Can Spraying Sulfur Into the Atmosphere Help Solve Global Warming?May 16, 2018
Scientists have come up with several intriguing and innovative plans to halt global warming. Many of these plans involve reflecting sunlight away from the planet to lower global temperatures — broadly referred to as ‘solar geoengineering’.
But there is one particular method of solar geoengineering that is getting everyone’s attention.
In a nutshell, the method involves using aircraft to disperse sulfur dioxide throughout a certain layer of the atmosphere known as the stratosphere. The sulfur dioxide will then combine with water vapor to form sulfate aerosols — fine particles that have reflective properties and will act like a myriad of minuscule mirrors. It is estimated that in practice they would reflect about one percent of the sunlight striking the Earth back out into space, helping to cool the Earth.
The interesting part is that many scientists concur that this crazy plan may actually work. But should we do it?
An Option Worth Considering
The success of the method has already been observed in nature, during the eruption of volcanoes. According to an article published on Harvard University’s Science in the News, during the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, enough aerosol was produced to cool global temperatures by roughly 1oF (~0.5oC) in the year following the eruption. Scientists believe this was due to the massive quantities of sulfur dioxide spewed into the air. So… the technique works.
The method would also be relatively cheap to implement. According to an article in the Atlantic, a mere 100 billion dollars could totally reverse anthropogenic climate change using the sulfur dioxide stratospheric injection method. Doing it by cutting carbon emissions, on the other hand, would cost around one trillion dollars yearly.
And finally, it’s the least bonkers of the solar geoengineering-based solutions. That’s right, the least crazy. Other plans include shooting 800,000 ceramic disks into space every five minutes for 10 years; or 1,500 ships slurping up sea water and throwing it into the sky in an effort to make the sky glutted with fluffy clouds that bounce off harmful radiation.
Why We Shouldn’t Do It
You wouldn’t be alone in thinking that messing around with finely tuned weather and climate patterns by spreading chemicals throughout the sky is a good idea. Of course, the method has many potential risks that, quite frankly, could lead to an epic environmental disaster.
For one thing, how long would we need to do it for? If we were to pull the pin on it too early, without doing anything else to curb CO2 emissions in the meantime, the Earth’s climate would likely spring back to its former temperatures, or worse. And according to climate scientist Alan Robock, this would happen rather rapidly. Upon cessation of the strategy, “you’d get all this extra sunlight and you’d quickly go back up to what the climate might have been without the geoengineering,” he said, in an article published by WIRED.
Others are concerned about the potential direct effects on the environment. That includes one of the method’s masterminds — David Keith. Even he is concerned that injecting tons and tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere could possibly disrupt precipitation patterns, or destroy the ozone layer, which is one of the Earth’s natural defense mechanisms. Others are concerned about large quantities of acid rain forming and raining down upon the planet. And what effect would such rapid changes in climate have on plants and animals, given that they adapt to conditions over long periods of time, not in short bursts? The impact on the environment could indeed be catastrophic.
And finally, there’s ethical dimensions to consider. Is it any one person’s/country’s right to make decisions that will affect the entire global population, or the weather patterns in different parts of the world? Are we trying to alter something that, in reality, we just can’t predict? What if it was irreversible?
A Colossal Conundrum
While it is true that engineering the climate may help to alleviate some of the effects of global warming, many are concerned that doing so amounts to playing with something we ought not. Others see it as a necessary step for protecting the Earth and the prosperity of future generations.
With little wonder then, scientists are hesitant. And, as highlighted in an article by Space.com, there are no current research programs in the United States or Europe that are studying the potential consequences of geoengineering.
So, what do you think? Should we, or shouldn’t we?