Man vs. the Volcano: Is seeding the stratosphere really the solution to global warming?


Listen up, cleantech crew: according to one scientist, you may want to relocate your labs to the slopes of Mount St. Helens. Yesterday’s NY Times features a provocative op-ed piece by Ken Caldeira, a scientist at the Carnegie Institute for Global Ecology, in which he asserted that seeding the stratosphere (above where jets fly) with sulfates (such as those produced by a volcanic eruption) could not only stop global warming, but actually cool the Earth.

Caldeira cites the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, a volcano in the Philippines that erupted in 1991, as evidence his theory works. “The eruption resulted in sulfate particles in the stratosphere that reflected the sun’s rays back to space, and as a consequence the earth briefly cooled,” he writes. So, is this for real?

We asked Stephen Stretton, a researcher at Cambridge University’s Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research. He says that the idea is not entirely new. British futurist James Lovelock proposed something similar in his 2006 book Revenge of Gaia, though instead of sulpher Lovelock researched using dimethylsulphide produced by plankton. The idea also may be more complicated than Caldeira’s article implies.

One issue is that on a local level, it could change the climate in unpredictable ways. Sulphur over land will produce acid rain. “Global Warming isn’t the only problem,” Stratton told us:

“Ocean acidification is probably impossible to geo-engineer because of the huge volumes involved. And unfortunately, the critical systems such as the Amazon and the Arctic are driven by local effects too–for the Amazon, East-West Transpiration cycles and deforestation, for the Arctic factors such as methane from permafrosts and clathrates. So we really need to plan and predict ahead much further than we are really capable of doing at present and to interrupt any process.”

An imperfect solution, surely, but one that is begging for further exploration. Our bet is that you can expect to hear about cleantechers inventing a delivery system for stratospheric sulfites in the near future.


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