Evidence Against Geoengineering

Though we like to tinker with our environment, the results of our experiments may be out of line with our goals.

Hello everyone. I’ve held off from blogging for a few weeks because of a heavy work load, but I’m glad I did in a way, because several news stories turned up that have to do with one another, and I like to comment on these things all at once.

As regular readers know, I often write about climate change, its effects on the Earth, the oceans and especially reefs. Since I’ve been away from blogging, three interesting reports touched on topics relevant to the issue of climate change and especially “geoengineering,” or intentionally attempting to alter Earth’s climate to achieve a desired result.

In the case of global climate change, this term refers to plans to alter Earth’s climate to slow down, halt or even reverse the effects of climate change.

As predictions of increased global temperatures point to our inability to rein in temperatures simply by cutting greenhouse gas emissions, some claim additional, more proactive measures should be taken.

I’ve written about this in the past (see my blog entry, “Coral Reef Sunburn” for information about some of the ideas that have been proposed), and I have to admit, I’m quite skeptical about the idea of “engineering” our environment to suit our needs.

That said, we already alter our environment on a massive scale, so I understand why some are so quick to rely on geoengineering as a potential tool to mitigate climate change.

While there are those who don’t believe anthropogenic global warming is a real phenomenon, most people seem to agree that the planet is in the midst of a significant warming trend.

As such, it stands to reason that regardless of what we think is causing global climate change, we will be increasingly receptive to the idea of intentionally altering our planet’s climate to suit our collective needs.

However, as I noted in my “Coral Reef Sunburn” blog entry, “While we might be able to foresee some problems and compensate for unintended consequences, I believe we would inevitably make mistakes, possibly to our own detriment.”

I think we could potentially harm our own interests in attempting to use geoengineering to alter the Earth’s climate.

And now it looks like I have a some research to back up that idea.

First, in the journal Science published March 12, Dr. Lou Codispoti, an oceanographer from the University of Maryland points out that aquatic “dead zones” (for more information about dead zones, see my blog entry “The Serious Business of Aqua Farming”) produce elevated levels of nitrous oxide which can make its way into the atmosphere and exacerbate climate change, possibly even leading to an increase in “ozone holes,” or areas of the ozone that are “thinner” relative to other areas.

As human activity is often blamed for the appearance and growth of these low-oxygen dead zones, I find it interesting that our actions in this case may have unintended consequences for the climate.

But what about intended consequences? Sure, we didn’t mean to help create these low-oxygen dead zones, but what if we tried instituting policies to fix these kinds of environmental and climate-related problems?

Two reports speak exactly to this kind of scenario, and in both cases, the prospects for our reordering of our environment don’t look so promising.

A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) found that seeding the oceans with iron with the goal of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere in the shells of phytoplankton leads to significantly higher chances of unintentionally producing toxic diatom blooms.

The idea of seeding the oceans has been around for a while, and I covered the topic in my blog entry “Coral Reef Sunburn” (see the section below the subhead “Iron-Built Ice Ages?”).

Unfortunately, the “whoops” result of producing a highly toxic compound (in fact, one of the most toxic compounds found in nature) points to the fact that our actions frequently have both intended and unintended consequences.

Also, a new study conducted by Andreas Oschlies (among others), a professor from the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences, found that attempts to pump nutrient-rich water to the ocean’s surfaces (with much the same goal of adding iron directly to the surface) to mitigate climate change would have little positive benefit, and could potentially have negative effects on climate if things went wrong.

I encourage readers to look these topics up and read relevant news reports related to the research I’ve mentioned.

In all of these cases, it is the unintended consequences of our actions that are standing out as potentially damaging our environment. We may have the best intentions in the world (we’re supposed to be trying to save it, after all), but our actions often fall far short of achieving our goals.

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