Intentionally engineering Earth’s atmosphere to offset rising temperatures could be far more doable than you imagine, says David Keith. But is it a good idea?
Here is the plan. Customize several Gulfstream business jets with military engines and with equipment to produce and disperse fine droplets of sulfuric acid. Fly the jets up around 20 kilometers—significantly higher than the cruising altitude for a commercial jetliner but still well within their range. At that altitude in the tropics, the aircraft are in the lower stratosphere. The planes spray the sulfuric acid, carefully controlling the rate of its release. The sulfur combines with water vapor to form sulfate aerosols, fine particles less than a micrometer in diameter. These get swept upward by natural wind patterns and are dispersed over the globe, including the poles. Once spread across the stratosphere, the aerosols will reflect about 1 percent of the sunlight hitting Earth back into space. Increasing what scientists call the planet’s albedo, or reflective power, will partially offset the warming effects caused by rising levels of greenhouse gases.
The author of this so-called geoengineering scheme, David Keith, doesn’t want to implement it anytime soon, if ever. Much more research is needed to determine whether injecting sulfur into the stratosphere would have dangerous consequences such as disrupting precipitation patterns or further eating away the ozone layer that protects us from damaging ultraviolet radiation. Even thornier, in some ways, are the ethical and governance issues that surround geoengineering—questions about who should be allowed to do what and when. Still, Keith, a professor of applied physics at Harvard University and a leading expert on energy technology, has done enough analysis to suspect it could be a cheap and easy way to head off some of the worst effects of climate change.