No quick fix for those melting glaciers

Jun 13, 2014 by Daniela Cusack
Credit: Zocalo Public Square

Even after researching the effects of climate change on ecosystems for 15 years, I had to put down my morning coffee and take a deep breath at the news earlier this spring that much of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is sure to collapse, even if humans stop climate change immediately. Within two centuries, meltwater released from the long-stable glaciers could raise sea levels by up to 10 feet, scientists have determined. The potential rise is equivalent to, as one of them said, a permanent Hurricane Sandy storm surge.

However, the extent to which the planet will warm, and how high sea levels will get, still depends on what we do now to reduce emissions and remove surplus carbon from the atmosphere.

The news about the glaciers naturally raises the urge to grasp for quick fixes, but this would be a mistake. Recently, I met a group of environmental researchers from six universities working on climate change issues. We realized that we all harbored a similar hope that we could come up with simple, rapid solutions to minimize climate change—though we also shared a gut feeling that there would be no easy way out.

This group of researchers and I decided to team up to explore the potential of ""—large-scale, coordinated strategies to reduce global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or reducing solar input to Earth. Then we compared these approaches to efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—or "abatement." I spent the last two years working with these colleagues on the first scholarly attempt to rank these approaches, to see if we could find solutions that offer real hope to "engineer" our way away from human-induced climate change.

My group looked at a range of climate engineering solutions from the perspectives of technical feasibility, cost, ecological risk, public opinion, capacity to regulate, and ethical concerns. We explored the major options on the table, even considering—but ultimately abandoning as unfeasible—such outlandish approaches as positioning giant mirrors in space to reduce the amount of sunlight being trapped in Earth's atmosphere, seeding clouds to reduce the amount of light entering Earth's atmosphere, and adding iron to the oceans to increase the carbon that algae and phytoplankton take up from the atmosphere.

The truth is that—at least so far—we cannot engineer away climate change.

Our findings clearly showed that the most effective approach is reducing carbon emissions. We can reduce emissions through three steps: fuel conservation (i.e., using less), increased energy efficiency, and switching to alternative low-carbon fuels. Together, these steps are the most promising means for diminishing the nine gigatons of carbon dioxide being released each year by human activity. Best of all, technologies to accomplish these steps are already available and could reduce the amount of carbon being added to the atmosphere by seven gigatons per year.

So why aren't we, as a society, going full force to implement emissions reductions? Certainly, significant infrastructure and economic restructuring needs to happen for deep cuts to emissions, but we know how to do this. There are clear political and economic hurdles to shifting our energy infrastructure, and consumers get cranky about being told what kind of car to drive.

An underlying issue is also that reducing emissions may not seem like a particularly active approach. People like to fix problems, not do less, which is essentially what needs to happen with emissions reductions. The active, problem-solving aspect of climate engineering is the main attraction of these strategies. However, the analysis I led on climate engineering strategies clearly indicated—unfortunately—that what is really needed is the careful, hard, unsexy work of reducing emissions.

This is not to say some approaches to climate engineering don't hold promise, but their benefits are mostly supplemental, so several approaches will need to be used in addition to emissions reductions.

The best, lowest-risk strategy to complement emissions reductions is probably helping nature do what it already does: sequester carbon through biological means. Plants, for instance, already convert atmospheric carbon into solid materials. Curbing the destruction of forests and promoting growth of new forests could tie up as much as 1.3 gigatons of carbon in annually. Deforestation is now responsible for adding one gigaton of carbon to the atmosphere each year. A major barrier to stopping deforestation is finding alternative sources of economic growth in developing countries like Brazil and Indonesia—which had some of the largest losses of forests globally in the past decade. Global initiatives for forest protection and reforestation seem to be making some headway on this front, but large business interests still represent a major hurdle to protecting the world's forests.

Improving soil management also holds considerable promise because soils can trap plant materials and diminish the amount of carbon dioxide the materials give off as they decompose. Over time, agricultural tilling has led to the loss of about half (78 gigatons) of the carbon ever sequestered in these soils. But such simple steps as leaving slash (plant waste left over after crop production) on fields after harvests to be incorporated into the soil could reintroduce between 0.4 and 1.1 gigatons of carbon annually to soil. The approach would also improve soil's ability to retain nutrients and water. This approach requires a concerted effort across agricultural areas, and is limited by the amount of land that is actually being farmed.

