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Reversing climate change by reflecting sunlight…. it is a bad idea!

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Some scientists are looking to cool down the planet and reverse the effects of climate change by reflecting sunlight using solar geo-engineering.  This so-called the “volcanic solution” is an ultimate and desperate measure. 

In 1991, Mount Pinatubo spectacularly erupted spreading ash fall across the central region of Luzon right to the Philippines. Ash and hot melted gas were projected high into the atmosphere and then spread around the world.  For over a year these particles in the air reflected sunlight and naturally cooled the planet.  At the cost of many human lives, could nature have shown us the way to reduce climate change? We can’t control volcanic eruptions but can we try and recreate the same effects?

This idea is based on using stratospheric sulphate aerosols to reflect sunlight into the atmosphere to artificially “cool down” the earth’s climate.  For some, the technique could benefit agriculture by preventing heat stress on crops. However a recent article published in Nature magazine came up with a different conclusion. By analyzing historical data from the two volcanic eruptions, researchers concluded that by falsifying the atmosphere there will be no net effect on crop yields.

Crops would not be under heat stress but they would not receive enough light for photosynthesis.  Therefore the disadvantages outweigh the advantages.  The author of the article Jonathan Proctor, an agricultural economist at University of California in Berkeley explained: “If we look at a solar geo-engineering like an experienced surgeon, our results suggest the side effects would be just as serious as the the original problem.”

Besides, there is a difference between solar geo-engineering and volcanic eruptions. Solar geoengineering would involve a continuous operation in many places instead of a one time event in one place. Scientists and political leaders also don’t know enough about consequences of such an effort. What’s more the technology does not even exist yet.  On top of that there is also the slightly non-trivial question of who exactly would have the power and responsibility to “change the sky” everywhere on Earth!

Finally, even if everyone does agree, it would not be a one time event.  Aerosols pumped into the atmosphere by a volcano or a technological device will not stay there forever. Much of this material migrates to polar latitudes and gradually melts into larger droplets before falling to Earth. Future generations would have to become fully committed to the project in order to build enough of an aerosol supply to block the sunlight. Otherwise, the temperature of the planet would increase virtually overnight.

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