Later in my career as a climate modeller, I expect to spend a lot of time studying geoengineering. Given the near-total absence of policy responses to prevent climate change, I think it’s very likely that governments will soon start thinking seriously about ways to artificially cool the planet. Who will they come to for advice? The climate modellers.
Some scientists are pre-emptively recognizing this need for knowledge, and beginning to run simulations of geoengineering. In fact, there’s an entire model intercomparison project dedicated to this area of study. There’s only a small handful of publications so far, but the results are incredibly interesting. Here I summarize two recent papers that model solar radiation management: the practice of offsetting global warming by partially blocking sunlight, whether by seeding clouds, adding sulfate aerosols to the stratosphere, or placing giant mirrors in space. As an added bonus, both of these papers are open access.
A group of scientists from Europe ran the same experiment on four of the world’s most complex climate models. The simulation involved instantaneously quadrupling CO2 from preindustrial levels, but offsetting it with a reduction in the solar constant, such that the net forcing was close to zero.
The global mean temperature remained at preindustrial levels. “Great,” you might think, “we’re home free!” However, climate is far more than just one globally averaged metric. Even though the average temperature stayed the same, there were still regional changes, with cooling in the tropics and warming at both poles (particularly in their respective winters):
There were regional changes in precipitation, too, but they didn’t all cancel out like with temperature. Global mean precipitation decreased, due to cloud feedbacks which are influenced by sunlight but not greenhouse gases. There were significant changes in the monsoons of south Asia, but the models disagreed as to exactly what those changes would be.
This intercomparison showed that even with geoengineering, we’re still going to get a different climate. We won’t have to worry about some of the big-ticket items like sea level rise, but droughts and forest dieback will remain a major threat. Countries will still struggle to feed their people, and species will still face extinction.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Damon Matthews and Ken Caldeira took a different approach. (By the way, what is it about Damon Matthews? All the awesome papers out of Canada seem to have his name on them.) Using the UVic ESCM, they performed a more realistic experiment in which emissions varied with time. They offset emissions from the A2 scenario with a gradually decreasing solar constant. They found that the climate responds quickly to geoengineering, and their temperature and precipitation results were very similar to the European paper.
They also examined some interesting feedbacks in the carbon cycle. Carbon sinks (ecosystems which absorb CO2, like oceans and forests) respond to climate change in two different ways. First, they respond directly to increases in atmospheric CO2 – i.e., the fertilization effect. These feedbacks (lumped together in a term we call beta) are negative, because they tend to increase carbon uptake. Second, they respond to the CO2-induced warming, with processes like forest dieback and increased respiration. These feedbacks (a term called gamma) are positive, because they decrease uptake. Currently we have both beta and gamma, and they’re partially cancelling each other out. However, with geoengineering, the heat-induced gamma goes away, and beta is entirely unmasked. As a result, carbon sinks became more effective in this experiment, and sucked extra CO2 out of the atmosphere.
The really interesting part of the Matthews and Caldeira paper was when they stopped the geoengineering. This scenario is rather plausible – wars, recessions, or public disapproval could force the world to abandon the project. So, in the experiment, they brought the solar constant back to current levels overnight.
The results were pretty ugly. Global climate rapidly shifted back to the conditions it would have experienced without geoengineering. In other words, all the warming that we cancelled out came back at once. Global average temperature changed at a rate of up to 4°C per decade, or 20 times faster than at present. Given that biological, physical, and social systems worldwide are struggling to keep up with today’s warming, this rate of change would be devastating. To make things worse, gamma came back in full force, and carbon sinks spit out the extra CO2 they had soaked up. Atmospheric concentrations went up further, leading to more warming.
Essentially, if governments want to do geoengineering properly, they have to make a pact to do so forever, no matter what the side effects are or what else happens in the world. Given how much legislation is overturned every time a country has a change in government, such a promise would be almost impossible to uphold. Matthews and Caldeira consider this reality, and come to a sobering conclusion:
In the case of inconsistent or erratic deployment (either because of shifting public opinions or unilateral action by individual nations), there would be the potential for large and rapid temperature oscillations between cold and warm climate states.
Yikes. If that doesn’t scare you, what does?