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We have the technology. Aircraft can spray particles into the atmosphere to combat climate change. But should we?



If the models of climate change are correct, then humanity itself is in itself – and drags the rest of life on Earth with itself – into a corner. Scientific calls to control emissions and tackle climate change are beginning to have some effect, but this is not enough. So now we have tough decisions.

If you have not heard the terms "solar geo-engineering" and "stratospheric aerosol injection", you probably should get used to them. They are a scientifically and technologically realistic plan for combating climate change when all other managerial and economic models cannot do this. The idea has been around for a while, but was considered too expensive in the past.

Now a new research paper in the Ecological Research Letters analyzes what is needed to use aircraft to spray sulphates into the stratosphere to cool the climate. The two authors are Wake Smith from Yale University and Gernot Wagner from Harvard. And as soon as you overcome your shock of the idea, if you feel that this is so, the document presents some thoughtful parameters for the entire enterprise.

“… a hypothetical deployment program that began 15 years later will be technically possible exclusively from an engineering point of view,” Dr. Gernot Wagner, co-director of the Harvard Solar Geo-Engineering Research Program.

First of all, let's dispel a couple of myths. It has nothing to do with darkening the sun, chemistry, or mind control. Nothing humanity can confuse the sun. Chemtrails are ignorant dreams of fever, and mind control is just … anything. Both Smith and Wagner are serious people, and they deserve attention.

Wagner is a research associate and professor at Harvard University, co-director of the Harvard Solar Geo-Engineering Research Program and author of Climate Shock. Smith has an MBA and a career in commercial aviation and finance behind his back, and also writes about logistics and the costs of managing solar radiation and geo-engineering. These two are well equipped to conduct this study.

What are we really talking about here?

Imagine a world in which scientists have discovered that our emissions are heating up in the world and that people are too reluctant to make changes to their emissions. Our management and economic methods do not do their job. You do not have to represent it, because it is basically what we are.

In this situation, scientists are obliged to try and come up with technological solutions, still hoping that politics and economics will fix everything in the end. And this brings us to these two ideas: solar geo-engineering and the injection of stratospheric aerosol (SAI).

When Mt. Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991, he lifted 20 million tons of SO2 into the atmosphere. Over the next two years, global temperatures fell by 0.5 degrees Celsius. Image Credit: US Geological Survey A photograph taken by Richard P. Hoblitt. - Archived source link, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=545018
When Mt. Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991, he lifted 20 million tons of SO2 into the atmosphere. Over the next two years, global temperatures fell by 0.5 degrees Celsius. Image Credit: US Geological Survey A photograph taken by Richard P. Hoblitt. – Archived source link, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=545018

Solar geo-engineering is also called "solar radiation management" (SRM). The idea is to force the atmosphere to reflect even more solar radiation into space. SRM tends to increase Earth's albedo or reflectivity.

Some SRM methods offer protection and restoration of the natural reflective surfaces of the Earth, such as sea ice, snow and glaciers. This will require major engineering projects and will be costly. There is also no guarantee that they will work.

The new study, released by Smith and Wagner, focuses on another widely discussed SRM: stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI).

The injection of stratospheric aerosol is centered around the idea of ​​introducing sulphates into the atmosphere about 20 kilometers high in the stratosphere. It is clear that an SAI can withstand the most climatic changes, be relatively inexpensive, can come into force quickly, and this will be reversible in its immediate climatic effects. It sounds good, but there were some flaws.

Early ideas in the SAIs suggested using artillery, existing aircraft, or balloons to bring sulphates or their precursors into the stratosphere. But each of them has its own problems. The new study focuses on the development of new aircraft for the delivery of sulfates to the stratosphere.

To fly in the stratosphere for 20 kilometers is not easy. This is not what we needed to do just a few times so that we could just use expensive rockets and there is a cost. A successful SAI project will be a multi-year project involving a fleet of specialized aircraft located on several bases around the world.

In their study, Smith and Wagner analyze the costs and timing of the development of the aircraft fleet, which can double the increase in anthropogenic radiation exposure. The fleet will start small and will grow over time and will begin its activity in 15 years. They looked at the existing aircraft and concluded that none of them is practical. 15 years allows enough time for the development of the required aircraft and its verification and licensing.

The study looked at existing aircraft, such as NASA Global Hawk. It can carry large payloads at high altitudes for 24 hours. But Global Hawk, like all other existing aircraft, is not able to meet the requirements of SAIL. Image: NASA Photo / Tom MIller
The study looked at existing aircraft, such as NASA Global Hawk. It can carry large payloads at high altitudes for 24 hours. But Global Hawk, like all other existing aircraft, is not able to meet the requirements of SAIL. Image: NASA Photo / Tom MIller

"No existing aircraft has a combination of heights and payload capabilities." – Smith Smith, co-author of the study.

Sustained flight at an altitude of 20 km requires special aircraft. The fuselage and wings should be different than all that we have, and the engines should be specialized. They consulted several aircraft manufacturers, engine manufacturers and other companies to conduct their research, including Airbus, Atlas Air, Boeing, Bombardier, GE Engines, Gulfstream, Lockheed Martin, NASA, Near Space Corporation, Northrup Grumman, Rolls Royce Engines and others.

They call their proposed aircraft SAIL: Stratospheric Aerosol Injection Lofter.

