Can Giant Space Sun Shields Prevent Global Warming?

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solar geoengineering

It’s no secret that the situation of the planet with respect to global warming has become very dire. Every new week we get to hear of yet another warning from the scientific community that we are lagging dangerously behind in our efforts to reduce our species’ carbon footprint. And every time the doomsday scenario predicted for the planet’s future grows increasingly bleaker. Enter Solar Geoengineering.

Getting Creative With The Solution

planet shield
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With normal methods of prevention failing, scientists are looking to increasingly creative routes to curb global warming. Solutions that appear plucked straight out of the pages of a science fiction novel. In the latest news from Harvard University, Cambridge, researcher Zhen Dai plans to spray sunlight-reflecting particles into the upper atmosphere to partially block out the sun’s heat rays.

For a small-scale demonstration, Dai adds water to a small glass tube coated with calcium carbonate. The resulting group of particles is light in weight while also being light-reflective. The question now is, can a mass of these particles surrounding the Earth’s atmosphere help protect the planet from the Sun’s heat rays?

Story Inspired By Real Events

In case the idea seems too bizarre to make any sense in the real world, know that a version of the idea has already been shown to occur in nature. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines, injecting an estimated 20 million tonnes of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere.

The resulting haze of sulfate particles in the upper reaches of the atmosphere cooled the entire Earth’s surface temperature by half a degree Celsius. In case that seems like a small amount, the resulting cooling brought the Earth’s temperature down to where it had been before the arrival of the first steam engine.

The idea of a heat-reflecting shield covering the Earth’s atmosphere is not new. It’s been kicked around at the edges of the discussions which revolve around stopping global warming for decades. But in the past, there were more straightforward methods to try out. Now, most scientists agree that we are rapidly running out of the more sober options.

Reaching The Prototype Stage

scopex
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The team from Harvard plan to bring their modestly scaled experiments in sun-shielding to the 3-million dollar prototype stage. The SCoPEx (Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment) is the first phase of the project. It involves sending two flights of a steerable balloon into the upper atmosphere over the Southwest United States.

The balloons will reach a certain height before releasing small amounts of Calcium Carbonate into the area and the machine will then observe the particle dispersal patterns. Considering the eventual applications hoped for, the project itself can seem very modest. But it will be mankind’s first attempt at solar geoengineering.

Not Everyone Is Onboard

Given the radical newness of the project, not everyone is convinced it’s a good idea. There are some ethical, political and scientific doubts that have been raised about trying to create a global heat shield in this manner.

The makeup of the shield itself has come under attack as well, with experts pointing out that sulfate particles, so far the popular choice when it comes to discussions about a heat shield, deplete the natural ozone layer and get warmed when hit by sun rays.

A massively heated, global heat shield can thus negatively affect the moisture content in the atmosphere while also possibly altering the jet stream patterns worldwide.

There is also the fact that it can be very difficult to control the movement of the particles that make up the shield. If the sulfate cloud moves to another area of the sky, it can block out the sun rays needed to grow crops over the new area, and also stop natural light from reaching the less developed areas where natural lighting is crucial.

Waiting And Watching

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Despite the arguments against solar geoengineering, the Harvard team is determined to carry on with their project. As they point out, SCoPEx is a very modestly scaled experiment, hardly capable of affecting the global atmosphere in any significant way. If the project succeeds, they will be able to gather valuable data regarding their theories. If it fails, they can move on to searching for better alternatives.

For now, the project is largely out of the view of the public and world governments. But if the SCoPEx balloons are able to achieve the desired effect, solar geoengineering will suddenly become a much more believable and viable option to fight global warming. And that is when the ethical and political discussions regarding it will really begin.

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