Applying biochar (or charcoal) to soils, particularly in agricultural areas, could also help. The process, which uses high temperatures and high pressure to turn plants into charcoal, releases little carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Charred plant material takes significantly longer—sometimes centuries—to decompose compared to untreated plant material. The carbon bound up in plant tissues then takes longer to return to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Biochar also improves nutrient and water retention in soils, and has been used as an agricultural amendment for centuries. To be effective, this approach would need to be global in scale, but it is limited by the amount of land that is in agriculture, since the effects of adding biochar to natural ecosystems are unknown.

Another promising strategy is to capture and store carbon belowground from industrial smokestacks, particularly near fuel refineries or power plants. This strategy turns carbon dioxide into a liquid form of carbon, which oil and coal extraction companies can pump into underground geological formations or wells, and put a cap on. Millions of tons of carbon are already being stored this way each year because injecting carbon dioxide into oil fields actually scours more hydrocarbons out of oil fields and allows companies to recover more oil. Applied globally, carbon capture and storage has the potential to store more than one gigaton permanently each year. However, a leak of liquid carbon could be fatal to humans and animals, and the risk—while minimal—may stand in the way of public acceptance.

Like most people, I want my kids to grow up with clean air, play on familiar beaches, and learn about the frozen ice caps at the ends of the Earth. But it can be difficult to take action and pay for something in the distant (though rapidly materializing) future.

Even while we work to reduce on a large scale, we can show our willingness as individuals to pay for the carbon we use. Taxing the carbon we emit from cars, power stations, and airplanes is probably the best, most straightforward option—but taxes will make everyday consumer products and transportation more expensive. Other market options like cap and trade may also work, but will probably be less efficient.

I support a carbon tax as a down payment for my own child's future world—and exercise my power to push my representatives with letters and phone calls, and to elect officials who promise to abate the effects of climate change. I also pay for voluntary carbon offsets for my fuel use, since cars and airplanes produce some of the largest emissions on a personal scale. Although offsets do not directly reduce emissions, some effective offset programs support things like forest protection and soil management for storage—both identified in my study as promising climate engineering strategies.

While we should not rely on climate engineering to solve the climate change problem, certain strategies do provide feasible, low-cost, safe, and ethical options, and may help us minimize faster than we are creating it.

The author is an assistant professor of geography at UCLA and lead author of "An Interdisciplinary Assessment of Climate Engineering Strategies," which appears in the current issue of the scholarly journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Explore further: Reducing emissions will be the primary way to fight climate change, study finds

More information: Daniela F Cusack, Jonn Axsen, Rachael Shwom, Lauren Hartzell-Nichols, Sam White, and Katherine RM Mackey 2014. "An interdisciplinary assessment of climate engineering strategies." Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 280.: {5} dx.doi.org/10.1890/130030

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User comments : 12

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JoeBlue
1.6 / 5 (14) Jun 13, 2014
Talking about the Antarctic while showing a picture of a polar bear in the Arctic...

All of the data shows that CO2 levels are pulled by the temperature change, not the other way around. You can support Carbon Tax all you want Daniela Cusack, just quit volunteering my tax dollars for it please.
rockyvnvmc
1.9 / 5 (15) Jun 13, 2014
Actually, recent scientific articles disclosed that the Antarctic ice melt is being caused by Volcanic Activity and not so called 'Global Warming'. While the western portion of the Antarctic is 'melting', due to it, the rest of the Antarctic has unprecedented Ice Growth levels !

note; Other scientific studies have indicated that Polar bear population levels have been the same for about 30 years.
antigoracle
Jun 13, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
strangedays
4.7 / 5 (12) Jun 13, 2014
@rockyvnvmc
recent scientific articles disclosed that the Antarctic ice melt is being caused by Volcanic Activity and not so called 'Global Warming'


Was this the research you are referring to rocky? http://phys.org/n...mal.html

You may want to re-read the information. My read of it is that the researchers are saying that the geothermal heat is supplementing the melting that is being caused by the warming ocean.

