Monday, March 24, 2008

Terraforming Earth

Since I am nearly always behind technologically, or even on technological information, I didn't realize that a concept I used in a story last year has a name. The story was "The Rules" (ASIMOV'S, December), and it featured a way to lessen global warming by increasing the reflection of sunlight back to space. The name is "geoengineering." What I also didn't realize was the in 2006 a Nobel winner, Paul Crutzen, published an editorial outlining an even more radical way to lessen global warming: release a lot of sulfurous debris into the atmosphere. This would create a haze that would lower global temperatures, much as happens naturally when major volcanic eruptions release vast clouds of sulfurous particles.

Not having read Crutzen's original article, I don't know if he was exploring this idea, suggesting it, or advocating it. It has a lot of science-fictional appeal: it's huge, dangerous, and hubristic ("We are become as gods.") Certainly it would lend itself to SF-story material (which I may or may not use someday). But Dr. Crutzen is not an SF writer. He says more research is needed before any action is taken (well, yes), but when a Nobel Prize winner proposes an idea with any degree of seriousness, people tend to listen.

It would mean high maintenance -- we'd have to keep on dumping in haze to keep the cooling effect. And then we'd get all the other effects, known and unknown, of a hazy, sulfur-filled atmosphere. Plus some pretty spectacular sunsets.

Less seriously, in my small corner of the world, we could use some global warming. It is still snowing in Rochester, New York, and will be all week. Perhaps for the next month. Seemingly forever.


Elver said...

Here is a good 16-minute talk about the subject. At the TED conference. (That website has a huge number of short talks by really, really smart people.)

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Remember the "nuclear winter" idea of the '70s? Turned out the whole deal was a KGB-engineered hoax, but let's imagine there's truth in it...
Let's ignite the biggest hydrogen bombs we have in Alaska, the Yukon, Siberia, and the Australian Outback. That should kick enough dust up into the upper atmosphere to cool things off. (That's if there's anything to chill anyway. The planet's weather is =incredibly= complicated, and I do not believe we understand it yet. Politicians like Algore =love= scientific ambiguity. No "crisis', no reason for them to prance upon the world stage.)

But anyway, when I win the Nobel Peace Prize for this wonderful idea, I will take everyone out for dinner! A really nice place, too!

Icarus said...

Well that's it then! You've got my vote!

(Say, when do they send out those Nobel ballots again? Or do I have to register for the convention to vote?)

Nancy Kress said...

Elver-- That's a really fascinating talk by the very articulate and thoughtful David Keith -- thank you for pointing it out.

BuffySquirrel said...

Last time the atmosphere filled with volcanic dust, people in Europe dropped dead while working in the fields. Can't say a rerun appeals.

The Pondering Tree's Alpha Site said...

bluesman beat me to the punch on the nuclear solution to "global warming."

S. F. Murphy

Mike Flynn said...

in my small corner of the world, we could use some global warming. It is still snowing in Rochester, New York, and will be all week. Perhaps for the next month. Seemingly forever.

Alas, the sun has gone out. Solar Cycle 23 went out with a whimper and Cycle 24 is late: so far a single sunspot. The plasma "conveyor" on the sun is sluggish, and most astrophysicists predict a quiet Cycle 24, should it ever get going, followed by a quiet 25. Last time we had two weak cycles, we had the Dalton Minimum. There has been a net cooling since 1998 and no secular trend since 2000. The earth's geomagnetic global index - measuring solar disturbances to our magnetosphere - downshifted very abruptly in Oct 2005. This, following a roughly 50-year-long "Grand Solar Max."

As one Russian astrophysicist said: Buy fur coats.

Nancy Kress said...

I need some translation. What is the Dalton Minimum? Why do fewer sunspots mean global cooling? And are you being serious? Remember, I'm not a scientist!

Elver said...

Dalton Minimum was a time of low solar activity in the early 1800s. It supposedly correlated with lower global temperatures, but I wouldn't put much faith in the validity of that era's data gathering. (I was coming from the airport about 2 hours ago and on my way I saw thermometers claiming outside temperatures between -3C and +1C. And we live in a bloody digital age.)

Sunspots are an indicator of solar activity.

Mike is referring to a controversial idea put forth by some scientists that global warming / global cooling has little to do with human activity and a lot to do with solar activity. Having followed climate research for a while, I've seen papers that push this idea and papers that demolish this idea.

In any case, we've had rather low solar activity for a while and arctic ice levels are the smallest we've ever measured them. But if sun's activity really has that big an effect, it should be getting colder, not warmer. Meaning more arctic ice. But what we're seeing is the exact opposite.

And Mike, nuclear winter is certainly not "a KGB-engineered hoax". Fallout from nuclear blasts is entirely real. Fallout from hydrogen bombs is actually much worse than from standard fission bombs, because hydrogen bombs work as sort of multi-stage fission-fusion-fission devices: standard nuclear implosion device goes off, which compresses a container full of fusion fuel making it undergo fusion (and boosts the bomb's yield by less than 20%). The hydrogen bomb's huge power actually comes from the fusion fuel being in a container made of fissile materials (commonly uranium) which is where the 100% and bigger improvement in yield comes from.

And this creates a lot of deadly, radioactive fallout.

Mike Flynn said...

Nan: What is the Dalton Minimum? Why do fewer sunspots mean global cooling?

MikeF: there is a close correlation first noted by Danish astrophysicists a number of years ago between the length of the sunspot cycle and the global temperature anomaly (deviations from a specified baseline). Basically, the "sun beat" ran faster from 1910s to 1940s [shorter cycles], slowed down from the 1940s to 1970s [longer cycles], then sped up again from the 1970s to the 2000s. Now it appears it may be slowing up again. This matches the increasing temperatures before 1940, the dropping temps to 1970, and the increasing temps to 1998, and the dropping temps since 1998. The sun has also been going through a roughly 50-year Grand Max, more active than for the past several centuries. There appears to be some connection between solar activity, the solar wind, deflections of the earth's magnetosphere, and cosmic rays passing through the magnetosphere to form clouds to cool the earth.

A lot of what I've seen in passing on this comes out of Scandanavia and Russia, where interest in colder climate is probably more immediate. Astrophysicists as a group have been more skeptical of the computer models than others, basically because the took no account of the sun.

We shall see. Temps are down since 1998 and steady since 2000. Last year they dropped like a rock, falling more in a single year than they have climbed in a century. [BUT, year-to-year variation is always greater than the trend line.] Some astrophysicists predict a cold cycle into 2030 then an upturn to about 2060. Time will tell.

Also, if you heat something up and then turn off the heat, it remains hot for a while after. Greenhouse effect.

Nancy Kress said...

Elver and Mike, thank you both for the explanations. Even though you don't agree and I'm more confused than ever, I appreciate the information.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Elver, sorry I didn't express myself well.

I wasn't referring to =fallout=. I was thinking of the idea that the dust kicked-up by a nuclear war would put enough dust in the upper atmosphere to cause a new Ice Age.

Not my idea, bro--I ain't that smart =or= morbid! (horrified smiley)

But the nuclear winter ah-deer rested upon a 7-step chain of causation. If =one= link broke, the whole chain was invalid.

Every link broke =independently.= It was nonsense.

But the KGB (first article appeared in a Soviet journal) lived to create dissention in the West. "Get me the file of Useful Idiots...")

Thank you, Almighty God, Ronald Reagan and Lady Thatcher stood fast in Freedom's time of peril.