Hacking the Climate: Can Geoengineering Solve Climate Change?

As humans marvel at their prowess in producing electro-mechanical creations, along with advances in materials engineering and synthetic chemistry, it may seem logical to address the problem of Earth’s changing climate purely as a technological problem to be solved at the global level. This avenue of thinking is quietly growing due to the risks of politicians dawdling and carbon emissions continuing unabated.

This way of thinking is called geoengineering, which is to deliberately intervene at a large scale in the planet’s natural systems to counteract climate change. There are annual conferences, research programmes at Oxford University, funding by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and by billionaires, such as Bill Gates. Current research is to determine the feasibility of large scale intervention.

Geoengineering is the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change.

Geoengineering is the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change.

In 2009 the Royal Society published a report titled Geoengineering the Climate, and out of this grew research projects such as solar radiation management i.e. limiting how much sunlight the whole planet receives. One such project is called SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) which is a collaboration between the Universities of Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford along with the MET Office and Marshall Aerospace. The idea is to release reflective aerosol particles into the atmosphere decreasing inbound radiation.  Other types of projects relate to carbon dioxide removal, such as seeding the oceans with iron to create phytoplankton blooms.

Injecting particles into the stratosphere in order to affect global temperatures.

Injecting particles into the stratosphere in order to affect global temperatures.

Last year the US National Academy of Sciences released a report saying fiddling with the global climate now would be “irrational and irresponsible”, however, this was due to our lack of scientific knowledge, and thus urged policy makers to commit to geoengineering research now so that should it become needed, when all other plans fail, it will be a more informed decision. These research groups have experienced scientists on board, complete with ethics committees. This all sounds like a worthy research cause…or does it?

Firstly, let’s look at some practical and ethical issues surrounding the research, and secondly, the underlying narrative behind this way of thinking.

  1. Distributional Consequences

Countries may seek to control inbound radiation affecting their own landmass, however models have shown this to be highly disruptive to the climate in other parts of the world. This likely means developing countries due to their lack of resources, and how does one prove country A caused the severe storm in country B? This thinking also applies with ocean fertilisation.

  1. Conducting Experiments

Due to the size of the planet, physical tests done in the laboratory or even in a city will be largely meaningless when it comes to predicting global effects. This means a reliance on computer models until initiating the experiment in full – which is extremely risky.

  1. Solving the Root Problem?

Even if effective aerosols are launched or iron particles seeded, the root cause of carbon emissions will still be continuing with all the same political problems, plus now a distorted climate. As Naomi Klein drily notes, it means solving the pollution problem…with more pollution.

Removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is the other proposed method of climate intervention, which the IPCC says is needed for most pathways towards a stable climate. One risky method already mentioned is ocean fertilisation, but others are more benign, for example carbon capture and storage, and expanding the use of bioenergy. Reforestation, while not a technology, is surely the most sensible of this type of intervention as it is beneficial to other life forms, while naturally absorbing carbon.

Reforestation makes the most sense.

Reforestation makes the most sense.

The thinking behind a large scale, technological, magic fix is not new. Its roots lie in religions’ portrayal of man’s dominion over Nature, patriarchal systems of thought, in our educational systems adherence to rationalism and materialism to the exclusion of intuitive appreciations of the natural world, and to centralised and decentralised economic systems that view Nature as a commodity, a thing to be used or controlled.  The difference is that now we have the technological capability to cause massive change, after all, one could argue that carbon emissions were an unconscious experiment in geoengineering.

A large failing behind some of these research ideas is an understanding of ecology and interdependence. Life on this planet does not depend upon one factor, and we cannot simply treat our species as a separate system from this delicate and intricate web of interaction. Life has evolved over 3.5 billions of years with a vast multitude of its own experiments and optimisations that we ourselves are part. To alter one parameter is to change all the rest.

The key problem is one of relationship. If we understood that solutions require working with Nature, rather than against, this type of thinking would not arise. Let us not force the hand that feeds us.

This article can be found also at SALT magazine.

world bubble

Connecting the Community

Creating an online ecosystem means the interaction of different parties which can act in a mutually beneficial way. In the coming weeks Teratrees will be getting different institutions and organisations on board e.g. schools, councils, charities, landscapers, nurseries and businesses. This will set the scene for new interactions and will allow the opportunity for tree planting organisations to raise money by allowing their trees to be virtually owned, as well as the opportunity for the community and businesses to engage with the local environment. This will also be fun – and tree trading can be done by all.

