Geoengineering
Geoengineering
technology domain

Geoengineering

1
applications
7
stories
5
methods
updatedJun 25, 2021
image

Denis Freitas @ Envisioning

Geoengineering, the large-scale manipulation of a specific process central to controlling Earth’s climate for the purpose of obtaining a specific outcome or climate response.
Geoengineering, the large-scale manipulation of a specific process central to controlling Earth’s climate for the purpose of obtaining a specific outcome or climate response.

The origins of weather control are lost in the mists of time. It is found in the ancient myths, as the wind bag gifted to Odysseus by Aeolus, keeper of the winds, to be used during a lull in his journey home to Ithaca. And it is not confined within the realm of unreality. Rainmaking, popular with indigenous people, has been brought to fulfillment in the guise of a contraption called cloudbuster, with which the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich believed that it was possible to manipulate the 'orgone energy' present in the atmosphere and cause rainfall. These gizmos function on a regional scale, if it is true that they work at all. So what are we to make of rain making and cloud seeding in this moment of climate crisis? A global project.

Geoengineering, a polemic trend embraced by tech billionaires, is the potential candidate to assist in this gargantuan task. We are not in the realm of weather anymore, but at the apex of climate system. It is always worth remembering that weather is the condition of the atmosphere over a short period of time, whereas climate, under the computation systems eyes, is weather data compiled in large chunks of historical periods. In a nutshell, climate is the history of weather. Back to the trending, when we speak of geoengineering, we are speaking of large-scale manipulation of the environment in order to halt ―or at least mitigate― climate change induced mainly by human activity.

Earth & Fire

Despite the wide range of proposed techniques, it is practical to group them into two paramount groups: solar radiation management and carbon capture. It is not without reason. While the former, examined by Bill Gates in his last book, is a legendary sci-fi topos, the latter, another bet of Elon Musk (who has announced a prize of $ 100 million for the best application), is considered even by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as part of the solutions that keeps warming under 1.5 °C. The deployment of sun-dimming technology, contrary to what common sense dictates (the utter blot out of the sun) is in truth the enhancement of sun-reflecting capacity of clouds or surface, through spraying ice nuclei into the atmosphere or editing crops genome to increase the leaves reflection trait.

Carbon sequestration, in turn, can be carried out by huge array of fans laid out to sky, which might remove greenhouse gases by simply sucking them in. This technological solution is as epic or greater as the placement of giant mirrors along coordinates of space —that borders a techno-utopian dream—, even through it is feasible to launch small satellite-sized mirror modules into the orbit of Earth and assemble them as if they were parts of a space station. In any case, part of the difficulty for carbon sequestration technologies is how to store tons of gas. One of the most prominent proposals is injecting carbon directly into geological formations, trapping it for an indefinite amount of time.

Unintended Impacts

The climate is a system of significant magnitude, complex, which depends on a large apparatus to be evaluated. Climate control bets on how the data collected 'in the wild' is modeled and interpreted. Certainly, data analysis always fall short of perfection, due to neglected details situated 'in-between', not to mention the instabilities inherent in the analogical universe. Geoengineering solutions are built upon information accuracy, and can cause unpredictable collateral damage in regions not directly responsible for climate change. Nowadays strong pressure is exerted on the spread of climate justice gospel, and even though the tech billionaires initiatives are not cherry picking, economically or geographically, there is no guarantee that the effects of an application will not rebound in the most vulnerable parts of the world.

This may be felt, now with roles reversed, in the book The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson, the clashes between international powers and underdog interests are portrayed. Upon seeing his country devastated by a heat wave, the Indian government proposes, by breaking pledge agreements, a tech fix that consists of artificially reenacting the effects of the Pinatubo volcanic eruption of 1991, which, due to its massive scale, resulted in measurable cooling of the Earth's surface. In this fiction, the government's aim was to solve a local problem, because "no one else is fulfilling commitments, no one is paying the developing nations".

