Are we approaching the day when man will send a fleet of satellites into space to deflect the sun's radiation? And how is it related to the eruption of a volcano in Indonesia and the story of Frankenstein's monster?
In April 1815, the Tambora volcano erupted on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. This was the largest volcanic eruption in modern times: hundreds of millions of tons of particles floated in the air, buried the inhabitants of the villages near the volcano, dispersed to enormous distances and caused enormous damage to agriculture, which was followed by a deadly famine.
But as the art from the period attests, the particle clouds created magnificent and unusual celestial sights not only in Indonesia - but also in Europe. The far-reaching consequences of the eruption caused an effect known as "a year without summer" around the world: the particle cloud caused an average drop of one whole degree on the surface of the earth. This temporary but significant climate change is a source of inspiration, and perhaps a warning light, for the busy minds looking for solutions to the climate crisis we are all experiencing now.
Satellites are equipped with mirrors
Prof. Yoav Yair, Dean of the School of Sustainability at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, explains that the Tambora volcano is a successful example of how nature changes the climate - in a limited, but dramatic way. Yair mentions that in 1991 the Pinatubo volcano erupted in the Philippines, albeit with a lesser intensity than that of Tambora, but it also caused cooling in the Northern Hemisphere, and in Israel the winter of 1992 was one of the rainiest in history.
"We know what happens when a large amount of small particles are introduced into the stratosphere (the second layer of the atmosphere, where the ozone layer is also located - s.h.), which return the sun's radiation to space and cool the earth," says Yair. "In the XNUMXs, they ran computerized mathematical models of climate and atmospheric flow to know what would happen as a result of a nuclear war, which would create huge fires and smog, which in fact imitate the volcanic emission." The result, known as "nuclear winter", was very frightening and probably stopped the nuclear arms race.
The mathematical models from the bedroom apartments from the XNUMXs play a role in innovative attempts to curb global warming through what is known as "climate engineering" or geoengineering. "Aside from the attempts to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by changing the energy economy and switching to renewable energy, scientists come and say that there is a quick solution that does not require a change in the old habits," says Yair, "In their opinion, the climate crisis can be solved by means that are based on a case The volcano and the mathematical models".
Climate engineering It is divided into two main strategies: the first is reducing the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere by removing it - carbon removal (a method known as Carbon Dioxide Removal), and the second is increasing the return of solar radiation to the outside of the earth or "solar radiation management". One of the proposed carbon removal methods is simple, and is based on increasing the amount of vegetation on Earth so that it performs more photosynthesis - a process in which the plants fix carbon from the atmosphere. The discussed ways to achieve the effect are planting trees and fertilizing the oceans with minerals, in order to strengthen the growth of algae. A technologically more complicated carbon removal method is "capturing the carbon" and turning it into rocks to be buried in the ground or the seabed.
This strategy pales in comparison to the possibilities that a solar radiation management strategy offers. This method draws inspiration from the volcano case, and sounds far more futuristic and ambitious. There are two main approaches to solar radiation management: operation outside the atmosphere with the help of a fleet of satellites equipped with light-reflecting mirrors, which will create a sort of "sliding shutter" in space. The second approach descends closer to the ground and talks about an active change of the albedo - the degree to which the earth's radiation is reflected - through an effect on the cloudiness. This is the stage where conspiracy theory enthusiasts may wake up and remind us of the airplane trails that are called "chemtrails" and are attributed, among other horrors and terrible threats, to an attempt to change the climate. In this context, we will briefly note that the condensation trails of the jet planes create cirrus, cirrus clouds, which indeed return radiation to space, but also absorb heat and ultimately, Prof. Yair points out, contribute to warming more than to reduction.
We will return to terrestrial solar radiation management. Yair explains that the method is based on the creation of stratocumulus clouds, low layer clouds, above the oceans. In fact, such a process is already happening today as a result of ship chimney emissions. The chimneys cause low cloud seeding, which increases the albedo (radiation reflection) and causes cooling. The climate engineers propose proactive action, where large rafts will sail in places where there are no shipping lanes. There, clouds will be seeded by pumping seawater and turning it into a spray of salt water that will in turn turn into clouds, but without the use of chemicals. The technology already exists and has been tried on a very small scale.
Beyond the technological questions raised by climate engineering initiatives, they also raise equally fascinating ethical questions. Recently, at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, a symposium titled "200 years after the year without summer - Frankenstein, volcanoes and climate engineering". The conference discussed, among other things, the legal and ethical aspects of climate engineering - is humanity bringing itself to the point of "playing God", similar to Frankenstein's monster - a creature that was born with good intentions and turned into a deadly cocoon that rose up against its creator? By the way, the horror novel Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley in 1816 on a stormy night, which was probably part of the climate change created by the Tambora eruption.
It all depends on Trump
The seemingly easy solution of climate engineering, instead of focusing on changing the energy economy, raises many concerns. Fertilizing the ocean with minerals to increase the mass of algae, for example, is essentially a major intervention in the marine food chain, the results of which are unknown. There is not enough knowledge about the fertilization of the oceans with minerals, especially when in the background there is a global trend of Ocean acidification. "Additional intervention, for example dispersing iron, will create an unintended cocktail in the oceans," notes Yair. "The whole issue of intervention on a planetary scale, climate engineering, is much more acute than one-point intervention such as seeding clouds to bring down rain as was done in Israel, and raises questions about whether we are denying rain from neighboring countries. These are questions on a smaller scale compared to climate engineering on a global scale."
Yair adds that in the panic scenario that preoccupies the global "climate community", US President Donald Trump will not respect the Paris Agreements, which set global goals for reducing carbon emissions, and thus the international community may turn to a solution in the form of climate engineering with the cooperation of the whole world. But climate engineering, according to Yair, is a last resort: beyond the question marks and the lack of experience in applying the methods on a large scale, it must be remembered that it will be necessary to keep the effect constant - whether it be using satellites, seeding clouds over the sea or turning gaseous carbon into a solid. "It will constantly be necessary to renew it in order to preserve a life-supporting environment", notes Yair, which means that these are large expenses over generations, and it is not clear who will finance them and how.
If the new American administration does not respect the Paris Agreements, "we do not have the luxury of waiting four years until the change of government", concludes Yair. "There is no unnecessary time, and any delay in the implementation of the Paris Agreement can be a cry for generations." We can only hope that the Trump administration will not turn the wheel backwards and will not bring humanity to a Frankensteinian state, where it hangs all its gold on climate engineering.