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Geo-Engineering Applications

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  • 11-Jul-09 Geo-Engineering (Part 3): Overcoming the Next Ice Age
  • 04-Jul-09 Geo-Engineering (Part 2)
  • SEPP Science Editorial #21-2009
    (in TWTW Jul 11, 2009)

    S. Fred Singer, Chairman and President , Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP)

    Geo-Engineering (Part 3): Overcoming the Next Ice Age

    Jul 11, 2009

    The most interesting application for climate geo-engineering might be to overcome the next ice age. Milankovich astronomical theory and also the experience of the last 2 million years suggest that the current interglacial period (Holocene) will soon come to an end and that the earth will soon enter into another glaciation. Alarms of an imminent ice age have been raised from time to time, for example in the 1970s after a prolonged period of climate cooling, and even more recently as the climate cooled slightly in the past few years. One needs to distinguish, however, between a Little Ice Age that may be part of a more-orless regular 1,500-year cycle (and likely related to solar activity) and a true ice age that relates to a change in solar irradiance brought about by changes in earth's orbit, axis inclination and precession.

    Not everyone agrees that such a Milankovich glaciation is imminent. For example, Andre Berger et al believe it might be as much as 40,000 years away. In any case, everyone agrees that a glaciation would bring about unprecedented hardship to the world, including crop failures, starvation - and wipe out much of the earth's human population.

    The accepted mechanism for the initiation for a glaciation is the survival of a snow field at high northern latitudes during the summer, with feedback (due to increased albedo and cooling) enlarging the snow and ice area gradually over the years to cover much of the Northern Hemisphere. This effect may be the "Achilles heel" of glaciation. Can it be stopped before it spreads?

    The geo-engineering task would consist of three phases: (1) a more detailed studied of the Milankovich glaciation mechanism; (2) setting up a protocol for satellite search for surviving snowfields; (3) field experiments with soot dispersal to decrease the albedo and cause the disappearance of snowfields so they absorb solar radiation instead of reflecting it.

    1. A search of climate literature suggests that the sensitive region for initiation of an ice age is in the vicinity of 56 deg North latitude, which would place it into Canada, Scandinavia, or Siberia. The coldest areas in these regions are likely to be at the higher altitudes, which narrows the search to particular locations. Since the initiation mechanism depends on the survival of high-albedo snowfields throughout the whole summer, one can search existing data sources for such locations and define others where the duration of a high-albedo snowfield might extend well into the summer before melting. It may turn out that the initiation mechanism is more complicated and depends on being kicked-off by a century or even a decades-long period (like a Little Ice Age) -- or perhaps even by a major volcanic eruption like the one that led to the very cold summer of 1816 - that promotes the survival of the initiating snowfield.

    2. Once the likely locations are defined, one can set up a protocol whereby weather satellites can routinely observe and track the albedo in these regions, locate snow fields that survive during the summer and expand from year to year -- and alert decision makers on the possibility of an ice-age initiation. This task seems fairly routine and could be initiated with existing resources.

    3. Finally one would like to demonstrate the feasibility of artificially melting and removing a snowfield. This task would investigate the technical resources needed and define the details and costs of such an operation. One possibility that comes to mind will be to use crop-duster planes to distribute soot material over the snow field and observe the rate of melting, comparing it to what would be expected from theory. Such field experiments could be usefully conducted while the other parts of the project are proceeding. The end result would be to demonstrate a reliable means of overcoming the initiation of a future ice age. The geo-engineering operation of removing the high-albedo snow fields might have to be done year after year until the astronomical conditions change sufficiently so that the sun itself could operate to remove the possibility of an ice age.

    View The Week That Was in which this editorial appeared.

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    SEPP Science Editorial #20-2009
    (in TWTW Jul 4, 2009)

    S. Fred Singer, Chairman and President , Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP)

    Geo-Engineering (Part 2)

    Jul 4, 2009

    Once one accepts that the human contribution to climate change is minimal, there is really no necessity for geo-engineering. The only exception that I can think of would be to overcome the onset of a major ice age.

    Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to study various schemes and try to arrive at realistic cost estimates. Here we would like to look at "air capture" of carbon dioxide as a way of ameliorating or overcoming anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

    At first glance, air capture would seem to be impractical and extremely costly. It may well be, but one needs to research the subject more closely. The general idea was first expounded by Lackner, K. S., Grimes, P., and Ziock, H. J. (2001); Capturing carbon dioxide from air; in Proceedings of the First National Conference on Carbon Sequestration, Washington, DC.

    A recent Ph.D. thesis at Carnegie Mellon University has produced a detailed examination of an engineering scheme to effect air capture and provided some credible cost estimates. These range widely, from about $80 to $230 for a ton of carbon sequestered. The author expresses the hope that these costs might be reduced in practice. One can suggest various ways of lowering the cost. Since CO2 is globally distributed, one can place the sequestering units at the most favorable locations. These might be where winds are strong and steady, where cheap energy is available to recycle the sequestering chemical agents, and where there exist ready commercial uses for CO2. One possibility that comes to mind is to co-locate the units with a wind-turbine installation. This combination might provide cheap power, since winds are strong and steady, but does not require great reliability in power supply.


    In the next editorial we will discuss a proposal to overcome the occurrence of a future ice age. Such a glaciation is almost certain to happen relatively soon and would constitute a true disaster for most of mankind.

    View The Week That Was in which this editorial appeared.

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