The Hot Zone

Engineering the skies

Posted by Alison Hawkes on August 10, 2010
Category : The man made climate

One favorite geo-engineering trick to stabilize the climate is to increase the amount of sunlight reflected back into space by pumping aerosols into the atmosphere, known as solar radiation management.

While that might counter global warming to some extent, a new research paper published last month in the journal Nature Geoscience finds that it’s no solution to the planet’s climate woes and may in fact cause certain parts of the world to receive less precipitation, even as global temperatures stabilize.

Researchers led by the engineering department at Carnegie Mellon University examined land temperature and precipitation differences in 23 regions. In some places, like Australia and eastern Africa, precipitation remains nearly the same as business-as-usual levels under solar radiation management. But other places, like Canada and northern Asia, precipitation rates would drop off below baseline levels.

In other words, monkeying around with solar radiation would not revert the whole planet back to the norm. If the goal is to restore late-twentieth century climate, this is no way to do it. It only gets worse with time, by 2070 these differences become acute.

China and India, for example, move in opposite directions, with China becoming warmer and drier and India becoming cooler and wetter, relative to the norm.

“Although it may be possible to “fine tune” the hydrological response by injecting aerosols with different optical properties at different latitudes or altitudes, no proposal yet exists for how this might be implemented in practice and some variability remains inevitable,” write the researchers.

They warn that these differences in regional response would make international negotiations even more sticky than they already are. After all, for who’s climate are you normalizing? And since just one or two countries would be in charge of implementing solar radiation management technologies, that gives them a lot of power.

“In other words, as the level of modification required to compensate for anthropogenic greenhouse gas forcing increases, the relative appeal of different levels of [solar radiation management] depends on the region considered and the variable (temperature or precipitation) that is deemed most important.”

Other problems? Solar radiation management would not solve the other issues inherent in higher CO2 levels, since they would presumably remain the same or be increasing. Earthly life forms would still be impacted, and the oceans would continue to acidify.

-Alison Hawkes

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