Teratrees is also connecting with current organisations and is now a member of The Tree Council. The Tree Council is an umbrella body for all UK organisations involved in tree planting, care and conservation and was founded in 1974.

The Tree Council

The tree planting season has just begun with great gusto with National Tree Week! Further tree planting activities will be reported!

Also remember if you buy a potted Christmas tree from one of our partner nurseries for the festive season you can get this subsidised by trading it on Teratrees!

Happy trading and planting!

Deforestation: Above and Below the Waterline

A multi-faceted approach is needed in tackling the effect of human activity on the climate and natural world. A reduction in industrial emissions through better practice, technology and efficiency is key, coupled with protection of carbon sinks, namely the forests and the oceans.

Seagrass meadows play a critical role in the carbon cycle (photo: M. Sanfélix)

Seagrass meadows play a critical role in the carbon cycle (photo: M. Sanfélix)

The oceans are the largest carbon sinks in the world storing 93 % of carbon in the form of algae, vegetation and coral, and sequestering 20 to 35 % of anthropogenic emissions. However, there is evidence to suggest that the oceans are becoming less efficient since around the year 2000 in absorbing these emissions1. Further, since the 1940’s, marine carbon sinks have been suffering with a loss of 30 % of mangroves, 25 % of salt marshes and over 30 % of seagrass meadows2. These are being lost at a faster rate than the rain forests.

Coastal development, aquaculture operations and timber removal are destroying these marine ecosystems, and thus there is a connection between the destruction of forests on land and under water. Deforestation through clearing and burning also generates 17 % of global carbon emissions, more than from all the world’s air, road, rail and shipping traffic combined. The highest rates of deforestation are taking place in the regions where illegal logging is at its worst – the Amazon Basin, Central Africa and Southeast Asia3. These are areas where there is a lack of forest governance and where accountability and transparency are often in short supply.

Mangrove forests are threatened by coastal development (Source: www.sundarban.org)

Mangrove forests are threatened by coastal development (Source: www.sundarban.org)

Illegal logging actually floods the market with cheaper wood, which suppresses global timber prices between 7 and 16 per cent3. It is estimated that legal timber companies are being denied US$30 billion per year from these activities.

It looks good, but do you know where it was sourced?

It looks good, but do you know where it was sourced?

As can be imagined, protecting forests and marine ecosystems require political and economic solutions, as well as enforcement of law. And as an end user of timber products we have a deep responsibility to ensure that our furniture, floors and wooden features in our homes and businesses are from sustainable and legal timber. We are all part of the solution.

References

  1. Khatiwala et al. (2009). Reconstruction of the history of anthropogenic CO2 concentrations in the ocean. Nature 462, 346-349
  2. Blue Carbon – The Role of Healthy Oceans in Binding Carbon. Rapid Response Assessment by GRID-Arendal and UNEP. 14 October 2009
  3. Davyth Stewart. Combating illegal logging key to saving our forests and preventing climate change. Project LEAF (Interpol), 21 March 2013

The Boreal Forest (Taiga)

Rainforests gain a lot of attention due to the amount and variety of species they support, but the world’s largest land-based biome is the Boreal Forest, aptly named after Boreas, the Greek God of the North wind. Also known as Taiga, from Russian, this concentration of trees covers much of Russia, most of Canada, Alaska, Sweden, Finland and Norway,  coastal Iceland, and the northern parts of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, the U.S. and Japan representing 29 % of the world’s forest cover.

Distribution of the Boreal Forest (Wikipedia)

Distribution of the Boreal Forest (Wikipedia)

Largely comprised of coniferous trees, this forest supports 85 species of mammals, 130 species of fish, 300 species of birds and approximately 32,000 species of insects. Life is hard here with temperatures ranging from -65 °F (-54 °C) to 86 °F (30 °C), low precipitation (200 – 750 mm/year), 50 – 120 frost free days per year and acidic, low nutrient soils.

Alaskan spruce

Alaskan spruce

Canadian wetland systems

Canadian wetland systems

The region also contains vast areas of wetland, bogs and fen, and the Canadian boreal region contains more rivers and lakes than any similar sized landmass in the world. Fire is a natural part of regeneration, and some trees like the lodgepole and jack pines have resin sealed cones which rely on fire to open and spread their seed.

Fire is a natural part of the regeneration cycle

Fire is a natural part of the regeneration cycle

This forest provides humans with enormous amounts of lumber and supports 1,400 communities in industrial activity. However, forestry practices are often still primitive in their approach, for example the practice of clearcutting in Canada removes most trees in an area only to be replanted as a monocrop (a singular species), which does not emulate a fire and is often followed by an increase in erosion.

