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Countering climate change

Speed read
  • We aren’t acting fast enough to prevent dangerous human-caused global warming
  • Geoengineering could slow climate change by altering the global environment
  • Advanced climate models let scientists see how proposed interventions might work

“Climate change is happening. It’s real. It’s our fault because we’re putting a lot of carbon in the atmosphere. And we are not doing a lot to stop doing that.”

Ben Kravitz, professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Indiana University explains how geoengineering could potentially be used to halt the effects of climate change.

This blunt realism is courtesy of Dr. Ben Kravitz, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Indiana University. Although he’s a bright and cheery individual, he doesn’t mince words about climate issues.

What’s more, Kravitz is quite direct about the solution to climate change. He says the only way to fully solve this problem is to stop putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. No shortcuts. No easy way out.

<strong>Introducing saltwater to clouds</strong> in coastal areas could help reflect sunlight, thereby reducing temperatures and helping to offset global warming. However, Kravitz is curious about other ways to mitigate climate change until we can rein in our polluting habits. One area that interests him is geoengineering. This is the speculative science of altering our environment to limit shifts in our current climate. For example, introducing saltwater to marine clouds off the coast of California could help reflect sunlight.

Purposefully altering the climate might seem like mad science, but researchers like Kravitz are aware of both the risks and the rewards.

How do you engineer the world?

It’s important to note that no one has actually performed any climate-altering geoengineering experiments in the real world. Kravitz’s work is confined to computer models.

Climate models are run on massively parallel supercomputers,” says Kravitz. “The minimum resources I know how to run a climate model on these days is 64 processors. I’ve run jobs on thousands of processors.

And that’s just the smaller end of the scale. More sophisticated models coming out of the US Department of Energy and National Science Foundation have used up to 96,000 processors.

One natural occurrence that interests Kravitz from a modelling standpoint is the change in climate following a volcano.

<strong>When a volcano erupts</strong>, sulfur compounds are introduced to the upper atmosphere. The tiny particles are highly reflective and send a percentage of sunlight back into space, causing the planet to cool.“Large volcanic eruptions put a bunch of sulfur compounds in the upper atmosphere,” says Kravitz. “As it happens, sulfur compounds turn into really tiny particles and those particles are highly reflective. They send a percent of sunlight back up to space. And we’ve observed that after those eruptions, the planet cools.”

“Recently I was working on a model where we were putting sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere and letting it oxidize,” he continues. “There’s a lot of chemistry in letting the particles grow as well as a lot of microphysics. We modeled the quasi-biennial oscillation, where there’s an internal oscillation in the atmosphere. To do that properly, you need a really high resolution. We initially used 10 million core hours to produce our set of simulations. Then, we took that simulation and we ran 20 more of them to create a community resource for people to look at.”

Even without plans for a real-world application, Kravitz believes that simply asking the question opened his mind to future possibilities.

“The first time I heard about geoengineering I thought, ‘This is crazy—who wants to do this?’” he says. “And then I started thinking about it more. It’s a fascinating science topic. I’ve been able to ask questions about climate science that I never knew I wanted to ask.”

Scientists don’t make the decisions

Regardless of his personal feelings on the study of geoengineering, Kravitz is quick to point out that scientists like him aren’t in charge.

<strong>Experimenting with radical methods</strong> via simulated models allows scientists to safely explore innovative solutions to big problems like climate change.“As a scientist, I’m not going to be at the table when governments make a decision on whether they implement geoengineering or not,” says Kravitz. “But, hopefully, they’re listening to some of the things that I have to say. And when they decide to do this, I’d like it if their decision is based on really solid information. That’s my job.”

Although Kravitz believes in the scientific search for truth, he also recognizes the reality of the world he lives in. We’ve been hearing about climate change for decades now, and the world still hasn’t taken the action we need to survive. Sadly, more data may not be the answer.

More information doesn’t always help,” says Kravitz. “We’ve fallen into that trap in terms of climate change. How many hearings have there been on climate change where we say ‘It’s happening and it’s our fault’? And people keep ignoring it. It’s because they don’t want to believe.”

Kravitz will continue with his search for the truth behind potential geoengineering solutions. It’s his job to find and report on scientific information. It’s our job to listen to it. As it turns out, that last part is a lot harder than it seems.

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