Category: geoengineering

The World’s First Negative Emissions Power Plant is a Reality Thanks to Geoengineering

Negative Emissions

As climate change marches on, world leaders and scientists alike have considered the potential of geoengineering solutions to capture and store emissions. In fact, scientists recently concluded that we need to have “carbon-sucking” geoengineering tech in place by as early as 2030.

As reported by Quartz, it seems Iceland is ahead of that deadline, with the help of a 300-megawatt geothermal power plant that’s been built in Hellisheiði. The plant captures more carbon dioxide (CO2) than it produces, meaning it produces negative emissions. That said, it’s true that the plant only produces about one third of the carbon a traditional coal plant would — but more than what it emits is both captured and stored underground.

To accomplish this engineering marvel, a wall of fans sucks in air, filters out CO2, and injects the CO2 into water which is then pumped into the ground where it becomes rock. This process is simple and produces usable energy while eliminating emissions from the environment; truly a win-win. So why hasn’t this technology been immediately adopted and replicated in every state in every country in the world? The short answer is cost.

The Energy of the Future: Harnessing the Power of Earth
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The Cost of Energy

Currently, this process costs about $30 (USD) for every ton of carbon dioxide that is turned into rock, which is not particularly expensive. However, capturing the CO2 from the air would be significantly more cost-intensive. If the cost of pulling carbon dioxide could be whittled down to $100 per cycle, as its creators are aiming for, then the technology’s adoptability would be much improved.

The concept of capturing and storing carbon underground is nothing brand new: geoengineering solutions to climate change have been brewing and developing for years. However, the concrete completion of this plant proves not only that this process works as intended, but that the costs of producing energy in this manner aren’t completely out of reach. As the technology continues to advance and improve, they will hopefully continue to become more affordable, and in turn, more widely adopted.

If we continue to produce energy in the same manner, and at the same rate, as we currently are, climate change will only worsen. Its life-threatening repercussions will continue to become increasingly devastating — not to mention costly. While we shift from fossil fuels to renewable resources, it’s important to note that our emissions aren’t going anywhere.

Even if we were to eliminate our entire carbon footprint right now, we’d would still see years and years of energy usage left in our wake. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t do anything, as we’ve already jeopardized ourselves and the planet. Rather, it serves as a reminder that while we make changes regarding the types of energy we use, and how we use them, we can also invest in and support the elimination of existing emissions through emerging technology.

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Scientists Warn That Humanity Must Create “Carbon Sucking” Tech by 2030

Carbon Sucking

There are many who are making tremendous and powerful efforts to combat climate change as its repercussions grow increasingly drastic and life-threatening. But according to scientists at Chatham House, a British think-tank, and the general scientific consensus, the impending potential of surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times is progressing far enough that we need to begin “carbon sucking” by 2030. Carbon sucking technology, according to these and other scientists, will need to be created in order to effectively combat emissions.

“I don’t think we can have confidence that anything else can do this,” said Bill Hare, a physicist and climate scientist at the science and policy institute called Climate Analytics, to a London climate change conference. While trying to remain under a 1.5-degree rise, we have already had a global average increase of 1 degree. “It’s something you don’t want to talk about very much but it’s an unaccountable truth: we will need geoengineering by the mid-2030s to have a chance at the [1.5-C] goal,” Hare continued.

Negative emissions will be an essential part of battling climate change. Image Credit: JuergenPM / Pixabay
Negative emissions will be an essential part of battling climate change. Image Credit: JuergenPM / Pixabay

Engineering the Future

While it might seem drastic, increasing natural disasters, flooding, and a large host of other consequences of climate change are threatening and taking human lives with increasing ferocity. And if we continue on our current path, even with a wealth of intervention methods in place, geoengineering might very well be necessary as these scientists have predicted.

Can We Come Back from Climate Change’s Brink?
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Of these “carbon sucking” solutions, some suggest the planting of specially-designed carbon-absorbing forests. The trees from these forests would be harvested for wood and energy, the emissions from which would be pumped back underground. Underground carbon storage is just one of the many possible ways that scientists hope to capture and store emissions in our environment, reducing the impact of emissions on climate change.

Hare elaborated, “if you’re really concerned about coral reefs, biodiversity [and] food production in very poor regions, we’re going to have to deploy negative emission technology at scale.”

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Geoengineering May Be Our Only Hope for Surviving Climate Change

Engineering the Planet

While every small effort to combat the pressing problem of climate change helps, the situation may progress to the point that humanity has no choice but to take bold action in the form of geoengineering.

