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Air apparent: Once we start geoengineering, it may be hard to stop

Air apparent: Once we start geoengineering, it may be hard to stop

NASA Goddard

Despite the antics of technofixers, policy wonks, and mad billionaires everywhere, geoengineering persists as an appealing-if-wacky solution to all our climate ills. The basic logic is seductive: If we’ve messed up the climate by pumping bad stuff into the atmosphere, maybe we can undo some damage by pumping some other stuff up there, too. Of course, a minefield of potential blunders awaits the intrepid geoengineer, including wreaking havoc on rainfall or depleting polar ozone. And then there is the geopolitical factor, i.e. what may be good for China is not so good for India.

A recent study [PDF] by scientists from North America, Europe, and Japan suggests another, more distant concern, and yet a vital one: What happens when we stop geoengineering?

One of the big mainstays of geoengineering is the idea of solar radiation management, the deflection of some of the sun’s energy before it enters the atmosphere. For example, there is often a measurable temperature decrease in the months following large volcanic eruptions, thanks to a massive belch of sulfur dioxide and reflective particulate matter. Would-be earth hackers suggest copying this effect with artificial aerosols, minus the magma and, ideally, the acid rain. (As if building a giant, friendly, fake volcano in our atmosphere totally doesn’t require the international cooperation, technological innovation, scientific know-how, and hard problem-solving other climate solutions demand.)

Though much is still unknown about the potential effects of intentionally saturating our atmosphere with sulfates, the authors of the recent paper thought maybe it’d be a good idea to look before we leap into the caldera of the fake-volcano business. Using several different atmospheric models, they studied what would happen if 50 years of stratospheric solar deflection were followed by an abrupt halt. The result, reported in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres, could be a rapid and devastating increase in temperature.

Here’s why: If we were to start and then stop maintaining a protective layer of aerosols in the atmosphere, solar radiation would begin hitting us right where it left off — and the effect of the greenhouse gasses accumulated during our half-century in the synthetic shade would quickly become apparent. (The paper warns of the “moral hazard” of geoengineering, letting us off the hook for the dirty emissions at the root of the problem.) Though the different climate models used by the researchers showed different rates of increase, the overall effect was squarely in the “not good” category, including shifts in weather patterns and the usual, depressing decrease in polar sea ice. Basically, if we ever try to rely on geoengineering to save us from our own greenhouse gas emissions, we are all going to have to agree to NEVER STOP.

That means, no political squabbles, no international kerfuffles, no unforeseen consequences, no budget problems, nothing. Good luck with that, world.

Amelia Urry is Grist’s intern.Find this article interesting? Donate now to support our work.Read more: Business & Technology


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Air apparent: Once we start geoengineering, it may be hard to stop

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Look who’s eating your plastic now: A whole unprecedented ecosystem

Look who’s eating your plastic now: A whole unprecedented ecosystem

Environmental Science and TechnologyYum, plastic.

We already knew that barnacles, lanternfish, and whales have been gobbling up plastic. It turns out that the problem is even bigger than we thought — because it is much, much smaller. Welcome to the “plastisphere,” the tiny plastic-based ecosystem developing within the world’s oceans.

The alien-sounding title is fitting, as scientists have found more than 1,000 species of microbes living there, some of which still have not been identified. The group of organisms supported by the plastic was significantly different from, and much more diverse than, other microbial communities in the ocean, suggesting that the plastic particles are providing a haven for microbes that otherwise might not survive, or even arise in the first place.

The study, done by a team in Woods Hole, Mass., took a high-resolution look at plastic particles between 1 and 5 millimeters in size (I believe the unscientific term is “itty bitty specks”). The critters camped out on them are even tinier, but taken together act as a full-blown ecosystem, not unlike a coral reef. Plant-like microbes cluster at the giving end of the food chain while other, animal-like microbes feed on them, and on each other. There are even decomposers and a few synergistic microbes getting along like Disney woodland creatures. 

How big a deal is it to discover a new ecosystem developing in the middle of an old one? (An old one which supports about a billion people, that is.) The answer is that no one knows quite yet. Still, it is pretty likely that this new microbial cocktail (yum!) will alter the ocean ecosystem in some larger way.

One very interesting but very hypothetical possibility proposed by the Woods Hole team is that some of these microbes may actually be cleaning up the plastic for us, since they were found hunkered down in ‘pits’ on the surface of the plastic particles. If these microbes can degrade petroleum-based materials, that could be an explanation for why the level of plastic debris in the ocean has appeared relatively stable for the last 22 years.

Gee, wouldn’t it be great if the alien lifeforms of the plastisphere could just go all-you-can eat on the mess we have made? Unfortunately, the plastic raft of microbes also could also potentially serve as a vector for harmful pathogens, since plastic can travel much farther on ocean currents than other materials. Researchers found one genus of bacteria called Vibrio, a few species of which are associated with fun gastrointestinal diseases like cholera, which normally cannot survive in the open ocean. I guess we’ll have to wait to see if the plastisphere ends up being more like Alien or Wall-E.

The “Plastisphere:” A new marine ecosystem, Smithsonian Ocean Blog
New life discovered growing on plastic waste dubbed the ‘plastisphere’, ABC Environment

Amelia Urry is Grist’s intern.

Find this article interesting? Donate now to support our work.Read more: Climate & Energy

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Look who’s eating your plastic now: A whole unprecedented ecosystem

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