative side effects, than using sulphates.
According to Keith, the distribution of engineered nano-particles above the Earth could be more controlled and less likely to harm the planet’s protective ozone layer.
Sulphates also have unwanted side-effects, ranging from reducing the electricity output from certain solar power systems, to speeding up the chemical process that breaks down the ozone layer.
Engineered nano-particles could be designed as thin disks and built with electric or magnetic materials that would enable them to be levitated or oriented in the atmosphere to reflect the most solar radiation.
It may also be possible to control the position of particles above the Earth. In theory, the particles might be engineered to drift toward Earth’s poles, to reduce solar radiation in polar regions and counter the melting of ice that speeds up polar warming–known as the ice-albedo feedback.
“Such an ability might be relevant in the event that warming triggers rapid deglaciation,” Keith’s study says.
“Engineered nano-particles would first need to be tested in laboratories, with only short-lived particles initially deployed in the atmosphere so any effects could be easily reversible,” says Keith.
Research would also be needed to determine whether such nano-particles could be effectively distributed, given the complex interplay of forces in the atmosphere, and how much cooling might be achieved at the planet’s surface.
It is also unknown whether the amount of particles needed–about 1 trillion kilograms per year or 10 million tonnes over 10 years–could be manufactured and deployed at a reasonable cost.
However, Keith notes another study, which looked at the cost of putting natural sulphates into the stratosphere.
“You could manipulate the Earth’s climate at large scale for a cost that’s of the order of $1 billion a year. It sounds like a lot of money, but compared to the costs of managing other environmental problems or climate change, that is peanuts.”
“This is not an argument to do it, only an indication that risk, not cost, will be the deciding issue,” he adds.
In a separate new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, Keith and international scientists describe another geoengineering approach that may also offer advantages over injecting sulphur dioxide gas.
Releasing sulphuric acid, or another condensable vapour, from an aircraft would give better control of particle size. The study says this would reflect more solar radiation back into space, while using fewer particles overall and reducing unwanted heating in the lower stratosphere.
The study included computer modeling that showed that the sulphuric acid would quickly condense in a plume, forming smaller particles that would last longer in the stratosphere and be more effective in reflecting solar radiation than the large sulphates formed from sulphur dioxide gas.
Keith stresses that whether geoengineering technology is ever used, it shouldn’t be seen as a reason not to reduce man-made greenhouse gas emissions now accumulating in the atmosphere.
“Seat belts reduce the risk of being injured in accidents. But having a seat belt doesn’t mean you should drive drunk at 100 miles an hour,” he says


Maldives govt goes underwater for climate change

To bring attention the risk the Maldives face from rising sea levels and climate change, President Mohamed Nasheed is going to the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

On Saturday, he and 12 cabinet ministers will don scuba gear and dive 3.5 meters (11 feet, 6 inches) under the surface of a turquoise lagoon to hold what is billed as the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting.

It is the latest of Nasheed’s eye-catching moves to bring attention to the Maldives’ plight before a landmark U.N. climate meeting in Copenhagen in December.

“The message is we will do anything, everything, to live in this country,” Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam told Reuters.

The archipelago nation off the tip of India, mostly known for its high-end luxury tropical hideaways and unspoiled white-sand beaches, is among the most threatened by rising seas.

Rising sea levels of up to 58 cm, as predicted by the U.N. Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, threaten to submerge most of the Maldives’ low-lying islands by 2100.

The underwater cabinet meeting is a part of the 350 global campaigns, which call for a reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide to the safe threshold of 350 parts per million (ppm). Current levels stand at 387 ppm.

Seated around a table and using hand signals and slates, the cabinet will endorse an “SOS” message from the Maldives to be presented at the U.N. climate change summit in Copenhagen.

“We must unite in a world war effort to halt further temperature rises,” an advance copy of the statement made available to Reuters said.


Arctic to be ice-free in summer in 20 years

Global warming will leave the Arctic Ocean ice-free during the summer within 20 years, raising sea levels and harming wildlife such as seals and polar bears, a leading British polar scientist said on Thursday.

Peter Wadhams, professor of ocean physics at the University of Cambridge, said much of the melting will take place within a decade, although the winter ice will stay for hundreds of years.

The changes will mean the top of the Earth will appear blue rather than white when photographed from space and ships will have a new sea route north of Russia.

Scientists say evidence of melting Arctic ice is one of the clearest signs of global warming and it should send a warning to world leaders meeting in Copenhagen in December for U.N. talks on a new climate treaty.

“The data supports the new consensus view — based on seasonal variation of ice extent and thickness, changes in temperatures, winds and especially ice composition — that the Arctic will be ice-free in summer within about 20 years,” Wadhams said in a statement. “Much of the decrease will be happening within 10 years.”

Wadhams, one of the world’s leading experts on sea ice cover in the North Pole region, compared ice thickness measurements taken by a Royal Navy submarine in 2007 with evidence gathered by the British explorer Pen Hadow earlier this year.

Hadow and his team on the Catlin Arctic Survey drilled 1,500 holes to gather evidence during a 280-mile walk across the Arctic. They found the average thickness of ice-floes was 1.8 meters, a depth considered too thin to survive the summer’s ice melt.

Sometimes referred to as the Earth’s air-conditioner, the Arctic Sea plays a vital role in the world’s climate. As Arctic ice melts in summer, it exposes the darker-colored ocean water, which absorbs sunlight instead of reflecting it, accelerating the effect of global warming.

Dr Martin Sommerkorn, from the environmental charity WWF’s Arctic program, which worked on the survey, said the predicted loss of ice could have wide-reaching affects around the world.

