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Remember those old sci-fi movies in which future humans would “terraform” Mars (or some more distant planet) to make it more like the relative paradise of our blue-green Earth? Well, it turns out we’re already honing those terraforming skills, and they’re aimed at making our own […]

Remember those old sci-fi movies in which future humans would “terraform” Mars (or some more distant planet) to make it more like the relative paradise of our blue-green Earth? Well, it turns out we’re already honing those terraforming skills, and they’re aimed at making our own planet more inhabitable.

Here on Earth, terraforming is referred to as geoengineering, and is defined as the intentional, large-scale modification of the global environment, (although it should be noted that many of these projects are not exactly global in scale). While some startups are working on developing geoengineering technologies, the plans to merely mitigate global
warming could still leave “powerful actors and their interests relatively intact,” according to Jay Michaelson in a seminal paper in the Stanford Environmental Law Review. In other words, the upheaval of the dinosaur energy industry, on which the greentech VC boom is predicated, might be that much tougher if geoengineering takes the place of carbon pricing and startup competition.
Still, those in the greentech sector should pay attention to the 10 most controversial ways to save the planet, if only because some of these ideas are gaining steam in Washington.

1. Ocean seeding: Causing plankton blooms is all over the news, with two companies, Planktos and Climos, trying to sell carbon credits from dumping iron into the ocean. The idea is simple: plankton eat CO2, iron grows more plankton, therefore, dumping iron means less CO2. But traditional environmentalists are up in arms over the practice, citing unintended consequences.

2. Re-ice the Arctic: An ocean current brings warm water up from the tropics towards northern Europe, where it sinks and flows back down to the tropics. This system is called thermohaline circulation, or “the ocean conveyor belt.” Some have speculated that it could stop running because of a warmer Arctic. A University of Alberta scientist has a common-sense fix: charter a fleet of 8,000 barges to re-ice the Arctic with salty ice, thereby cooling the water and keeping the conveyor belt moving.

3. Sulfur solar shield: Advocated (for research) of late by ozone alarm-sounder Paul Crutzen, this strategy would call for a massive injection of sulfur into the upper atmosphere, thereby creating a reflective shield that would keep the Earth cool, not unlike what happens after a major volcanic eruption.

4. Ocean-cooling pipes: Though the idea received a lot of attention after Gaia-hypothesis originator James Lovelock called attention to it, a startup called Atmocean has been hard at work developing an ocean-cooling pipe prototype for years. It would serve two purposes: cooling the ocean in front of approaching hurricanes, as well as causing plankton blooms that could act as a CO2 sink.

5. Cloud seeding: Seeding the clouds is a perfect example of a regional geoengineering response to global climate change. Given that increased extreme weather, including droughts, are a major impact of climate change, it seems logical that shooting various things into the clouds to stimulate them into action would be tried as regional precipitation norms are refigured. But, as Carnegie Institution climatologist Ken Caldeira is quoted as saying, “You can’t turn deserts to farmlands by sprinkling silver iodide into clouds.”

6. Genetically Modified CO2-Eating Trees: While all trees scrub CO2 from the air and produce the oxygen that we breathe, scientists are looking into genetically modifying trees’ ability to “eat” carbon dioxide. Turn those supertrees into fuel biomass, and they might be on to something, although GM trees turn up the familiar concerns about gene spread and agribusiness.

7. Fake Plastic CO2-Eating Trees: Modeled on trees’ ability to suck in CO2, these machines would pump air “through a chamber containing sodium hydroxide, which reacts with the CO2 to form sodium carbonate.” After a few more reactions, there’d be pure CO2, which could be injected into the ground like a regular old carbon storage system.

8. Space mirrors: By some estimates, reflecting a mere 1 percent of sunlight back into space instead of allowing that energy to be absorbed into the atmosphere would offset all of the greenhouse gases generated since the industrial revolution. The obvious solution? Space mirrors. The problem is that they’d have to be huge and there would have to be a lot of them, and given that launch costs are in the thousands of dollars per pound, we might as well just make a space solar power station out of them.

9. Reflective space mesh: Proposed by Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, this reflective mesh would be placed out in space, about a million miles between the sun and the Earth. Using the same theoretical model as the space mirrors (simplified: less sunlight = cooler earth), the mesh could be a less expensive strategy, although probably not as cheap as the sulfur solar shield.

10. Glacier Blankets: At a cost of a mere $12 million per square mile, we could blanket glaciers with a special material designed to protect high-value Alps skiing territory. The material is basically a fancy Patagonia shirt: “On top is polyester to reflect ultraviolet light, and on the bottom is polypropylene, a polymer used in military clothing and auto parts, to block heat.” The Greenland ice sheet is 650,000 square miles or so, so this method looks like it will cost too many trillions of dollars to ever make sense.

By Alexis Madrigal

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  2. Nice post…

    I’d have to question the application of the term “geoengineering” to some of these. For example, both “CO2 eating trees” and “Plankton Seeding” are both easily done on a small scale, or are already being done on a small scale for other reasons. We’re already re-planting forests, including trees that are bred for fast growth. We’re already seeding the oceans with certain nutrients to grow fish, seaweed, etc, which is operationally the same as iron seeding. I looked at the CLimos and Planktos websites and see only small-scale experimental work proposed. Further both of these techniques have major biological benefits to the ecosystem beyond their planet-saving qualities — the squirrels would be happy to have more trees, and the fish would be happy to eat more plankton. Assuming they are done with caution and care, they could be a big net gain for the ecosystem.

    These kinds of biologically-based activities are completely different from crazy schemes like stretching a giant blanket over a glacier. I’d like to see the environmental movement be a bit more intelligent about how we classify these techniques, instead of just throwing the label “geoengineering” at them.

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  3. how ’bout taking a snow-maker and cover half the planet’s crop in freezing white powder?

    C’mon! Get real.

    ‘man-made’ global warming is the biggest crock of crap that the counter-culture has ever tried to get over on the consumer.

    Less Ice = More Food

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  5. [...] worst consequences is a real possibility that we’ve explored several times here at Wired and elsewhere. But a new article in Foreign Policy by futurist Jamais Cascio takes a deep look at the [...]

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  6. [...] Comments Posted February 15th, 2008 at 11:02 am in Startups The company that topped our list of the top 10 most controversial ways to save the planet, “ocean seeding” company Planktos, says it has now suspended its project to fertilize [...]

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  7. [...] seeding is also an example of a category of highly controversial methods to “geo-engineer” the planet, or basically produce large-scale modifications of the global environment. Projects like re-icing [...]

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  8. [...] we agree that more controversial strategies should be evaluated and researched. Here’s our Top Ten List Of Most Controversial Ways to Save the Planet, which we published last [...]

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  9. [...] Read about the top 10 most “controversial” earth-saving ideas here. [...]

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