Science Scope

World's first geoengineering field test soon to lift off

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Scientists aim to test the theory that a big balloon could help us control climate.

As the climate warms, scientists will have to search for more drastic ways to prevent its negative effects. One possible method involves trying to create devices that mimic volcanoes, which naturally spew dust particles that reflect sunlight away from Earth.

It won't be easy bouncing the sun's hot rays away from our little planet, but a big balloon -- think stadium-sized -- could help lead the way.

A team of British researchers is starting to test their design for a gargantuan balloon lofted 12-and-a-half miles into the air, tethered to an equally long hose, that would pump sun-reflecting dust particles into the Earth's stratosphere.

At least, that's the theory for what is the world's first major experiment in "geoengineering," in which humans try to manipulate Earth's natural systems on a large scale in order to prevent the negative impacts of climate change. In this case, the scientists are attempting to create a contraption that mimics volcanoes and discharges into the stratosphere sulphates and other dust particles (aka "aerosols" -- which does not refer to chemicals in ozone-destroying spray cans but the types of sunlight-reflecting particles that volcanoes disgorge).

Before they put a whole stadium-sized balloon into the stratosphere, the British team will do a field test in the next few months. They will deploy a mini version of the balloon-and-hose device almost two-thirds of a mile into the air and have it pump out water, just to see if the device works.

Climate scientists and engineers have yet to gauge:

  • how practicable the balloon-and-hose setup is
  • whether it is possible to manage a balloon floating more than twice as high as the cruising altitude of commercial airliners
  • what substance and how much of it needs to be injected into the atmosphere to combat the effects of change, while preventing harm to the climate, ecosystems and human health
  • what the best locations are for such balloons

The Guardian reports,

Other leaders of the government-funded Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (Spice) project have investigated using missiles, planes, tall chimneys and other ways to send thousands of tonnes of particles into the air but have concluded that a simple balloon and hosepipe system is the cheapest.

via: The Guardian

photos: Lykaestria/Wikimedia; thumbnail: AngMoKio/Wikimedia

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure