Translated by Erik Grønvold. Originally published 19.03.2017.
– I believe we could start in a decade, if there’s global agreement. It’s a lot closer than many people think, says Helene Muri, squinting at the sun.
Clouds obscure parts of the sky over Oslo this day, but from time to time, the sun shines through. Right now, the score seems to be even up there, but if Helene’s research is put into practice, the clouds will win. Day and night, all year round.
Helene Muri is a cloud research meteorologist at the University of Oslo (Institute of Geosciences, Department of Meteorology and Oceanography), and one of an increasing number of scientists trying to find an emergency solution to the climate challenge.
Together, the scientists are preparing what could be the largest experiment on Earth, with the whole planet as a laboratory; an experiment we won’t know the result of – until we’re right in the middle of it.
This is the story of how this experiment is edging closer to reality. Among the players are the world’s richest man, Bill Gates – and an innocent balloon that sparked global outrage.
It also raises one of the greatest dilemmas, not just for climate researchers, but for you and me as well: Should the world really consider something as extreme as tinkering with the weather? Will the majority ever welcome Helene Muri’s artificial clouds in the sky?
Artificial clouds work best over the tropics
There’s a virtual Earth living in Helene Muri’s computer, encircled by artificial clouds that have the power to rapidly reduce its surface temperature by 2 °C.
The proof is on the wall: The red temperature curve on the graph shows how hot the world might be in the year 2100 if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at the same rate as today. The blue graph shows the temperature if we introduce artificial clouds.
– You get the most bang for the bucks if you create clouds over the tropics, because this is where there’s most sunshine, says Muri. She explains that the dark winters at the poles make these areas less suitable for cloud technology.
Muri leads the EXPECT project, which is funded by the Norwegian Research Council. For three years, she and six other climate researchers have worked to reveal the inner life of clouds to understand how to cool down the planet.
Cheap and quick
Creating clouds isn’t that difficult. We already have the planes, balloons and drones that can carry the right ingredients into the sky.
And the big question isn’t how to do it in technical terms, but which ingredients to use, how much and how often, and of course: Whether we should even consider doing so.
Oslo is shrouded in a thin veil of snow on this day in February. The white surface covers the ground and reflects the sun’s rays back into space. This is exactly what the artificial clouds are meant to do. They will increase the bright surfaces of the planet and amplify what in scientific terms is called the albedo effect.
Helene Muri simulates two types of clouds on her computer.
Low-lying marine clouds form 1-2 km above the ocean, and can be created by spraying sea salt into the air so that the droplets in the clouds have something to form around. This method works almost immediately. The challenge is that the salt particles dissolve after a few days, so salt must be sprayed continuously.
Stratospheric dust clouds drift at an altitude of about 20 km, and can be created by spreading huge amounts of microscopic particles into the sky from planes or balloons. Atmospheric circulation then distributes them. Within a few months, the particles will have created a continuous, grey shroud around the planet that lasts for 1-2 years.
(See illustration at the end of this article)
We know dust clouds work, because it’s been proven in nature. In 1991, the Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines spewed huge amounts of sulphur into the atmosphere. The tiny particles spread across the planet and reduced global temperatures by 0.5 °C the following year.
Helene Muri’s artificial dust clouds aim to mimic or recreate the results of such an eruption.
– What’s it like to live under a cloud like this? Does it get dark?
– No, it doesn’t get dark. The sky looks a bit whiter. You can get beautiful sunsets like when there’s high pressure and plenty of pollution. And it can become harder to see the stars, the scientist says.
All the experiments in the EXPECT project are done as computer simulations. Nothing is tested in real life. For now, they leave that to others – with good reason.
The upcoming story illustrates some of the problems scientists face if they want to let the artificial clouds out in the atmosphere.
The balloon that never took off
In May 2012, a white balloon was ready for launch from a field in Norfolk in England. A kilometre-long water hose would ensure that the balloon never rose too far – and that it could be safely brought back to earth.
The balloon was part of a research project called SPICE, and was supposed to be a milestone in climate engineering: The first time that cloud manipulation would be tested in real life.
The researchers wanted to pump 150 litres of water up to the balloon and release it as spray in the atmosphere.
The aim was to find out how the balloon and the hose would behave in different wind conditions. The findings would enable the next step: releasing another balloon up to a height of 20 km.
The experiment was small-scale, and would not have had any negative impact on the environment. Yet the balloon was never released. In May, the project was cancelled, to the great disappointment of the project group.
What went wrong? The problems were many.
One of the problems was about ownership. It turned out that an engineer connected to the project had patented parts of the SPICE technology, thereby throwing into doubt whether the technology would be publicly accessible in the future, an important principle for the climate scientists in the project.
The project also encountered unexpected public resistance. The scientists had expected positive interest from a limited number of people, mainly the local population, who could follow the launch with their own eyes. This turned out to be a mistake.