Both researchers clearly state their motives. They do not condemn the use of SAIL to combat climate change. They just wanted to formulate this idea and see what a realistic SAI program might look like, and what the timeline and effectiveness is.

One of the authors of the study, Dr. Gernot Wagner, said: “Although we do not judge the desirability of an SAI, we show that a hypothetical deployment program that began 15 years later, although very uncertain and ambitious, will be technically possible from a technical point of view. It would also be surprisingly inexpensive, on average, from about 2 to 2.5 billion dollars. US per year for the first 15 years. ”

Other studies have concluded that existing aircraft can be modified to combat climate change, but a couple of scientists have found that this is not the case. In a press release, Wake Smith said: “I was intrigued by engineering issues around SAI and many studies that suggest that modified existing aircraft can do the job. It turns out that it is not. For a reasonable, albeit completely hypothetical, parameters, a completely new aircraft design will indeed be required. No existing aircraft has a combination of heights and payload capabilities. ”

NASA's WB-57 is another high-altitude research aircraft that the authors consider unsuitable for SAIL. Image: NASA / Johnson Space Center.
NASA's WB-57 is another high-altitude research aircraft that the authors consider unsuitable for SAIL. Image: NASA / Johnson Space Center.

This new SAIL aircraft will have to transport a 25-ton payload to an altitude of 20 km and support the flight there. So what would this new aircraft look like?

The aircraft itself would need large wings, double the size of the current aircraft and double thrust. “We developed specifications for SAIL with direct access from several aerospace and motor companies. This is equivalent in weight to a large passenger aircraft with a narrow body. But to maintain a horizontal flight of 20 km, it is necessary to approximately double the wing area of ​​an aircraft of equivalent size and double the thrust with four engines instead of two, said Smith.

According to the study, the fuselage of SAIL will appear refined and narrow to fit the “heavy but dense mass of molten sulfur” rather than the large volume of space and air necessary for the comfort of passengers. Thus, the PAIR will have a significantly wider span than the length. ”

Engines will be modified versions of existing engines called "low-bypass". Although these engines exist, they are little used because they are inefficient in fuel. However, they exit other engines at these extreme heights.

Two researchers suggest starting with 8 airplanes, flying about 4,000 flights a year, and increasing by 4,000 each year, when more and more aircraft are launched onto the Internet. 15 years after the start of operation, the fleet will consist of almost 1,000 people. They will fly from an array of bases around the world, at latitudes of 15 and 30 degrees north and south of the equator. The goal would be to introduce ~ 0.1 Mt S per year, increasing at a rate of ~ 0.1 Mt yr linearly thereafter.

Detailed table of flight activity SAIL. Image: Smith and Wagner, 2018.
Detailed table of flight activity SAIL. Image: Smith and Wagner, 2018.

Smith and Wagner conclude that their SAIL program will not be so expensive. Their analysis shows that during the first 15 years of deployment, the program will cost about $ 2.25 billion. US per year. This includes the design, testing and production of a new type of aircraft, the modification of existing engines and operating costs. This is not much compared to the $ 240 billion that the US economy has lost over the past decade due to climate change.

In a press release, Dr. Wagner said: “Given the potential benefits of reducing the average forecasted increase in radiation exposure from a certain date ahead, these figures refer to the“ incredible economy ”of solar geo-engineering. Dozens of countries can fund such a program, and the required technology is not particularly exotic. ”

The ultimate goal of the SAIL program would be to buy us time. This would not solve our emissions problem. SAIL is only a temporary mitigation method. It will not lower CO2 in the atmosphere, and it will not stop other effects of climate change, such as ocean acidification. It simply reflects some sunlight back into space.

That's where it gets difficult. Assuming Wagner and Smith are correct, should PARUS be used to combat climate change?

There are some concerns about the idea of ​​technological climate change. Some organizations fear that developing this kind of technology will allow the criminal regime to do it in secret. The authors dispel this fear, stating that it is impossible to hide this level of flights with the participation of partner countries around the world.

Smith said: “No global program of SAIs of scale and character discussed here can reasonably be expected to maintain secrecy. Even our hypothetical one-year deployment program provides for 4,000 flights at unusually high altitudes with aircraft in several flight corridors in both hemispheres. This is too large aviation activity to go unnoticed, and after its discovery such a program can be restrained. ”

Some climate change activists are wary of SAIs because they believe that this will create apathy towards reducing emissions. They say that we will rely on it and will create and justify it in order not to reduce our GHG emissions. In the Geoengineering Monitor you can find these problems explained and expanded. They are concerned that large companies involved in the extraction of fossil fuels will finance geoengineering projects that will allow them to continue their business as usual.

Geoengineering Monitor
“Manifesto HOME” in Geoengineering Monitor. “It's a little more dramatic, but it makes sense. Image: Geoengineering Monitor.

In any case, the use of high-altitude aircraft to combat climate change is all for discussion at this stage. There is a body called the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Within the framework of the CBD, 193 countries signed a moratorium on geoengineering and agreed that a global mechanism should be established to regulate it.

But the SAIL program is the foundation that will not work until 15 years. Is there enough time for 15 years to develop a global geoengineering planning framework to combat climate change? I hope so.

We put ourselves in a corner. The longer we wait for significant actions on emissions, the more draconian our measures will be. Our concerns, both grounded and unfounded, will need to be overcome if we want to use SAIL to deal with the effects of climate change.

We are in this situation, and we have to break out of it.


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