July 16, 2014
Denise Avchen and Amy Castle

In an interesting article for US News and World Report, Michael MacCracken, ERAscience board member and Chief Scientist for Climate Change at the Climate Institute in Washington, explores the possible reversal of climate change impact on Antarctica.

Technology to the Planet's Rescue?

It's time to explore whether geoengineering can reverse Antarctic ice loss.

Research from NASA released on May 12 suggests that a large section of the West Antarctic ice sheet is now on a path, perhaps irrevocably, to collapse. The result could be billions of tons of ice poured into the Southern Ocean each year. This could lead, over the span of coming decades and centuries, to as much as 10 feet of global sea level rise, attributable to this event alone.

Sea level rise of this magnitude, even spread over a long timescale, will be extremely disruptive and likely dangerous for human societies, with the worst and highest costs falling on those who are least able to bear them.

What can be done? The first choice would be an immediate halt to all global greenhouse gas emissions, which would help to slow sea level rise generally. Given the difficulty and seeming impracticality of that, it bears asking, could some sort of large-scale technological intervention in the region help to slow the calving away of the ice? While the shape of the underlying ocean bottom that no longer will hold back the ice stream is a critical contributor to the vulnerability of the ice sheet, there are, conceptually, a number of ways by which human intervention could reduce regional Antarctic warming, perhaps with the potential to slow the movement and loss of ice.

One possible option would be to increase the reflectivity of clouds over the Southern Ocean during the sunlit season, thus reducing ocean heat uptake. Models suggest that, in areas that are fairly clean, injection of finely misted salt water, targeted regionally, could increase the amount of solar radiation reflected back into space.

Another way to possibly bring about a localized cooling effect might be to inject reflective microbubbles into the frigid Antarctic waters, brightening the surface in the way that ship wakes brighten the waters, but doing so more efficiently.

Two other interventions could, potentially, encourage more rapid radiation of absorbed heat to space. One way to release heat trapped in the oceans could be to use icebreaking ships to open up selected areas of the ocean during the winter, allowing heat otherwise contained beneath the sea ice to escape to the atmosphere. Another option that has been proposed would be to use cloud-seeding techniques to thin out the high-altitude, winter layer of cirrus clouds, allowing heat radiated from the ocean’s surface to more readily pass into space.

Now, such ideas are highly speculative, at best. In fact, it’s easy to write them off as the stuff of science fiction. They are, though, among the kinds of climate geoengineering proposals that have been suggested as bottom-of-the-barrel approaches to limiting the increasingly severe impacts of climate change, perhaps, in the best case scenario, buying time for the growth in global emissions of carbon dioxide to be stopped and then reversed. Such geoengineering approaches are not a long-term solution and have limited potential, but they may be able to temporarily limit some of the worst impacts of climate change while actions are taken that cut through political and societal dithering around seriously addressing the increasing risks of climate change.

On the same day that that the world learned of the potential for runaway Antarctic ice melt, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., spoke for many conservative politicians when he declared, “I don't agree with the notion that some are putting out there, including scientists, that somehow, there are actions we can take today that would actually have an impact on what’s happening in our climate.” The day then closed with the announcement that the U.S. Senate, because of political wrangling over the Keystone XL pipeline, appears unable to pass a straightforward energy efficiency bill that has bipartisan sponsorship.

While these kinds of political and social intransigence seem to be making climate geoengineering technologies increasingly attractive, such approaches are not a long-term panacea, and they are, for good reason, controversial.

For one thing, it is unclear whether the kinds of ideas proposed above are technically feasible at the kind of scale that would make a difference in and around Antarctica. Nor is it clear that creating a solar shield could bring about a rapid and sufficient enough cooling of the ocean waters to slow the warming of the Antarctic ice streams that are so concerning to NASA scientists.

At the same time, there are thorny governance and justice issues presented by any geoengineering scheme. Who gets to control the technology and decide how and to what ends it is used? What if the talk of a technological response to Antarctic ice melt distracts attention from the greenhouse gas reduction efforts that the world so desperately needs? Such questions broach no easy answers.

Given the complexities and controversy surrounding climate geoengineering, it is tempting to write off the entire enterprise as hubristic and ill advised. However, indicators like the melting of Antarctic ice tell us that we may no longer have that luxury. If a radical, even risky, technological intervention could forestall polar ice melt, and in turn forestall suffering tied to sea level rise in places like Bangladesh, then who can deny the need to investigate the option?