The project attracted worldwide attention, and through the «SPICE put on ice» campaign, environmentalists argued that the project had to be stopped. They thought it would send the wrong signals. But the greatest problem was the lack of international guidelines for researchers in the field of geoengineering.
The scientists said that the lack of unequivocal guidelines for geoengineering research caused unease in the team. Later they admitted that the project was premature.
Wouldn’t touch any such project
The SPICE project showed that even a balloon and a few drops of water can spark public outrage.
But why are artificial clouds so contentious? We don’t have to go far to find answers.
– I think this is a horrible idea. I would never take part in a project which includes such activities, says Helge Drange from the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research and the University of Bergen.
The professor enjoys basking in the sun, and will do everything he can to give future generations the same opportunity.
Drange has been unequivocal in the debate about whether scientists should take part in climate fixing, and there’s not a single artificial cloud on his computer. That’s not where he wants to focus his energy.
– The world will need sunshine in the future as well. We want to see blue skies. We need the sun to shine on plants and solar panels. These are just some examples.
The scientist proceeds to list all the ethically dubious aspects of such climate projects. A grey sky without stars pales in comparison to what comes next.
The world must agree for decades
– Artificial clouds would lower the global temperature, but also shift the global energy balance, Drange says.
The tropics would grow colder, while polar areas in fact could become warmer (because there’s less sunlight to reflect there, among other things). This means shifting the very foundation for global weather patterns. Wind systems would change location, leading to changes in precipitation patterns. India may have to manage without the life-giving monsoon. The Amazon may run dry.
And once you start using climate fixes, there’s no emergency brake. Rapid cooling or warming can have dramatic consequences worldwide. The measures must be gradually upscaled and downscaled just as slowly.
– Let’s say that Aker Solutions or Google do this on behalf of the Earth. The measures must stay in place for a long time. There needs to be a reliable international commitment that is absolute and that lasts for at least 50 years, possibly several centuries, Drange says.
A global agreement that’s binding for centuries. Is this the legacy we wish to give the future? A stopgap solution to a climate disaster of our own making? After all, artificial clouds won’t solve the problem – just cover it up.
This is the start of Drange’s list of concerns. But besides all the problems, what’s the rest of the story?
Fears for human civilisation
Helene Muri won’t smile at the camera. She’s afraid of being perceived as unserious. And after all, the issue is much too grave to make fun of.
The fear of runaway climate change in the future is an important motivation for her work.
– It’s very revealing that we have to seriously consider desperate measures like these. I hope our research can be a kick in the butt for everyone working with climate policies.
– Right now the world is heading towards 3 °C warming within the year 2100, provided all the countries stick to the Paris Agreement, Muri says. The International Panel on Climate Change says that everything above 2 °C, maybe even just 1.5 °C, would be dangerous to mankind.
Helene Muri has little faith in politicians’ ability to solve the climate problem, and she’s not alone. The grand old man of Norwegian climate research, Knut Halvor Alfsen, recently told VG, one of Norway’s leading newspapers, that he doesn’t believe the world can be saved. He went on to describe the world he fears we’re heading for.
– Civilisation is a fragile thing. When push comes to shove, with a broken economy, huge influxes of refugees, food shortages and epidemics, our social order can quickly break down. The result can be a lawless society ravaged by marauding gangs.
A real chance it will be put to use
At the elite Yale University, we meet Trude Storelvmo, the external adviser to the EXPECT project. She’s also deeply concerned.
Storelvmo’s work is also connected to clouds, but she hasn’t received funds to research artificial clouds. Like many other climate scientists, she therefore devotes her spare time to this.
– There’s a real chance it will be put to use. I’m horrified by the thought that we might get there without having done the necessary research. We have to know what we’re doing, she says.
We catch up with her during a visit to a rainy Bergen to hold a lecture about clouds. Local scientists arrive in force to learn about her most recent scientific findings, because our knowledge about clouds and the tiny particles that allow them to form – so-called aerosols – is full of holes.
– If there’s one aspect of the climate system that we understand poorly, it’s the effect of aerosols on clouds. When we say we want to change the clouds, alarm bells should go off.
At her base on the East Coast of the US, Trude Storelvmo is where the action is when it comes to research into artificial clouds. Here we find the world’s foremost climate geoengineering research community, and five years after the failed balloon launch in England, it may be the Americans will finally succeed.
We visit the renowned Keith Group at Harvard University. David Keith, the leader of the group, is considered to be the foremost climate geoengineering scientist in the world.
He’s also one of the foremost advocates of carrying out cloud experiments in real life.
The Keith Group is supported by rich beneficiaries like Bill Gates. Since 2007, Gates has donated billions of dollars to research into carbon capture technology and artificial cloud research.
David Keith has a number of plans for how one could test artificial clouds in the atmosphere, but the project that’s closest to deployment is a balloon. It would be launched carrying a generator that disperses fine particles. A measuring device would track the balloon and register how the particles affect the ozone layer.