On the issue of 'unprecedented ice growth levels' - I think you may want to revisit the distinction between ice extent, and ice volume - these two issues have been debated at great length in these discussion threads. The fact that the ice extent in Antarctica is increasing - in now way contradicts the reality that our wold is getting warming.

Here is some recent research on the issue - http://www.smiths.../?no-ist
Captain Stumpy
4.6 / 5 (11) Jun 13, 2014
Talking about the Antarctic while showing a picture of a polar bear in the Arctic
@JoeBlow
there is exactly 1 mention of Antarctic in the above article, and it was in the first sentence. Now, either you didn't read the whole thing, or you are focusing on one minor detail to distract from the rest of the information: which is it?
the Antarctic ice melt is being caused by Volcanic Activity and not so called 'Global Warming'
@rockyvnvmc
I was reading that geothermal heat was exacerbating the already worsening situation by supplementing the melting... see the reply to you by strangedays.
Here is some recent research
@strangedays
thanks for that link. interesting article
You've obviously been reading here a while.
welcome! It's good to see someone who uses their brain...

PEACE
strangedays
4.7 / 5 (13) Jun 13, 2014
antigoracle asks
Oh, the AGW Cult, just who really is in denial.


I would answer that question by looking at who is jumping on every article that mentions the climate, or global warming - and instantly firing off childish, anti science, repetitious responses. A hallmark of cult like behavior is the repetitious nature of the responses - often not discussing the facts and the science - but engaging in pretty childish posting - such as calling people AGWites.

Just my take.
MR166
1.8 / 5 (5) Jun 13, 2014
"@JoeBlow
there is exactly 1 mention of Antarctic in the above article, and it was in the first sentence."

Come on Captain you know as well as I do that the first thought mentioned in an article is the most important issue to the author. That is journalism 101. Next you will try to claim that 10ft sea level rise was just mentioned as an afterthought. You are too intelligent to be defending propaganda fluff pieces like this.
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (6) Jun 13, 2014
Come on Captain you know as well as I do that the first thought mentioned in an article is the most important issue to the author.
@MR166
true, but my response was tailored specifically for joe due to his previous posts in other threads as well. He made claims in another thread about his knowledge which was refuted with a 2 second search.
My comment is a specific attempt to assess his abilities as well as intentions in a certain manner intended to elicit a response.
I am just pointing out some info to joe and attempting to determine who/what joe is all about to more easily classify him so that I can formulate responses in a specific manner tailored to his level, or perceived level, which he has personified by his approach, syntax, style and choice of vocabulary.
runrig
5 / 5 (6) Jun 14, 2014
@strangedays
thanks for that link. interesting article
You've obviously been reading here a while.
welcome! It's good to see someone who uses their brain...

PEACE


Seconded
antigoracle
1.4 / 5 (11) Jun 15, 2014
Unless the "geniuses" in the AGW Cult can circumvent the natural geothermal forces of the earth, then I would say there is no fix. Yet the Cult's solution is Carbon Tax and so the ignorance and lies persist.
Vietvet
4.1 / 5 (9) Jun 15, 2014
Unless the "geniuses" in the AGW Cult can circumvent the natural geothermal forces of the earth, then I would say there is no fix. Yet the Cult's solution is Carbon Tax and so the ignorance and lies persist.


The ignorance and lies are yours. You are incapable of presenting any empirical evidence refuting AGW and that makes you a troll.
antigoracle
1.4 / 5 (9) Jun 15, 2014
Unless the "geniuses" in the AGW Cult can circumvent the natural geothermal forces of the earth, then I would say there is no fix. Yet the Cult's solution is Carbon Tax and so the ignorance and lies persist.


The ignorance and lies are yours. You are incapable of presenting any empirical evidence refuting AGW and that makes you a troll.

Wow! The stupid is strong in this one.
http://phys.org/n...mal.html
strangedays
5 / 5 (7) Jun 15, 2014
Wow! The stupid is strong in this one.


So you jump on every article that mentions climate change - and throw around childish insults. Then when challenged to supply 'empirical evidence - you link to an article that reports that the West Antarctic Glacier is melting as a result of warming oceans, and geothermal heat. That article in now way refutes any suggestion that our earth is warming - just that the Thwaites glacier is also being affected by geothermal energy.

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