Could climate change transform Earth into Venus? [Infographic]
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This branch of engineering focuses on large-scale technological interventions designed to physically manipulate our environment and planet in ways that will hopefully, at the very least, slow the advancement of climate change.

With experts predicting that the Earth will be at least 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer by the end of the century, these measures might be the key to saving life on our planet. To put that in perspective, the global average temperature during the Ice Age was only about 6.6 degrees Celsius (12 degrees Fahrenheit) cooler than it is today.

As our climate changes and temperatures increase, every aspect of life on our planet will change along with it, so it is important that we figure out how to keep life on Earth, well, alive, even if it means taking risks.

Changing Climates

In a recent interview, astrobiologist, planetary scientist, and senior scientist of the Planetary Science Institute David Grinspoon shared his thoughts on geoengineering and the future of planet Earth with Futurism.

Part of Grinspoon’s work focuses on looking at how the climates of planets like Mars and Venus have changed in the past in the hopes of using that knowledge to predict how Earth’s climate might change. “That gives me a little bit of a different kind of perspective on our climate evolution,” says Grinspoon. “It also leads into the possibility that we may want to manipulate the climate on this planet in the future to prevent it from going in a direction that is dangerous for everybody.”

By studying planets other than Earth, Grinspoon has garnered a better idea of not only how naturally changing climates might affect life, but how the specific changes we’re seeing on Earth might affect us and other creatures.

“Left to their own devices, planetary climates do change in ways that would be dangerous to our civilization,” says Grinspoon. “We will eventually have to learn how to handle that and assume this role of sort of caretaker.”

Image Credit: geralt / pixabay
Image Credit: geralt / pixabay

The climate will continue to change with or without our intervention, and most of us would probably like it to remain a habitable location. While Grinspoon is quick to note that geoengineering should be seen as a last resort — “We could make a cure worse than the disease” — he is confident that changes to our individual habits could go a long way toward combating the changing climate.

“I see the twenty-first century as a pivotal time. A lot of problems are coming to a head now, but there’s also a lot of potential for solving those problems,” Grinspoon asserts. “I do think there’s momentum for a widespread acceptance that we need to move beyond the fossil fuel economy, and I think 30 years from now, that transition is going to be really accelerated.”

Ultimately, geoengineering and our efforts toward sustainability are two sides of the same coin. If necessary, the former could allow us to make major changes to ensure Earth remains habitable, while the latter are comparatively easier, less risky ways for us to evolve along with our planet. It is important that we consider both as we move forward. As Grinspoon notes, “We cannot stop being planet changers. We just have to figure out how to do a better job — how to be smart planet changers.”

This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.

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Scientists Still Can’t Find the Volcano Whose Massive Eruption Caused a Mini Ice Age

 

The ‘Unknown Eruption’

In 1465, a volcano erupted that caused lunatic environmental changes across Europe for the next decade. It turned the sky an eerie dark, dusk-colored blue for the the marriage of King Alfonso II of Naples. It triggered rain so heavy that corpses floated to the surface in German cemeteries and citizens in Thorn, Poland, traveled the streets by boat. Four years later, it would go on to instigate a mini ice age in Europe, during which fish froze in ponds, grass didn’t grow, and citizens in Bologna traveled their city’s frozen waterways on horses.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the story, though, is that scientists are clueless as to where the volcano is to this very day — beyond that it erupted in the tropics. Because of this, it has become known as the ‘Unknown Eruption’.

Archaeologists visiting Tongoa, in Vanuatu, contributed the first clues to this mystery, when they heard tales of a massive volcanic eruption that split an island and scattered its inhabitants.  All that was left of the ancient volcano was a crater roughly one kilometer (or half a mile) hidden beneath the ocean. It was known as Kuwae. Stories placed Kuwae’s eruption between 1540 and 1654 AD – and spikes of acidity in polar ice cores suggested a volcanic eruption somewhere in the 15th century. Could they be related?

The event only grew more enigmatic as study of it continued. Kevin Pang was the first to think he had found some certainty in 1993 when he dated the volcano’s eruption as 22 May 1453, based on a correlation of historical reports and geological findings derived from studying the rings in British oak trees. His estimate was within the grounds of viability, but meant that it was too early to give the king of Naples a dusky wedding day.