What Lies Ahead

The Pick of the Low-

You may want to consider low-tech solutions due to cost and implementation capacity, as natural geoengineering. It is proven that natural processes, such as photosynthesis by tropical trees and the absorption of carbon dioxide by ocean waters, remove and store more than half of the carbon emissions generated by human activities. Afforestation, the establishment of a forest in areas not previously forested, may be the most timely option at this time, hence the importance of initiatives such as Anti-pollution Moss Culture project. A more suitable option would be the restoring of entire ecosystems, which some affectionately call 'geotherapy'.

The Pick of the High-

On the side of high-tech the most promising geoengineering solution today is the combination of biomass burning with Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) technologies, a compound named Bio-energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). Imagine a huge forest, planted for energy production purposes, next to a factory equipped with chimneys capable of capturing the exhaust carbon and directing it underground. Proponents of this technology, including the IPCC, claim that a biomass draws carbon from the atmosphere as it grows. And its critics say that, in order to gain scale, it would require the planting of forest monocultures, taking the place of areas for food production.

1
applications
7
stories
5
methods

Methods

method
Enhanced Weathering

The process of applying crushed reactive silicate to the soil to capture large quantities of carbon dioxide. In addition to carbon's sequestering properties, crushed silicate rocks are rich in nutrients such as phosphorus, magnesium, and calcium, thus being useful for enhancing soil health. There are still, however, reasonable doubts about the effectiveness of enhanced weathering since its cost-benefit ratio in terms of carbon removal is still significantly worse than other approaches such as reforestation.

method
Tree-lined Desert Barrier

By planting large quantities of trees along the edges of deserts, sand particles would be blocked from spreading, and desertification could be better contained. The tree-lines also offer nutrients and could regionally distribute water, improving the environment for other plants and animals. Besides, these trees also create shade for the sustainable growth of different crops while cooling down the area. More recently, green walls have taken on additional importance for their potential to be a “carbon sink,” storing greenhouse gases that would otherwise find their way into the atmosphere and exacerbate global warming.

method
Albedo Enhancement

Enhancing localized albedo (surface reflectivity) is a geoengineering method used in regional climate change adaptation in urban and agricultural settings. By increasing the surface reflectivity of crops, solar radiation absorption is reduced, which in turn partially neutralizes the local warming effects of increased atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations while also conserving water resources. While this could reduce global warming effects or modify the regional climate, little is known today about the effects of increased reflectivity on the ecosystem. The albedo enhancement can be achieved with different strategies, ranging from the simple selection of specific strains of crops to manipulating crops with traditional breeding techniques or genetically modifying certain species. Approaches to enhance the albedo effect include adjusting leaves' waxiness, leaf canopy structure, or genetically changing plants’ hairs, cuticles, or glaucousness.

method
Ice Covering

Coatings made of nanotech films or small glass beads, which could be applied to the Antarctic or Arctic ice surface to enhance reflectivity. This type of coating absorbs less light and could be used to stop the ice from melting and reduce the impact of global warming on the Earth's polar caps. Another approach is to use regular plastic bags or other recycled materials to achieve the same reflectivity. This method, however, could have unintended consequences that would need to be dealt with. Anti-pollution efforts, for example, would be necessary to reduce the consequences of having plastics and other materials being discarded into the oceans. Local climate change could also affect wildlife in unforeseen ways as this geoengineering method is still being developed and understood.

method
Cirrus Cloud Thinning

By injecting ice-nucleating particles into cirrus clouds, the ice crystals could grow and reduce the cirrus optical depth, allowing more radiation to be reflected into outer space, potentially lowering the area's temperature. Clouds are natural barriers to the sun's radiation, filtering the energy that comes into and out of the planet. As such, manipulating clouds' composition could be one way to manage solar rays better, reducing the overall impact of climate change and global warming on Earth. By facilitating the formation of larger ice crystals with higher terminal velocities, ice crystals eventually falls out of the cloud, thereby depleting it. As a result, more outgoing long-wave radiation can pass back through the thinner cirrus clouds and escape into space, potentially cooling the area below and reducing temperatures.

Current Applications

Associated technology applications with TRL higher than or equal to 7. Current applications are at both prototype and product stages and more technically developed compared to Future Applications.
Associated technology applications with TRL higher than or equal to 7. Current applications are at both prototype and product stages and more technically developed compared to Future Applications.