“The Arctic Sea ice holds a central position in our Earth’s climate system. Take it out of the equation and we are left with a dramatically warmer world,” he said.

“This could lead to flooding affecting one-quarter of the world’s population, substantial increases in greenhouse gas emissions …. and extreme global weather changes.”

Britain’s Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband said the research “sets out the stark realities of climate change.”

“This further strengthens the case for an ambitious global deal in Copenhagen,” he added.


Senior G77 members protest steps to change Kyoto pact

Senior G77 members walked out of a meeting during climate talks in the Thai capital saying they would not discuss a future without the Kyoto Protocol climate pact, delegates said on Wednesday.

South Africa’s lead negotiator, China and OPEC countries left the informal session late on Tuesday that was discussing the shape of new climate agreement that would bind all nations in the fight against climate change.

Tensions have been rising during marathon U.N. climate talks in Bangkok that end on Friday over accusations rich nations are trying to kill off Kyoto, which binds 37 industrialized nations to emissions targets during its 2008-12 first commitment period.

The question negotiators are wrestling with is whether to extend Kyoto into a second commitment period from 2013, amend the pact or create a new one, a step many developing nations resist.

“The G77 is extremely concerned with the notion that there is a clear intention being shown that developed countries, who are party to the Kyoto Protocol, of not agreeing to new targets for the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol,” said Alf Wills, spokesman and lead negotiator for South Africa in the G77 of developing nations.

“The G77 rejects the notion and proposal to collapse or ‘cut and paste the good parts of the Kyoto Protocol’ (one wonders what the bad parts are) into a new single legal instrument under the Convention,” Wills said in an email to Reuters, referring to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.


Mexico calls U.S. a “stumbling block” in U.N. climate talks

The United States came under pressure to show leadership in U.N. climate talks on Wednesday with Mexico saying its neighbor is a stumbling block in efforts to try to craft a tough global climate agreement by December.

The United States has been criticized by developing countries and green groups in talks in the Thai capital for not being able to put a tough emissions reduction target for 2020 on the table, instead focusing on a 2050 target.

Developing nations also worry over Washington’s position that any new climate pact should set legally binding domestic steps to cut emissions as a benchmark for global action to fight climate change.

“I think that they are in an uncomfortable position since they cannot put on the table any figures unless the Congress process is clearer,” Fernando Tudela, head of the Mexican climate delegation in Bangkok, told Reuters in an interview.

“They are increasingly identified as a stumbling block for the negotiations and it’s up to them to dispel this perception and to show the real leadership we’re expecting from them.”

A climate bill drafted by U.S. Senate Democrats aims for a 20 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from 2005 levels. But President Barack Obama’s administration says he is unlikely to sign the legislation before a major December conference in Copenhagen aimed at sealing a new climate pact.

The Senate bill target equates to a 7 percent cut on 1990 levels by 2020, far below the 25-40 percent cuts by then that the U.N. climate panel and developing countries say rich nations should support to avoid dangerous climate change.


Rich nations trying to kill Kyoto pact, says China

China and a top G77 official accused rich nations on Monday of trying to kill off the Kyoto Protocol, the U.N.’s main weapon in the fight against global warming, as nations try to craft a broader climate pact.

Delegates from about 180 nations are meeting in the Thai capital trying to bridge differences over a draft negotiating text that will allow all countries to deepen efforts to slow the pace of climate change.

The United Nations hopes a major climate meeting in Copenhagen in December will lead to a broader framework to expand or replace Kyoto, whose first phase ends in 2012.

The talks are deadlocked on rich nations toughening their commitments to cut emissions by 2020 and climate funds to help poorer nations adapt to the impacts of climate change, invest in clean energy and how to manage those funds.

“It has become self-evident and actually clear that the intention of the developed countries is to kill off the Kyoto Protocol,” Lumumba D’Aping, who chairs the G77 plus China negotiating group, told reporters.

China’s special envoy for climate change, Yu Qingtai, accused rich nations of trying to change the rules of the game at the last minute.

“I have yet to see a developed country or a group of developed countries coming up to say to the public, the international community and to their own people that they are not here to kill the Kyoto Protocol,” Yu told reporters.


4 degrees warming “likely” without CO2 cuts

Global temperatures may be 4 degrees Celsius hotter by the mid-2050s if current greenhouse gas emissions trends continue, said a study published on Monday.

The study, by Britain’s Met Office Hadley Center, echoed a U.N. report last week which found that climate changes were outpacing worst-case scenarios forecast in 2007 by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“Our results are showing similar patterns (to the IPCC) but also show the possibility that more extreme changes can happen,” said Debbie Hemming, co-author of the research published at the start of a climate change conference at Oxford University.

Leaders of the main greenhouse gas-emitting countries recognized in July a scientific view that temperatures should not exceed 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, to avoid more dangerous changes to the world’s climate.

The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for its fourth assessment report, or AR4. One finding was that global temperatures could rise by 4 degrees by the end of the 2050s. Monday’s study confirmed that warming could happen even earlier, by the mid-2050s, and suggested more extreme local effects.

“It’s affirming the AR4 results and also confirming that it is likely,” Hemming told Reuters, referring to 4 degrees warming, assuming no extra global action to cut emissions in the next decade.

One advance since 2007 was to model the effect of “carbon cycles.” For example, if parts of the Amazon rainforest died as a result of drought, that would expose soil which would then release carbon from formerly shaded organic matter.

“That amplifies the amount of carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere and therefore the global warming. It’s really leading to more certainty,” said Hemming.