This date was also challenged by geological finds at the site itself. French scientists visited Kuwae, and, based on its size, estimated that the explosion released enough molten rock to fill the Empire State 37 million times over, and occurred between 1420 and 1430.

That estimate stood until another team led by Karoly Nemeth, an environmental scientist from Massey University, New Zealand, undertook a study on the islands surrounding the crater and found that there was no indication of a eruption big enough to alter the world’s weather so dramatically. He told the BBC, “there’s no doubt that there are volcanic deposits, but their extent isn’t what you’d expect from a truly massive eruption.” Nemeth instead proposed a single volcano had erupted multiple times in a relatively short period.

Nowadays, our best conjecture is based off findings from the Law Dome, where a geological record of world events is frozen in thick layers of Antarctic snow. Researchers who sampled Law Dome in 2012 found that there had probably been two explosions – but that they were both much later than the eruption at Kuwae. This goes some way towards satisfying both the disparate dates proposed for the eruption, and the smaller than expected size of the volcanic eruptions. But it also revealed that the discoveries at Kuwae by the French team had been mistakenly linked to the same event when they were in fact unrelated.

While some of the players have been identified, the eruption which caused the individual events of 1465 remain out of reach. Researchers still think the culprit was likely a volcano in the tropics, but one so big that its eruption probably sunk it into the sea, where it remains – still a mystery.

What We’ve Learned

Perhaps the most pertinent piece of knowledge we can extract from our studies of the geological events of the 15th century is how much we don’t know — or more precisely, how much we still have to learn. After numerous conclusions were reached with apparent certainty, further studies only revealed that they were conclusions based on coincidence, not causality: exercises in confirmation bias rather than definitive assertions.

However, while we may not have learnt the precise nature of the volcanic events of the 1500s, every study conducted has contributed to our understanding of volcanic eruptions in general – and of how we can react to them.

Knowledge of volcanoes and how they erupt has allowed us to make preparations for the next explosion, and plan how to deal with the severe environmental and geological consequences. While no technology has been adopted into widespread use, there are several ideas that are theoretically promising. These include geothermal drilling to relieve some of the gaseous pressure inside the magma chamber and bombing volcanoes to induce controlled eruptions.

The latter of these two technologies has potential benefits outside of reducing the human cost of a volcanic explosion: it has been proposed as a method of reducing global warming. While the Unknown Eruption caused an ice age that lead to famine and suffering across the world, a reduced and controlled version — in which scientists could use the sulfur particles from an eruption to reflect the sun’s heat away from earth — has been proposed.

The idea is called ‘geoengineering’, and it takes its impetus from events like the natural eruption of Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991. This eruption cooled the earth by half a degree in two years — which represents a temperature decrease equivalent to 25 percent of the ambition of the Paris Agreement. Recently, a $20 million project run by Harvard University was announced that plans to disperse water and calcium carbonate particles into the stratosphere by 2022.

Using volcanic principles to cool the environment, despite their notorious history of death and destruction, shows the ingenuity and boldness of modern science. While it remains to be seen if geoengineering will prove to effective at helping us save the planet, it represents a promising broad-mindedness towards any method, no matter how science fiction-esque, to save our world.

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Two New Studies Look Into “Planet-Hacking” Proposals for Slowing Climate Change

Worth the Risk?

Two new studies have been published in Science outlining research on a pair of geoengineering methods, sulphur atmospheric injection and cirrus cloud modification, that could prove helpful if Earth’s climate reaches catastrophic levels. While the researchers behind these studies hope that the methods will never become necessary, they assert that researching them is important just in case a climate red button is ever needed.

The first method would involve attempting to mimic the effects of volcanic eruptions. Using dispersal planes, we would inject enough sulphur into the atmosphere to deflect a significant amount of solar radiation away from Earth, thus decreasing its surface temperature.

The second method is to modify cirrus clouds. These clouds are adept at trapping heat in the atmosphere, having a similar effects on the planet as greenhouse gases. The proposed geoengineering method would be to “seed” these clouds with tiny particles of chemicals, desert dust, or pollen in order to break them apart and let more heat escape.

Injecting sulfur into the atmosphere is a highly risky proposition. Financially, it could cost $20 billion a year for as many at 160 years. It could also potentially lead to the destruction of the ozone, which would have the domino effect of causing worldwide draughts while not decreasing acid levels in the ocean or carbon dioxide levels in the air.

