Researchers are exploring ways to possibly change Earth's atmosphere to counteract climate change. Will they work, and at what cost and what trade-offs?
It sounds like weird science, but experts — and the CIA — are investigating whether they can manipulate the environment to halt global warming.
Organizations including UNESCO, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Federation have conducted research to address climate change, but current efforts to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming Earth are falling short. Two of the most vivid examples are the continued disappearance of Arctic sea ice and extreme weather.
The National Science Foundation reports that the planet is warmer than it’s been during 70 percent to 80 percent of the past 11,300 years, and if the trend continues, temperatures will rise between 2 and 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.
Now scientists are suggesting geoengineering — large-scale manipulations of the environment to counteract climate change.
“The concept has gained recent attention as a possible backstop measure if other strategies, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, to counter climate change are not successful,” William Kearney, spokesman for the National Academy of Sciences, told MSN via email.
The NAS received $631,000 from several governmental agencies, including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the CIA, to evaluate research related to two geoengineering technologies: solar radiation and carbon dioxide removal, as originally reported by Mother Jones.
Solar radiation attempts to use artificial methods to reduce the amount of sunlight hitting Earth. The methods could include releasing billions of aluminized balloons into the stratosphere to act as a reflective screen or using aircraft to release stratospheric sulfur aerosols to modify the amount of solar energy reflected from the Earth back into space.
As the name suggests, carbon dioxide removal seeks to remove the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. The technologies for this include capturing carbon dioxide and compressing and storing it in geologic reservoirs, or adding iron sulfate to seawater to create algae blooms that absorb carbon in a process known as ocean iron fertilization.
Related: Climate change threatens food supply
The CIA is helping fund the research because the NAS also plans to evaluate “the national security concerns (that could be) related to geoengineering technologies being deployed somewhere in the world,” Kearney said.
In an emailed statement, Christopher White, a spokesman for the CIA's office of public affairs, told MSN, “On a subject like climate change, the agency works with scientists to better understand the phenomenon and its implications on national security.”
Although the CIA and the NAS are tight-lipped about what these concerns might be, one researcher notes that geoengineering has the potential to deliberately disrupt the weather for terrorist or military goals.
John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based firm that specializes in addressing emerging security concerns, says that worries about the potential impact of geoengineering aren't as paramount as the potential security issues that could arise if the United States doesn't use the technology.
“A failure to engage in geoengineering could impact the political stability of other countries, and that could lead to trouble for the U.S.,” he said.
Other countries have already tried geoengineering. In China, cloud seeding, a process of dropping particles containing super-cooled water into clouds, where it dissipates and falls to the ground as rain, was reportedly used during the 2008 Olympics to force dark clouds to release rain before they reached Beijing.
As a means of providing “a clear scientific foundation for ethical, legal and political discussions surrounding geoengineering,” Kearney says, NAS scientists will be examining existing studies that have been published in peer-reviewed journals. Their goal is to gain a better grasp of what is understood — and unknown — about the technologies.
The project is expected to run for 21 months. All of the research is unclassified, and a full report, which will include recommendations for additional research related to geoengineering, will be available to the public when the project is completed in 2015.
One open question is how geoengineering could affect the environment.
A 2012 study published in Environmental Research Letters found that although solar radiation technologies could be effective in reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth’s surface, the practice would not reduce greenhouse gases. In addition, researchers at Stanford University note that there are environmental concerns about ocean fertilization, including potential disruptions to marine ecosystems.
There also are concerns about the cost of these technologies. The research published in Environmental Research Letters found that it would cost $5 billion annually to put solar radiation into practice.
Join MSN News on social