Climate geoengineering is not going away. The technologies of climate geoengineering are far too enticing a genie to be stuffed back into their bottle. It is time, then, for climate geoengineering to be given proper social and scientific consideration. It is time for a broader, more robust, and more inclusive conversation on climate geoengineering to begin. 

December 6, 2013
Matthew Miller

We at ERA Science are dedicated to promoting environmental research and technology, most of which will prevent or lessen long-term climate change and its negative impacts on the earth. The apparent increase in natural disasters in the past few years, however, such as hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, also concerns us about the more short-term effects of human-driven climate change; what sort of changes can we expect in the near future, and what can we do about them?

The National Academy of Sciences’ 200-page report released this week adds to a slew of scientific studies on climate change emerging in the past few months. Yet, rather than imploring humans to reduce carbon emissions and slow down the changing climate, this report focuses on potential calamities that could occur in the near future.

In an attempt to safeguard the earth and the species that inhabit it, scientists concluded in the report that as the risk of natural disaster rises, we ought to better prepare ourselves by setting up more effective monitoring systems.

The study warns of “tipping points” in the earth’s climate beyond which “major and rapid changes occur”, specifically pointing to amplified melting ice sheets in the Arctic over the past seven years, and the displacement and extinction of species due to changing habitats.

As the report notes, these “abrupt” changes are occurring on a scale of years, not centuries, and are thus more imminent and difficult to track: “when you think about gradual changes, you can kind of see where the road is and know where you’re going,” says Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrated biology at UC Berkley. “When you think of abrupt changes and threshold effects, the road suddenly drops out from under you, and it’s those kind of things that we are suggesting we need to anticipate in a much more comprehensive way.”

So, while there is most likely nothing we can do to stop the more immediate environmental and biological change that will occur in the coming years, there are ways to avoid the down-stream effects of this damage on ourselves and the species with whom we share the earth. Some of the report’s recommendations include closer monitoring of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland, as well as more strategic ocean temperature measurement locations.

October 9, 2013
Matthew Miller

Last month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first segment of its 5th report, which describes the scientific basis for climate change caused by humans. The IPCC’s goal is to assess scientific, technical and socio-economic information concerning climate change, its potential effects and options for adaptation and mitigation.

Over 2,000 scientists worked on this report, using a remarkable amount of raw data taken from 9,200 peer-reviewed studies. The IPCC reports always garner a healthy amount of controversy, as both climate change deniers and believers fight over the report’s implications.

Here are the 4 most important takeaways from the IPCC’s most recent report, so you can decide for yourself:

1.    It is virtually certain that the earth has warmed since the mid-20th century, and it probably will continue to warm.

· The planet’s surface could warm anywhere from 2.7°F to 7.2°F by 2100 relative to pre-1900 conditions.

· This means more extreme weather, storms, drought, flooding, and heat waves.

2.    Scientists are more confident than ever that climate change is human caused.

· They are over 95% sure; that’s increased from 90% certainty in 2007, 66% in 2001, and 50% in 1995.

3.    Glaciers are melting at an accelerating rate in the Arctic and Antarctica.

· Sea levels could rise more than 3 feet by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are unchecked.

· Major coastal cities like New York and Hong Kong would be affected.

4.     The rises in temperature, sea level, and occurrence of extreme weather all coincide with rising greenhouse gas levels.

· Greenhouse gas levels haven’t been this high in over 800,000 years.


The remaining segments of the 5th IPCC report, which concern potential impacts and recommended mitigation plans, will be released in 2014.

April 16, 2013

The Earth Institute and International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) present a panel discussion, "Adapting to a Changing Climate: Managing Our Cities & Food Supply," with Lisa Goddard, Director, International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI); Sergej Mahnovski, Director, Mayor’s Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability; and Adam Sobel, Professor of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics and of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University.

The panel, moderated by Steve Cohen, Executive Director of The Earth Institute, Columbia University, will explore how science is enhancing society's ability to understand and manage the impacts of climate variability and change. We will look at predictions, projections, tools and programs from disasters relief, agricultural, and urban perspectives, as well as investigate what stakeholders can do to improve the process of using science to influence decisions.

Originally scheduled for the night that Hurricane Sandy hit NYC, this panel will discuss how lessons from Sandy can be applied to protect and strengthen resiliency across the globe. Originally scheduled for the night that Hurricane Sandy hit NYC, this panel will discuss how lessons from Sandy can be applied to protect and strengthen resiliency across the globe.

Source: The Earth Institute Columbia University


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