Monday, 7 May 2012

New Yorker article: the climate fixers

Long New Yorker article on CE mentions SPICE:

Overall, an interesting and thought provoking article that paints SPICE in a light that I believe represents us and our intentions fairly. Here's the bit (p2 of 7) that cites Hugh.

'The Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering project, or SPICE, is a British academic consortium that seeks to mimic the actions of volcanoes like Pinatubo by pumping particles of sulfur dioxide, or similar reflective chemicals, into the stratosphere through a twelve-mile-long pipe held aloft by a balloon at one end and tethered, at the other, to a boat anchored at sea.

The consortium consists of three groups. At Bristol University, researchers led by Matt Watson, a professor of geophysics, are trying to determine which particles would have the maximum desired impact with the smallest likelihood of unwanted side effects. Sulfur dioxide produces sulfuric acid, which destroys the ozone layer of the atmosphere; there are similar compounds that might work while proving less environmentally toxic—including synthetic particles that could be created specifically for this purpose. At Cambridge, Hugh Hunt and his team are trying to determine the best way to get those particles into the stratosphere. A third group, at Oxford, has been focussing on the effect such an intervention would likely have on the earth’s climate.

Hunt and I spoke in Cambridge, at Trinity College, where he is a professor of engineering and the Keeper of the Trinity College clock, a renowned timepiece that gains or loses less than a second a month. In his office, dozens of boomerangs dangle from the wall. When I asked about them, he grabbed one and hurled it at my head. “I teach three-dimensional dynamics,’’ he said, flicking his hand in the air to grab it as it returned. Hunt has devoted his intellectual life to the study of mechanical vibration. His Web page is filled with instructive videos about gyroscopes, rings wobbling down rods, and boomerangs.

“I like to demonstrate the way things spin,’’ he said, as he put the boomerang down and picked up an inflated pink balloon attached to a string. “The principle is pretty simple.” Holding the string, Hunt began to bobble the balloon as if it were being tossed by foul weather. “Everything is fine if it is sitting still,’’ he continued, holding the balloon steady. Then he began to wave his arm erratically. “One of the problems is that nothing is going to be still up there. It is going to be moving around. And the question we’ve got is . . . this pipe”—the industrial hose that will convey the particles into the sky—“is going to be under huge stressors.’’ He snapped the string connected to the balloon. “How do you know it’s not going to break? We are really pushing things to the limit in terms of their strength, so it is essential that we get the dynamics of motion right.’’

Most scientists, even those with no interest in personal publicity, are vigorous advocates for their own work. Not this group. “I don’t know how many times I have said this, but the last thing I would ever want is for the project I have been working on to be implemented,’’ Hunt said. “If we have to use these tools, it means something on this planet has gone seriously wrong.’’

Last fall, the SPICE team decided to conduct a brief and uncontroversial pilot study. At least they thought it would be uncontroversial. To demonstrate how they would disperse the sulfur dioxide, they had planned to float a balloon over Norfolk, at an altitude of a kilometre, and send a hundred and fifty litres of water into the air through a hose. After the date and time of the test was announced, in the middle of September, more than fifty organizations signed a petition objecting to the experiment, in part because they fear that even to consider engineering the climate would provide politicians with an excuse for avoiding tough decisions on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Opponents of the water test pointed out the many uncertainties in the research (which is precisely why the team wanted to do the experiment). The British government decided to put it off for at least six months.

“When people say we shouldn’t even explore this issue, it scares me,’’ Hunt said. He pointed out that carbon emissions are heavy, and finding a place to deposit them will not be easy. “Roughly speaking, the carbon dioxide we generate weighs three or four times as much as the fuel it comes from.” That means that a short round-trip journey—say, eight hundred miles—by car, using two tanks of gas, produces three hundred kilograms of carbon dioxide. “This is ten heavy suitcases from one short trip,’’ Hunt said. “And you have to store it where it can’t evaporate.

“So I have three questions, Where are you going to put it? Who are you going to ask to dispose of this for you? And how much are you reasonably willing to pay them to do it?” he continued. “There is nobody on this planet who can answer any of those questions. There is no established place or technique, and nobody has any idea what it would cost. And we need the answers now.”

Hunt stood up, walked slowly to the window, and gazed at the manicured Trinity College green. “I know this is all unpleasant,’’ he said. “Nobody wants it, but nobody wants to put high doses of poisonous chemicals into their body, either. That is what chemotherapy is, though, and for people suffering from cancer those poisons are often their only hope. Every day, tens of thousands of people take them willingly—because they are very sick or dying. This is how I prefer to look at the possibility of engineering the climate. It isn’t a cure for anything. But it could very well turn out to be the least bad option we are going to have.’’
Shame about the volcanology at the beginning...(!). I guess he meant ashfall....

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