Traditionally, scientists have imagined dispersing sulphur in the air, like volcanoes do. The problem is that sulphur may damage the ozone layer, thereby indirectly contributing to more cases of skin cancer. Now the Keith Group wants to try out other chemical compounds like calcium carbonate. Aluminium and diamond dust are also possible candidates.
The research balloon may be released in 2017, according to US media sources. But David Keith declines to confirm this to NRK.
– The experiment is in the planning phase, but it may be even more important to carry out wider research, Keith writes in an email.
- UPDATE: 24 March 2017, the scientists at Harvard launch a new geoengineering program.
Who gets there first?
One who might be even more eager to test artificial clouds is Thomas Ackerman. He lives in Washington on the West Coast of the US, and was heading for retirement.
Now he’s searching for sponsors to create marine clouds, Helene Muri says. She’s met both Keith and Ackerman several times.
Which of the two go first remains to be seen.
Helene Muri herself has many suitors, i.e. engineers and businessmen, who want to involve her in experiments. They’ve got the technology, she’s got the knowhow.
Some people believe money can be made from saving the planet from overheating.
– I tell them no. I want to be independent. It’s important to have neutral, serious research, without financial or political ties, says Helene Muri. She praises the Norwegian Research Council for choosing to finance the EXPECT project.
– It was a brave decision.
Worried about evil intentions
In Bergen, Professor Helge Drange wonders who’s supposed to make decisions about clouds. Clouds don’t respect national borders, rules or regulations.
The professor shudders at the thought that wealthy individuals, armed militias or nations with evil intentions might gain control of cloud technology. Can rich countries choose to put themselves first, without considering the consequences it might have for others?
Could it be that scientists, by inventing cloud technology, are lowering the threshold for others to put it to use?
– The world doesn’t have any choice but to cut CO2 emissions, says Drange. He fears that cloud technology may keep us from taking action.
– We don’t need more excuses for doing nothing. We’ve failed to act for so long, and now we must forge ahead. There are 7 billion people on the planet, and the population keeps growing. It’s naive to believe we can fix anything without addressing the root of the problem.
And it won’t help solve one of the biggest problems, as Drange’s colleague, Peter Hadley, reveals.
The clouds won’t help the ocean
Not far from Bergen, the sunlight dances on the waves of the North Atlantic. The seas are calm, but below the surface, worrisome changes are taking place.
The world’s oceans are growing increasingly acidic because they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, says professor and oceanographer Peter Haugan at the Institute of Geophysics. It’s making life difficult for many of the creatures living there.
Like Drange, he chooses to say no to projects related to climate fixes.
– CO2 has to be removed from the atmosphere, and the root of the problem must be addressed, says Haugan.
– How dangerous ocean acidification really is, has been under-communicated. It would be a strange world if we managed to gain control of global warming, but at the same time suffered from ocean acidification. We’d end up with an atmosphere that’s difficult to breathe in, and where marine life would be much more severely affected than life on land.
– What happened to the big picture? asks the scientist. He wonders whether the cloud researchers have a plan for how to handle ocean acidification in the future.
The missing monster
– Ocean acidification is a huge problem that artificial clouds can’t fix, says Helene Muri. Glaciers will continue to melt and oceans continue to rise even if we cool the planet with clouds, she says.
But the clouds might buy us time.
– The clouds may help relieve some of the worst symptoms while we transition to renewables. It’s a bit like taking aspirin. The fever goes down, but the flu doesn’t go away. She emphasises that artificial clouds won’t fix the climate, and that we must slash emissions.
Despite the huge dilemmas, Helene says that further research is necessary. Climate fixes aren’t a dead end, as some believe.
– It may be problematic for some that we haven’t found the so-called monsters in the models, i.e. proof that artificial clouds will make the climate so horrible that they’re not worth considering.
– Climate engineering may prove positive for some and negative for others. Maybe it will enable people to continue farming in the tropics, even though many Pacific islands will still disappear below the waves.
2017: Increasing research into climate fixes
After three years and (at least) 20 publications, the EXPECT project is winding down, leaving no other Norwegian projects focusing on artificial clouds.
But for Helene Muri, it’s not over yet. 2017 may prove to be a milestone in climate engineering, and Muri doesn’t want to stay on the sidelines.
– I’ll continue to work on it in my spare time. Being a scientist is a way of life, not just a profession. That’s how scientists are, and being one is simply not an ordinary job.
In February, the Carnegie Council began their work on developing long-awaited guidelines for research into artificial clouds. They say a framework is long overdue. In the coming months, three major international conferences on climate fixes and geoengineering are also due to be held.
Maybe the world will decide that artificial clouds are a bad idea. That the clouds will cause more problems than they solve. But the opposite may also happen. And the consequence might be that a greyish blanket of clouds spreads across the globe in a few decades.
In that case, Norway can’t opt out, because weather doesn’t care about national boundaries.
With artificial clouds, it’s everyone or no one.