Vast terrain with subterranean peat in western Siberia

Vast terrain with subterranean peat in western Siberia

Deforestation and oil exploration along with the processing of tar sands pose significant threats, however, climate change is the main threat to this region. The boreal forests stores huge amounts of carbon, possibly more than the temperate and tropical forests combined, with much of it in the form of peat. The boreal zone of latitude has experienced some of the greatest increase in temperatures on Earth over the last 25 years, with greater relative increases in winter temperatures than those in summer. The release of carbon, mostly in the form of methane, greatly adds to a feedback cycle of warming.

pinebeetle

Attacks visible by the mountain pine beetle (Lorraine Maclauchlan)

Furthermore, the warmer winters lead to an increased survival of tree-damaging insects and recent years have seen forest destroying plagues of the spruce-bark beetle, the mountain pine beetle, the aspen leaf-miner, the larch sawfly, the spruce budworm and spruce coneworm. In Siberia, the boreal forest is changing from predominantly deciduous larch trees to evergreen conifers; this is also likely to accelerate warming as evergreen trees absorb more of the sun’s rays. These signs indicate that serious change is already underfoot.

But this does not mean that we should bury our heads in the sand, or imagine our individual actions to be inconsequential.  Anthropomorphic warming of this planet is comprised of the activity of individuals and human minds. There may be perceptions of fear or paralysis in the comprehension of the enormity of the task required, but this is the time to act –  there is no other.

The Language of Trees II

A few months ago I wrote about the communication of plants and trees using hormones, which was often when a member species was under threat. However, this is not the complete picture as more research starts to come through of the influence of sound on plants as well as sound being produced by the plants themselves, and the production and measurement of electrical signals.

Lyall Watson (1939 – 2008) earned degrees in botany, zoology, geology, chemistry, marine biology, ecology, anthropology and a doctorate in ethology

This is not a new concept – South African born zoologist Lyall Watson  in 1973 wrote about the electromagnetic signals of plants connected to a lie-detector which could measure their ‘emotions’ which was dismissed by the scientific community. There is also the Federation of Damanhur, a communal ecovillage in Northern Italy, which have been conducting experiments on plants since 1975. The researchers there have used a variation of a simple electric circuit, known as a Wheatstone bridge to measure unknown electrical resistance. They found that the greatest signal variation occurred in the plants upon the arrival of the person who tended the specific plant most regularly.

Is there more going on when we water plants? (Getty Images)

Regarding sound, a recent paper1 shows  how young roots grow towards sound at 220 Hz which suggests they exhibit a frequency selective sensitivity. Moreover, they recorded the production of sound by plants, measured using a laser Doppler vibrometer, had definite spike-like structures which could not be explained by tension release in their water transport system. The researchers posit that sound could be particular useful for short range communication as well as being much cheaper biologically for plants to produce than hormonal chemicals. They also noted that the reception of sound underpins the behavioural organisation of all living organisms and the relationship with their environment – thus it should not be necessarily deemed as irregular in the life of plants.

Roots of young plants grew towards the specific sound source of 220 Hz (1)

What this suggests is that there is much still to learn regarding plants and trees, and these investigations may require interdisciplinary approaches. It also raises questions about the effect of the frequency of human vocal chords on plants, and if specific frequencies of sound can be used to help plants grow, as well as to encourage growth in particular areas of landscape.

  1.  Towards understanding plant bioacoustics. Gagliano et al. Trends in Plant Science, Vol. 17, Issue 6. pg 323-325, 22 March 2012

Creatures of the Forest

While we may consider that many trees make a forest, we should not forget that forests are ecosystems, and that there are many large and small players beneath the canopy. Interactions are too numerous to mention in detail and have evolved over millennia, but pictures can highlight some interesting characters.

The vast canopy, with a tributary of the Amazon

A jaguar having a scratch (Environmental Graffiti)

Emerald tree boa

Leafcutter ants

Howler monkey on a break (Environmental Graffiti)

Baby bear hanging on (Environmental Graffiti)

Tree frog (Ranitomeya summersi)

Baby 3-toed sloth (Environmental Graffiti)

Amazona oratrix

Amazon horned frog

The beady eyes of Tarsiers

Muliticolour treefrog (Ranitomeya benedicta)

Bengal Tiger

The well known anaconda

Amazon Morpho butterfly