Cloud seeing also comes with risks. If the seeding isn’t perfectly executed, it could lead to further cirrus cloud formation, which would have the counterintuitive effect of trapping more heat. It also wouldn’t decrease CO2 levels in the air or stop ocean acidification.

As Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at NASA and Columbia University, said in a Ted Talk, ultimately, geoengineering is like “going to a doctor who says ‘You have a fever, I know exactly why you have a fever, and we’re not going to treat that. We’re going to give you ibuprofen, and also your nose is going to fall off.’” They’re simply risky, temporary solutions that don’t address the core problem.

The Core Problem

We’re seeing more and more evidence that the climate is heading toward disaster and that humans are driving the change. Over the last decade or so, the general tone concerning the topic has moved from “we should do something” to “we must do something now to avoid planetary collapse.”

A team lead by Jim Hansen, NASA’s former chief of climate science, made the situation clear in a recently published study: “The world has already overshot appropriate targets for greenhouse gas amount and global temperature, and we thus infer an urgent need for rapid phasedown of fossil fuel emissions.”

Global Warming Scenarios
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2017 is already on track to be one of the hottest and wettest years on record for the United States, and numerous other countries have seen similar trends. While it may be simplistic, Elon Musk is right in his tweeted assertion that there’s “no need to rely on scientists for global warming — just use a thermometer.”

Measures such as the Paris Agreement can only help our planet, but many have argued that the fundamental problem with the mandate is that the global temperature increase probably won’t be limited to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) even if the goals are met.

However, some climate scientists remain optimistic that the environmental crucible we are facing is going to force change before we have resort to geoengineering. Alan Robock, an environmental science professor at Rutgers, told Business Insider that international agreements could be made necessarily more severe if the right person is leading the campaign: “With charismatic leadership, things can change very quickly […] I’m optimistic the world will do that and we won’t need to use geoengineering.”

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The World’s Largest Solar Geoengineering Study Is Launching in the U.S.

A Potential Solution?

A team of scientists from the United States is ready to send aerosol injections 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) up into the stratosphere to assess the technique’s feasibility as a technical fix for global warming. The purpose is to safely simulate the atmospheric cooling effects of a large volcanic eruption. The $20 million Harvard University project is the world’s largest solar geoengineering program ever, and it will launch within the next few weeks.

Technological Fixes for Climate Change
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The scientists behind the project intend to complete two small-scale dispersals by 2022. The first will disperse water into the stratosphere, and the second will disperse calcium carbonate particles. In the future, tests may include seeding the upper atmosphere with aluminum oxide or even the more exotic option: diamonds.

These techniques mimic the natural alterations to Earth’s normal radiation balance seen after large-scale volcanic eruptions. The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, for example, lowered global temperatures by 0.5 degrees Celsius (.9 degrees Fahrenheit). On the other hand, the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora cooled the Earth with more sinister results — disease, crop failure, and famine followed Europe’s “year without a summer” caused by that eruption. Indeed, a 2013 Met Office study warned that dispersing fine particles in the stratosphere could cause a disastrous drought in North Africa.

Stemming a Rising Tide

This unpredictable and possibly dangerous range of results is just one of the reasons the program is being met with opposition from within the scientific community. Unproven technical fixes should not take the focus away from mitigation efforts with proven results, but some critics fear that they might.

“[S]olar geoengineering is not the answer,” Kevin Trenberth, a lead author for the United Nation’s intergovernmental panel on climate change, told The Guardian. “Cutting incoming solar radiation affects the weather and hydrological cycle. It promotes drought. It destabilizes things and could cause wars. The side effects are many, and our models are just not good enough to predict the outcomes.”

Countries like China have been working hard to cut down on emissions and adopt clean energy solutions. And while official U.S. policy appears to now omit any discussion of climate change — if not deny human-driven climate change outright — a team of elite tech leaders in the U.S. is investing extensively in climate solutions with the goal of reducing emissions. The state of California is also continuing its work in emissions reduction, leading the rest of the U.S. in those efforts.

Even the scientists running the Harvard program acknowledge that geoengineering must be seen as a complement rather than a substitute for aggressive reduction of emissions. Still, they assert that it is essential that we know how geoengineering might work in case we should ever need to deploy it. Frank Keutsch, the atmospheric sciences professor leading the experiment, calls the deployment of a solar geoengineering system “a terrifying prospect.” However, he’s right when he adds, “At the same time, we should never choose ignorance over knowledge in a situation like this.”

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Technological Fixes for Climate Change

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