Climate Change-Busting 'Artificial Volcano' Might Actually Be A Disaster (STUDY)

08/01/2014 08:28 | Updated 23 January 2014

Scientists believe that a plan to use a massive 'artificial volcano' to shoot billions of light-reflecting particles into the atmosphere, in an attempt to try and reverse global warming, might not be the greatest idea in the world.

The "geo-engineering" plan would have catastrophic consequences for the world, they have warned.

The idea is to spray millions of light-reflecting aerosol particles high into the atmosphere to reduce the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth's surface.

Big volcanic eruptions that blast sulphurous ash into the stratosphere have the same effect. The Mount Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines in 1991 led to a significant - though short-lived - dip in global temperatures.

But a new study has shown that such a last resort measure, conducted on a large scale, would lead to climate chaos and disrupt delicately balanced ecosystems.

One result could be a 30% reduction in tropical rainfall, the drying out of rainforests, and drought in parts of South America, Africa and Asia.

There is also the possibility of tension and conflict between different parts of the world, with northern European and some Asian countries benefiting at the expense of equatorial regions.

Strategies for artificially cooling the climate were seriously discussed by leading scientists in September when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) met in Stockholm.

  • 1 Alaska
    The impacts of climate warming in Alaska are already occurring, experts have warned. Over the past 50 years, temperatures across Alaska increased by an average of 3.4°F. Winter warming was even greater, rising by an average of 6.3°F jeopardising its famous glaciers and frozen tundra.
  • 2 Venice
    The most fragile of Italian cities has been sinking for centuries. Long famous for being the city that is partially under water, sea level rise associated with global warming would have an enormous impact on Venice and the surrounding region. The Italian government has begun constructing steel gates at the entrances to the Venetian lagoon, designed to block tidal surges from flooding the city. However, these barriers may not be enough to cope with global warming.
  • 3 Antarctica
    The West Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest warming areas on Earth, with only some areas of the Arctic Circle experiencing faster rising temperatures. Over the past 50 years, temperatures in parts of the continent have jumped between 5 and 6 degrees F— a rate five times faster than the global average. A 2008 report commissioned by WWF warned that if global temperatures rise 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial averages, sea ice in the Southern Ocean could shrink by 10 to 15 percent.
  • 4 The Great Barrier Reef
    The rapid decline of the world's coral reefs appears to be accelerating, threatening to destroy huge swathes of marine life unless dramatic action is swiftly taken, leading ocean scientists have warned. About half of the world's coral reefs have already been destroyed over the past 30 years, as climate change warms the sea and rising carbon emissions make it more acidic.
  • 5 The Himalayas
    The world's highest mountain range contains the planet's largest non-polar ice mass, with over 46,000 glaciers. The mammoth glaciers cross eight countries and are the source of drinking water, irrigation and hydroelectric power for roughly 1.5 billion people. And just like in Antarctica, the ice is melting.
  • 6 The Maldives
    An expected 2°C rise in the world’s average temperatures in the next decades will impact island economies such as the Maldives with extreme weather patterns and rising sea levels.
  • 7 The Alps
    Over the last century, global warming has caused all Alpine glaciers to recede. Scientists predict that most of the glaciers in the Alps could be gone by 2050. Global warming will also bring about changes in rain and snowfall patterns and an increase in the frequency of extreme meteorological events, such as floods and avalanches, experts have warned.
  • 8 The Arctic
    The Arctic is ground zero for climate change, warming at a rate of almost twice the global average. The sea ice that is a critical component of Arctic marine ecosystems is projected to disappear in the summer within a generation.
  • 9 Micronesia and Polynesia
    Called the "epicenter of the current global extinction," by Conservation International, this smattering of more than 4,000 South Pacific islands is at risk from both local human activity and global climate change.

Dr Andrew Charlton-Perez, from the University of Reading, who co-led the new study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, said: "We have shown that one of the leading candidates for geo-engineering could cause a new unintended side-effect over a large part of the planet.

"The risks from this kind of geo-engineering are huge. A reduction in tropical rainfall of 30% would, for example, quickly dry out Indonesia so much that even the wettest years after a man-made intervention would be equal to drought conditions now.

"The ecosystems of the tropics are among the most fragile on Earth. We would see changes happening so quickly that there would be little time for people to adapt.

"Discussion of geo-engineering often prompts heated debate, but very often there is a lack of understanding of what putting large amounts of aerosol in the stratosphere will do to the complex climate system. Our findings should help to fill in some of the gaps about one of the leading candidates."

The scientists pointed out that massive numbers of particles would have to be injected into the atmosphere to counter the effects of climate change. It would be the equivalent of five Mount Pinatubo-scale eruptions every year.

Computer simulations of what would happen as a result revealed massive disruption to rainfall patterns around the equator.

As well as reflecting radiation from the Sun back into space, the aerosols would absorb some of the heat energy emitted from the Earth's surface, the scientists found.

This would lead to warming of the stratosphere, making lower layers of the atmosphere more stable, weakening upward air currents and reducing rainfall.

Co-author Professor Ellie Highwood, also from the University of Reading, said:

"Climate scientists agree that cutting carbon emissions is still necessary to curb the damaging effects of future climate change. However, since such cuts are far from certain to materialise, proponents of geo-engineering research argue that whatever the world decides on its carbon emissions, it would be prudent to explore alternatives that might help us in the decades ahead.

"On the evidence of this research, stratospheric aerosol geo-engineering is not providing world leaders with any easy answers to the problem of climate change."

Other scientists said that the idea might still have legs - and that the warnings about the theorectical tech were too aggressive.

Dr Matt Watson, senior lecturer in natural hazards at the University of Bristol, criticised the scientists for basing their research on an extreme climate change scenario that assumed a quadrupling of carbon dioxide (CO2) greenhouse gas levels.

Such a scenario, requiring 100 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide particles to be pumped into the atmosphere per year, not surprisingly had "severe and uneven impacts".

Dr Watson said: "To state that solar radiation management (SRM) won't work based upon one extreme scenario smacks of hype rather than a serious discussion. I know of no serious scientist who would advocate introducing 100 megatonnes of sulphur dioxide in a four degree warmer world.

"This new research will doubtless be seized upon by those opposing geo-engineering research and rebutted by those that support it, in an unhelpful, adversarial tit-for-tat. A more realistic scenario might have been to try with two times CO2 or a specific IPCC projection, and possibly simply stabilise (rather than attempt to return to pre-industrial) temperatures. That would probably produce less dire predictions.

"It remains the case that our only guaranteed way forward is to reduce the record levels of greenhouse gases we continue to pump into the atmosphere. It's vital that scientists continue researching geo-engineering; but no government serious about climate change should see it as a quick fix."

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