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Science Wednesday: Sustainability on Steroids

2010 May 26

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

Have you heard about geoengineering? It has been around as a concept for over a decade, but has come into the forefront recently because of a Royal Society report last fall and a new book. It is offered as a solution to global climate change, one of the biggest sustainability issues.

The idea behind geoengineering is that planet earth came to its present state because humans engineered natural systems on a large scale. For example, humans changed the flow of rivers. We straightened them, dammed them, diverted them, reversed them. Humans changed the landscape: cut down forests, plowed the soil, blew up hills and mountains. Humans changed the atmosphere. We sent toxic wastes skyward, spewed out CO2 from combustion, filled the skies with particles.

In short, we engineered the planet on a very large scale.

Unfortunately, these projects had unintended consequences such as poor water quality or decreased quantity, land erosion and loss of nutrients in the soil, global climate change. So, a kind of large-scale reverse engineering might be in order to fix these problems.

In particular, geoengineering has been offered as a possible way to reverse the effects of climate change. For example, geoengineers have suggested :

  • fertilizing the ocean to increase the growth of algae which take up CO2 and give off oxygen as they photosynthesize
  • putting huge mirrors into orbit to reflect back some of the warming sunlight
  • seeding the clouds so it would rain when and where wanted
  • pumping CO2 deep into the earth or ocean

All this sounds like science fiction, but it is proposed by perfectly objective scientists/engineers. The concern is that someone will come along and say let’s “just do it.” There may or may not be dire consequences from “just doing it.” This is where science comes in.

Barbara KarnBecause of the importance and scale of these issues, we need to gather the knowledge to make intelligent decisions. Ignorance is not bliss and must be erased in the light of facts.
In the case of geoengineering, we must neither avoid research in this area just because it seems like a science fiction solution to our climate problem, nor should we embrace it as a quick fix and neglect the long term action of lowering and controlling emissions. Just like steroids’ quick fix, these solutions may have dire consequences.

About the Author: Dr. Barbara Karn is a scientist in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research and a regular Science Wednesday contributor.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. Felipe Cervantes -Sotelo permalink
    May 26, 2010

    In my opinion DO NOT TOUCH THE SEA (fertilizing the ocean), please come to your sences instead of thinking crazy things like sending back the efects of the sun, PLEASE !!
    The answer is reforestation of the planet, PLANT TREES ALL OVER THE WORLD IF YOU CAN, please stop being silly.
    Plant trees mainly in Africa where the tornadoes begin that is the answer to the problem of the ecosystem. Do not polute more the sea we have enough already. No trees no clouds, seed the ground and go up; come to your sences.
    Do not keep on poluting the sea by droping into it all the drains from the cities mainly dangerous waste.

  2. armansyahardanis permalink
    May 26, 2010

    Dr. Karn, it’s apparent this planet needs much skills to maintain it. However, the universe has much planet. And so we need also much professionals to explore the earth and other the billion planets which continuously birth. Wow, in the future, I hope our greatgrand-grand children to become Marsgeoengineerings, Yupiter lawyers, etc… And so, I think, we need genealogyengineering for them…..!!!!

  3. HostGator permalink
    May 28, 2010

    It’ s nice to plant trees for planet… we are cutting them on fast rate those results we can see….. latest example is guatemalan volcano so plz plant trees….

  4. Jesús Torres Navarro permalink
    May 28, 2010

    Realmente interesante el artículo sobre la Geoingeniería, siempre he pensado que la Ciencia no puede ser inparcial; la verdadera Ciencia es PARCIAL, está a favor de la Humanidad, del progreso Social, de una mejor calidad de Vida, sin embargo, siempre es necesario distiguir la diferncia que existe entre la Ciencia como tal y las técnicas utilizadas para explotar en beneficio de unos cuantos los descubrimientos científicos. No hay que temer al cambio, ni a los nuevos descubrimientos, lo que hay que hacer es DEMOCRATIZAR LA CIENCIA, que sea para todos
    No creo en verdades absolutas, es más, siempre que pensamos que hemos llegado a una solución definitiva, se detiene el progreso
    Felicidades a los Geoingenieros ¡sigan adelante por el bien de todos!

  5. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    May 31, 2010

    We should plant more trees and cut down a lot fewer trees. We need the trees to help with carbon sequestration and to help stabalize the soil. We should also switch to hydrogen powered vehicles, all-electric powered vehicles, and hybird hydrogen-electric powered vehicles. Solar power could be used to manufacture hydrogen and to recharge electric batteries. While with hydrogen-electric hybird vehicles, the hydrogen cell will recharge the electric batteries in the field when and where needed without having to take the vehicle out of service. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  6. sean permalink
    June 4, 2010

    i didnt even read this because this is useless you are all in DENIAL…if your waiting and holding your breathe for the government to solve these problems….there is only one clear solution that is never spoken outloud well not by the living or conected anyways…in america we once own the air waves they were taken from you and much evidence to show why the corporations and government officials play a role in this……this sounds crazy and so simple it rediculous….every federal ..state…county…and city government are weighed down with debt that falls on the shoulders of its citizens…you want clean air …clean water…ask your public official to simply do one thing….make all

  7. sean permalink
    June 4, 2010

    ask your public officials to simply free the market to bids against your public utility providers who currently nationwide have a lock on energy markets to simply bring down these costs….think of green energy that not only helps you pay off your technology you invest in but actually helps cut costs from federal state county and city revenues and taxes…its 2.5 trillion dollars a year nationwide at the federal level alone…that would pay of the deficit of this country very fast while also freeing up markets providing jobs for new technology and all the instalation and small contracting jobs that would come back acrossed this country…why stay slaves to debt and taxes that are being waisted to keep unworhty public officials and some persons gaited community home lifestyl at the expense of smart governing on behalf of the citizens of the United States of America

  8. c.v.antony permalink
    June 5, 2010

    Live in nature with out insulting it either way.We lack wisdom for it.

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